Should You Work Out When You’re Sore?

Have you ever woken up with residual workout soreness and wondered if it’s still safe to hit the gym?

Working sore muscle groups can be a great way to decrease post-workout soreness, so long as you stick to bodyweight and light resistance exercises, according to physical therapist William P. Kelley, DPT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist.


When you perform any kind of exercise that challenges your muscles in a new way (e.g., trying different exercise variations or increasing workout intensity, duration and/or volume), you create micro-tears in those muscle tissues. Muscle soreness results once inflammation sets in. “The best way to decrease this inflammation is by causing the action of muscle pumping,” Kelley says. This action gets your blood flowing and boosts circulation, helping flush out metabolic waste and bringing fresh, recovery-friendly oxygen and nutrients to sore muscles.

To speed recovery, Kelley recommends performing complex movements that incorporate multiple muscle groups, such as squats, pushups, lunges, thrusters and pullups. “Doing exercises in a circuit is a fun and efficient way to work out when sore,” Kelley says. If you add weight, keep it light. If you prefer cardio, spend some time on an assault bike or elliptical. Or, make it fun by playing a game of pickup soccer, hockey or another sport of choice.

You could also take muscle soreness as an excuse to try low-intensity activities like yoga, Pilates, walking and restorative exercises.


What you don’t want to do is lift heavy, perform any kind of sprint training or log tons of miles when your muscles are sore, as this boosts your risk of injury.

“Sore muscles won’t be able to generate as much force or contract as quickly and efficiently when called upon,” Kelley says. Not only does this limit your potential fitness gains, but it places greater stress on your joints, tendons and ligaments, leading to pain and overuse injuries over time. What’s more, you won’t have as much muscle control and balance when you’re sore, “which also predisposes [you] for injury,” Kelley says.

In addition, you may have trouble achieving your usual full range of motion and exercise potential when you work out with sore muscles. For example, you may find you can’t squat as deeply, lift as heavy or run as efficiently, which limits the gains you’ll see from your workout. “Exercising sore muscles is for the purpose of combating soreness, not for increasing strength and size,” Kelley says.

So if you’re going to exercise with sore muscles, just make sure you do it to speed your recovery — not to make performance or fitness improvements.