MASSAGE OR MORE EXERCISE TO RELIEVE SORE MUSCLES?
For some people, feeling sore after exercise is a badge of honor, although an
uncomfortable one. Muscle soreness after exercise is a sign you’ve worked your
muscles harder than they’re accustomed to. Fortunately, the pain is
self-limited and will typically go away within five to seven days. What should
you do in the mean time? Take a break and relax with a massage or move your
Massage versus Exercise for Post-Exercise Muscle Soreness
In a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,
researchers looked at the effect of massage versus exercise for relieving
delayed-onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMS. They induced muscle soreness
in a group of 20 healthy females by asking them to do eccentric exercises
involving their trapezius muscles. Eccentric exercises, where the muscles are
lengthened against resistance, are the most damaging to muscle fibers. They’re
more likely to cause muscle soreness than concentric movements where the
muscles are shortened against resistance.
As expected in this study, the participants experienced soreness after
their eccentric workout. Massage or exercise – which was better for easing the
soreness? They both were. Researchers found massage and active exercise using
resistance bands were equally effective for reducing muscle soreness in the
participants. There was only one downside. The relief was temporary, lasting
only about an hour for both modalities. Still, this study suggests you’ll get
just as much benefit actively exercising your muscles when they’re sore as you
will passively massaging them
Why Moving Your Muscles Helps DOMS
No one knows EXACTLY what causes DOMS. One theory is exposing your muscles
to higher tension than they’re accustomed to causes structural damage that
repairs itself within a few days to a week. Another theory is overloading
muscle tissue increases the temperature of the muscle. This rise in temperature
causes structural damage that leads to pain and soreness. Other sources believe
DOMS is related to accumulation of metabolic waste products. If this is the
case, moving muscles when they’re sore should help mobilize and eliminate some
of the waste products.
Why do eccentric movements where you lengthen the muscle cause more
soreness? When you exercise a muscle eccentrically by lengthening it as you
“brake” it, you activate fewer muscle fibers than you do with a flexion or
concentric contraction where you contract the muscle against resistance. With
an eccentric movement, you’re placing equivalent force over a smaller number of
muscle fibers. This causes more tearing and stretching of muscle fibers – and
more pain. Examples of eccentric contractions are lowering a barbell or running
downhill. In both cases, you’re lengthening muscles in a controlled manner.
Other Treatments for Delay-Onset Muscle Soreness
DOMS has been the focus of considerable research in hopes of finding
treatments that helps the discomfort. Some that have been tested and not shown
to work include hyperbaric oxygen therapy, low-intensity laser treatment,
pulsed electrical current and acupuncture. Modalities that show promise based
on small studies include whole body vibration therapy, ice-water immersion,
low-level heat wrap therapy and moist heat. One study showed supplementing with
branched-chain amino acids reduced delayed-onset muscle soreness in
participants doing squats.
For most people, DOMS is self-limited, regardless of how it’s treated. Most
people don’t need expensive therapies that may or may not work. Ice packs work
reasonably well for easing the discomfort. Some people use non-steroidal
anti-inflammatory medications but it’s not clear how effective they are for
DOMS. They also have side effects.
Should You Keep Exercising?
There’s no evidence that exercising with DOMS delays recovery. In fact,
based on the study above, moving sore muscles offers temporary relief from the
discomfort and is as effective as massage for short-term relief. On the other
hand, it’s a good idea to reduce the intensity of your workout. Research shows
muscles that are sore due to DOMS lose up to 30% of their strength. Trying to
maintain the same workout intensity with sore, overworked muscles could alter
your form and increase your risk for injury. That doesn’t mean you can’t
exercise at a lower intensity.
Stretches and resistance exercises using bands or light weights with higher
repetition will get blood flowing through your muscles and temporarily reduce
the discomfort. Yoga is another form of exercise that may help. A study
published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed yoga,
even a single session, helps to ease post-exercise soreness due to DOMS.
Although DOMS is more common in people who are untrained, even trained
athletes and bodybuilders can get it when they increase the intensity or
duration of their workout or work untrained muscles. Once you’ve developed one
bout of post-workout soreness involving a muscle group, that muscle group
develops some degree of resistance to further soreness or damage that lasts for
weeks to months. You may experience soreness if you change the intensity of
your workout but it won’t be as uncomfortable or last as long as the initial
The Bottom Line?
You may be tempted to take it easy when your muscles are sore after a tough
workout but a little movement will make them feel better. Stretching exercises,
yoga and resistance exercises using light weights or resistance bands all work
well. Listen carefully to your body. If a movement causes pain, it’s a sign you
need to lower the intensity or switch to stretching exercises. The good news is
the soreness will go away on its own in about a week.
For more fitness information please contact our fitness director/certified
personal trainer, Noelle Lusardi, at firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 27(12): 3352-3359, 2013.
Medscape Reference. “Postexercise Muscle Soreness”
ACSM.org. “Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness”
More Magazine. “Muscles Sore, They Shouldn’t Be”
J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Nov;18(4):723-9.