Muscle soreness after a hard sweat sesh can feel like a badge of honor—it's a reminder that you got your butt up in the morning to make time for a workout and really pushed yourself. While some soreness after a new or super-intense workout is totally natural, a "no pain, no gain" mindset can have serious consequences if you're going full steam ahead when you should really be slowing down. Yes, the work you do in the gym is important, but it's just as important to give your body sufficient time to recover in between workouts, according to Kirk Campbell, M.D., a sports medicine surgeon and assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center.
While you may be tempted to power through, there's great danger in not allowing ample time for your muscles to rest, explains Leesa Galatz, M.D., chair of the orthopaedic department at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Since the soreness you're experiencing is actually due to microscopic muscle damage, the muscle needs to recover before it can work at its optimal capacity again. A tired muscle that hasn't had time to recover is more susceptible to a serious muscle tear or excessive tissue damage, she explains. (Be sure to see the 9 Things You Need to Know About Muscle Soreness for the full scoop.)
So, how to know when it's time to give your hardworking muscles a rest, or worse, when your muscle soreness needs medical attention? We break it down–no pun intended!
1. Getting out of bed makes you want to cry. We all know that feeling. But if you're having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, or it's difficult to sit down or stand up the next day after a hard leg workout, it's a clear sign you need to give your body more time to rest and instead focus on recovery with dynamic stretching, or using a foam roller, says Campbell.
2. It's hard to take the stairs. If it's excessively difficult to walk up the stairs, you know your body is telling you to cool it for a couple days and focus on working different muscles. Instead, try a low-intensity, low-impact workout like going for a walk, using the elliptical, or going for an easy bike ride or swim, which may help speed up the recovery.
3. You need a pain reliever to help you "push through." It's important not to mask muscle pain by popping Advil before working out, just to help you grin and bear it, says Campbell. If you need to take a pain reliever to make it through, you haven't given your muscles enough time to recover.
4. If your muscle soreness doesn't feel better with movement. Yes, your body might feel stiff and sore when you first get out of bed in the morning, but if it doesn't get better after you walk around, it's a sign you're too sore to work out.
5. You're still feeling sore days later. As you've likely experienced, muscle soreness may not set in immediately—it's usually at its worst 24 to 48 hours after a workout, Galatz explains. But if you've given it three to four days and are still feeling sore and it hasn't improved, this is a key sign you've ventured into too-sore territory and should go see a doc to make sure it isn't something more serious, Campbell advises.
6. If you experience sharp pain in one spot. While overall soreness is nothing to worry about, if you feel sharp pain, deep pain, or excessive fatigue in a certain muscle group, it's your body telling you to hold off on exercising those muscles—and that you may have actually have an injury, says Galatz.
7. If your urine is dark and your muscles are swollen. Go see your doc, stat. This could be a sign of rhabdomyolysis, a rare but life-threatening condition if not treated right away. It's caused by the body actually breaking down muscles and releasing myoglobin and creatine kinase into the blood stream, which can lead to kidney damage. Although uncommon, it has been found in people performing intense conditioning workouts such as CrossFit, Campbell warns.