November 09, 2020 10 min read

There’s a reason you’re here right now, and the most likely reason is that you’re in pain. We’ve all been there at some point—especially when it comes to the post-leg day soreness.

If you’ve been afflicted by the John Wayne walk, the awkward down stairs shuffle, or if the porcelain throne isn’t as comfortable as it used to be, that most likely means you hit your legs really well. But while it might mean you can expect gains in the lower body department, it’s still not exactly a comfortable state to go through during your day.

So, whether you’ve just tackled your first day on leg workouts, gotten back on the horse after falling off for a while, or maybe reached really deep and crushed your PR for the first time— just know that you’re well on your way to tree-trunk legs. Keep our 10 recovery tips in the back of your mind and the world (or at least leg day) will be your oyster.                                                                                                                   

Why the Leg Workout is a Tough Workout

As if leg day wasn’t already first on the chopping block, the gnarly soreness is just the cherry on top. But why the legs?

It all comes down to the size of the muscles. The legs contain some of the largest muscles in our bodies, so it makes sense that they’re going to be able to move a lot of volume—and in this case, you’re going to feel it when they’re gassed out. 

This effect is compounded by the fact that you need your legs in more situations than almost any other part of your body. You are, after all, going to be using your legs whether you want to or not whenever you need to get somewhere.

We’ll tell you the good news right at the beginning: this kind of soreness shouldn’t last for very long if you’re training regularly. If you’re incorporating squats and other lower body exercises regularly, the worst of the pain will go away after each workout after a couple of weeks.

But when speaking about sore muscles (and not just in the legs), what do we actually mean?

Man doing leg presses in a gym.

The Mechanics Behind ‘No Pain, No Gain’

There are two different ways your muscles get sore: there’s the immediate soreness, and the delayed.

The immediate refers to the buildup of lactic acid in the muscles while they’re being engaged. It’s known as acute muscle soreness, and you can usually feel it right away whenever you’re exerting itself. And just as it comes quickly, it also tends to leave quickly—so if you’re on day two of waddling, then this is not the pain you’re looking for. 

Rather, you want to be thinking of delayed onset muscle soreness, otherwise known as DOMS. And while it might be annoying you now, it’s literally the process of your body building up gains.

You might be already aware of this kind of gnarly fact, but building muscle is all about putting microtears in the fibers. The harder you exert yourself, the more tears you create, and the sorer you are. But this isn’t some masochistic activity; your body heals those tears during rest periods, and your muscles effectively grow stronger and larger.

So, DOMS is essentially that. It usually peaks about 48 hours after exertion, and it goes away after a while longer. And since your legs are large muscles, there’s more of them to heal—making it take longer. It’s also important to note that this isn’t something you’re going to be dealing with forever if you stick with your training.

Your body will gradually get used to things and you’ll be able to walk normally after a heavy squat sesh. It is, however, important to keep pushing through your training routine. Getting some blood pumping through your muscles will do wonders, and you definitely don’t want to miss a training session because of DOMS. 

However, hitting your muscles too hard doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be a correlation between soreness and gains. Sure—being sore after a workout not only feels good, but it also means that you’ve pushed yourself hard enough. But while, “no pain, no gain” might hold true, “more pain, “more gain,” does not. 

You do want to be powering through and pushing yourself, but don’t be absolutely annihilating your muscles during every session and thinking that’s the only way to progress. If you want to progress, you want to balance the challenge with some pragmatism. That can be hard if you’re just starting out in the iron temple, but it’s something everyone can figure out for themselves with some experimentation.

How to Recover Quicker 

Below we’ve compiled a list of 10 things you can do right now to mitigate the soreness of a heavy workout session.

While all of these will help to a certain extent, only time will fully get you back to your un-pained self. Furthermore, while you can mix and match the strategies below, keep in mind to do them in a way that makes sense. For example, icing your legs and taking a warm bath isn’t going to work. The point is to keep these things in the back of your mind so you can incorporate them into your routine if necessary.

While the lens we’re looking through is DOMS recovery, many of the tips below are good for your general health as well.

Staying Active

The underlying issue with this soreness is a sedentary lifestyle, or at least a lifestyle that doesn’t effectively utilize those muscle groups. So, it follows that the best way to mitigate DOMS is by staying active. 

Doing some type of active recovery on your rest days—such as some light cardio, like a walk or a hike—is a great way to keep blood pumping and your muscles working even when you’re recovering from training. This flows into the next point, but it’s important to keep those sore muscles moving—as sore as they may be. Not only will it help in the short term, but it’ll also help you reach any weight loss goals faster. 

If you keep moving the next day with even bodyweight leg exercises such as lunges, you’ll increase blood flow into your leg muscles and alleviate some soreness.

Stretching and Mobility Exercises

Particularly important are the quadriceps and hamstrings, when it comes to stretches. Adding stretches that target these muscles into a cooldown routine will do you a world of good when it comes to alleviating soreness.

While the idea of a cooldown stretch isn’t followed by too many people, even adding a simple deep stretch that hits the quads and hamstrings will be beneficial. Yoga is another option for those looking to increase their mobility.

Since yoga puts your body into positions that it doesn’t normally find itself in, you can open up and stretch muscles that normally wouldn’t get any attention.

A man using a foam roller for his legs in a gym.

Foam Rollers Can Be Game Changers

If you head home and nothing else seems to be working to alleviate the soreness, the foam roller is probably the way to go.

These are fantastic devices that can really get deep into your muscles where other methods might have difficulty with.

Furthermore, foam rolling exercises can also work out knots in your muscles while improving your mobility, helping you avoid injuries, and resulting in faster recoveries after heavy workout sessions. While going through the rolling process can be painful, you won’t regret it after your muscles loosen up.

Warm Baths Don't Hurt Either

When it comes to sore muscles, putting heat on the source of pain is one of the best ways to treat soreness. 

Like many of the other methods on this list, a warm bath can effectively get your blood circulating into the affected parts of your body. Furthermore, the warmth will help relax your muscles. 

A 10-minute bath should do you good, but we’re not going to be the ones to tell you to cut a warm bath short. If you want to spice things up, a cold/hot bath cycle can be even better.

Massages for Leg Therapy

Similarly to the foam rollers, a massage can get your muscles loosened up and blood pumping to where it needs to be.

Along with reducing muscle tension and improving circulation, massages are also effective stimulants of the lymphatic system, help to reduce stress hormones, increase joint mobility, and help improve the recovery of soft tissue injuries. Massages have even been shown to improve your sleep patterns—an essential piece of the muscle-building puzzle.

Percussion therapy is also an option since it effectively acts as a high-frequency massage.

Hydration, Before and After Workouts

You need to stay properly hydrated—before, during, and especially after a workout, especially when it comes down to mitigating soreness.

You need plenty of water in your system so nutrients can be delivered to the parts of your body that need it, and so your muscles can heal. While especially important for those of us who train, staying properly hydrated is just generally good life advice.

By now you’ve probably heard a million different estimates on how much water you should be drinking per day. While it changes from person to person, a general solid rule is drinking 8, eight-ounce glasses of water per day.

Painkillers

If you’re in pain, then a painkiller seems like the obvious go-to.

When it comes to choosing between Advil and Tylenol, the former is recommended over the latter. That’s because Advil (ibuprofen) has better anti-inflammatory properties, whereas Tylenol tends to tackle headaches better.

Obviously, you don’t want to overdo it with the painkillers. This should be something that you use once in a while if the pain is really bad—it’s definitely not a good idea to start relying on ibuprofen as a way to do away with any DOMS issues.

You’d be better off sticking to the rest of the items on this list; only using painkillers when necessary.

A person icing their knee.

Icing the Legs 

Placing ice on injuries is a popular go-to in a lot of situations, so it’s no surprise that placing ice on your legs can help as well. 

This is because you’ve done some pretty extensive damage on the microscopic level when it comes to the micro-tears in the muscle fibers. And this damage is what ends up hurting since they swell up like any other injury.

Placing an ice pack near the affected area is a great way to reduce the inflammation, thereby reducing the soreness. Another option is taking an ice bath—but we can’t imagine too many people taking us up on that advice. 

Eat Enough Protein 

After a heavy workout—especially if you’re just starting out—you’re going to need enough protein to keep your muscles functioning, and most importantly, growing. 

Make sure to up your protein intake if you’ve just finished an intense training session since this will help your muscles recover faster. If you’re looking for bonus points, make sure that you’re eating a high-quality, lean, protein source. And if you want to add another level to the protein intake, consider making yourself a whey protein shake for your workouts. Also, include good sources of carbs and healthy fats.

And what happens after you’ve eaten your steak? 

Make sure to rest and allow your muscles some time for recovery. Paired with high-quality protein, your DOMS problem will be left in the past. 

BCAAs 

And finally, we have supplements. If you’re looking for that extra edge when it comes to beating the post-workout soreness, look no further than a high-quality BCAA supplement.

These are considered essential amino acids since they’re not naturally produced in our bodies—we normally get them from food. However, adding some more into your diet can help to turbocharge your recovery times. Being the building blocks of protein, amino acids are essential for muscle recovery and reducing muscle soreness.

Tips to Avoid DOMS

While several of the above can be useful in avoiding DOMS situations that are particularly painful, there are also a few things you can do with your workout itself to make sure the recovery is as manageable as possible. 

A warm-up before your workouts is just a good idea in general, but it’s particularly useful if you’re trying to avoid elevated soreness. Warming up helps to prepare your body for the coming exertion. You don’t want to go from nothing to a heavy squat, for example. Taking your body from 0 to 100 might look and feel cool, but it won’t be good for the mechanics—much like a car.

You also want to maintain proper form throughout your lifts.

Knowing and taking care to keep proper form will allow you to reap more benefits from lifts since you’ll be using them as they were intended. But more importantly, you’ll be able to better avoid injuries and issues that might manifest themselves as soreness in the short-term, but could lead to problems in the long-term.

Don’t Push Yourself Too Hard

Both of the above go hand-in-hand with taking it easy. Of course, you want to push yourself. Why else would you be going to the gym? But it’s important to focus on the bigger picture: if you burn out, or injure yourself, or push yourself too far, your long term fitness goals are put in serious jeopardy. 

So, saying that, don’t chase numbers—whether it comes down to plates or reps. As much of a cliché it is, it really is quality that counts over quantity. Don’t let your ego take the reins. Make sure that you’re always putting form first while going slow and steady. Like we mentioned at the beginning, this can be difficult for beginners to balance with a healthy amount of challenge. But get to know your body well enough and add in a little experimentation, and you’ll be effectively maximizing gains while still keeping your wits about you.

Cool Down

Staying hydrated is important for everyone, but it’s especially important for those who are working out. It’s also one of the best ways to avoid getting too sore.

We already touched on hydration as an aftercare measure once the soreness has set in, but making sure to drink before and during your workouts can go a long way in making sure that you’re a finely tuned machine. 

And while you’re cooling down your insides with some water, it’s also important to finish off your workouts with a proper cool down. This will help you get your heart rate back to resting in a gradual fashion, helping to prevent any light-headedness. 

Cool downs such as stretching can also effectively help in the process of removing lactic acid from your system, which effectively boosts your post-workout recovery. But more importantly, it’s also been shown that finishing off a lifting session with some moderate cycling also reduces DOMS. 

Incorporating the strategies above for recovery and avoidance into your workout routine is a sure way to lessen the pain that comes from gassing out your muscles—especially in the lower body.

While focusing on the big lifts and movements in training is both important and fun, it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of these little things can make or break a lifter in the long run. This is, after all, not a sprint but a marathon. Yes—work hard in the moment, but also set up systems that’ll pull you through in the end when the going gets tough. 


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