You’ve finally decided to get back into the swing of things after a long time away from the gym. You push through an intense workout, feeling accomplished and energized.
But then, your body aches for days, usually 3, before you can even think about hitting the weights again. Or, when you try a new exercise routine, your muscles scream in protest the next day.
What’s happening is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS). This is your body’s natural response to micro tears in muscles after workouts, especially those that are high-intensity or unfamiliar (4).
Without getting too nerdy, we’ll break down the science behind this common post-workout experience, why it happens, and what you can do to manage and potentially minimize the discomfort. Here’s what you need to know.
Does Working Out Cause Micro-Tears In Muscles?
Working out does cause micro-tears in your muscles. Now, don’t let the term ‘micro-tears’ freak you out. It’s not as scary as it sounds. In fact, it’s a normal part of gaining strength and building muscle.
Look, when we engage in strength training exercises, we’re essentially applying stress to our muscles, more than what they are usually accustomed to (7).
This action results in tiny microscopic tears in the muscle fibers, which sounds bad, but it’s actually good. It’s your body’s way of adapting to this new demand you put on it, as these tiny tears stimulate the process of repairing and rebuilding your muscle tissues, making them stronger and more resilient.
So, while it might cause some initial discomfort, it’s all part of the grand plan of getting those gains.
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What Are The Tiny Tears In Muscles After Workout?
The tiny tears in your muscles post-workout are actual microscopic damages to your muscle fibers.
These happen when you engage in strenuous or new types of physical activity, and are so small that you can’t see them without a microscope, which may be why you won’t feel them right away.
But as your body starts the process of repairing and rebuilding, the inflammation and soreness will set in (aka DOMS) (4).
Before we get further into why it hurts after a workout, let’s review basic muscle anatomy (2):
- Muscle fibers: Think of these as the building blocks of your muscles. They are long, cylindrical structures that contract and expand to help you move.
- Myofibrils: These are even tinier structures that exist within the muscle fibers. They’re packed with proteins that make the actual contraction happen.
- Sarcomeres: These are the smallest contractile units within the myofibrils. They contain the specific proteins (actin and myosin) that slide past each other during muscle contraction.
During a workout, especially a heavy one, these sarcomeres are stressed. They lengthen and experience significant tension as you lift weights or perform high-intensity moves. This leads to mechanical stress and in turn, a temporary disruption to their structure , causing those micro-tears or tiny damages in the muscle fibers.
After the workout, when you’re resting, your body jumps into repair mode. It sends in a cavalry of cells to fix the damages. This repair process not only mends the tears but also adds more muscle protein to the mix. This is your body’s clever way to prepare for future workouts of similar intensity.
The result? You get stronger and your muscles grow – a process commonly known as muscular hypertrophy (7).
Now that we know why micro-tears happen in muscles after workouts, let’s address the real question – why do our muscles ache so much the next day?
As mentioned, these tiny tears are the catalysts for muscle growth and strength gains. But during the repair process, our body increases blood flow to the affected area, which can cause swelling and inflammation (5).
This results in soreness and discomfort, also known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) (7).
What Causes Micro-Tears In Muscles?
Micro-tears in muscles can be triggered by a variety of factors:
Unaccustomed Activity: One of the primary reasons for these tiny tears is engaging in an exercise routine or physical activity that your body isn’t familiar with. This sudden strain on the muscles can lead to micro-tears.
High-Intensity Workouts: Intense workout sessions, like high-intensity interval training (HIIT), heavy weight lifting, or plyometrics, put significant stress on the muscles, resulting in micro-tears (4).
Improving Your Form: In our post about muscle confusion we mentioned how you could go months performing an exercise, without actually hitting the target muscle. When you improve your form you may experience soreness because now you’re hitting those neglected areas.
Lack of Warm-Up: Properly warming up before a workout is essential to prepare your muscles for the stress they’re about to undergo and progressively ramp up the workload. While a proper warm-up can’t completely prevent DOMs, it significantly boosts session performance, influencing physical work rate and capability, and ultimately shaping overall progress. (4).
Dehydration: Not drinking enough water before, during, or after a workout may also contribute to DOMS. However, dehydration alone will not cause DOMs or make it worse. Water is essential for carrying nutrients and oxygen to your muscles, which they need during the repair process (3).
Poor Nutrition: Eating a diet that doesn’t meet your individual requirements of protein. carbohydrates and other essential nutrients needed for muscle growth and repair may prolong the recovery process after a workout, potentially leading to more discomfort (1).
How Long Do Micro-Tears In Muscles Take To Heal?
Muscle tears from working out can take anywhere between 24-72 hours to heal. Exactly how long will vary from one person to the next, and there are no hard and fast rules. You might notice that the initial soreness peaks a day or two after your workout, but gradually decreases over the next few days.
Research shows that the soreness peaks from 24- 72 hours after the workout and typically subsides after 72 hours. This is the body’s peak repair time when it’s hard at work fixing the micro-damage and building up your muscles.
However, these timelines aren’t set in stone. Several factors can influence how long your muscles take to heal and your soreness to go away, including:
Intensity of the Exercise: The harder intensity or higher volume placed on your muscles during a workout, the more micro-tears you may experience, and therefore, the extent of DOMs and muscle soreness experienced is influenced by the workload. Those new to intense workouts or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may experience longer recovery times as their bodies adapt to the new demands (4).
Your Fitness Level: Your body’s efficiency at repairing micro-tears increases as you get fitter. So, seasoned athletes may bounce back faster from muscle soreness than someone just starting off on their fitness journey.
Nutrition and Hydration: Proper nutrition can speed up the healing process. Protein, in particular, plays a crucial role in repairing damaged muscle tissue. Staying adequately hydrated also aids in flushing out toxins and speeding up recovery (1) (3).
Rest and Sleep: Your body undergoes various important repair and recovery processes during sleep. Getting enough quality sleep following intense workouts can help speed up muscle recovery (6).
Post-Workout Recovery Techniques: Certain recovery techniques, such as foam rolling, massage, or taking a cool bath, helps decrease inflammation, ease symptoms and potentially speed up the recovery process (4)
How Do You Treat Micro Muscle Tears?
How To Manage And Minimize Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)?
As much as you might want to push through the pain and hit the gym again right away, rest is crucial for muscle recovery. Allow your body enough time to repair itself before engaging in another intense workout.
Usually, we recommend giving your muscles 48-72 hours to recover before working them again. So, for example, if you did a leg day on Monday, wait until Thursday or Friday to tackle those muscles again.
While rest is essential, gentle movements like stretching or light cardio help increase blood flow and aid in the repair process.
Stretching your muscles after a workout helps support and improve flexibility and range of motion, however stretching may not prevent or reduce the severity of DOMS. We’ve discussed various stretching techniques in our tight back muscles post.
On rest days, a stretching routine combining yoga-based movements such as downward-facing dog, pigeon pose, and child’s pose may help alleviate soreness. Active rest days, where you engage in light cardio like walking or cycling, also help increase blood flow and reduce stiffness.
Massages can also help relieve muscle soreness by increasing blood flow to the affected area, promoting healing, and reducing inflammation. You’ll have to be super careful with deep tissue massages, though, as they can worsen the pain if done too soon after a workout.
Foam rolling is a popular alternative that can provide similar benefits without the risk of further damage. It involves using a foam roller to apply pressure to sore muscles, helping release tension and improve blood flow.
It should be done carefully and slowly, 24-48 hours after a workout, to avoid exacerbating the soreness.
Proper Hydration and Nutrition
As mentioned earlier, drinking enough water and eating a balanced diet rich in protein, carbohydrates and other essential nutrients is crucial for muscle recovery. Although proper nutrition won’t prevent DOMS, it can help minimize its effects.
A protein rich diet that includes lean proteins like chicken, fish, eggs, and plant-based sources like beans, lentils, and tofu may help in your recovery and muscle building efforts.
Research also suggests that consuming tart cherries, and other foods which have anti-inflammatory properties, helps reduce muscle soreness (10) As for hydration, aim for at least 8-10 cups of water a day, more on days when you have intense workouts.
Over-the-Counter Pain Relief
If the soreness is too much to bear, over-the-counter pain relief medications such as ibuprofen or aspirin may provide temporary relief (8).
However, it’s essential to use them sparingly and not rely on them as a solution for long-term pain management. Consult with your doctor before using any medication, especially if you have pre-existing health conditions.
As tempting as it may be to push yourself to the limit every time you hit the gym, gradually increasing the intensity and duration of your workouts can help prevent excessive soreness. This allows your muscles to adapt gradually, reducing the chances of micro-tears and severe DOMS.
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Muscle Micro Tears vs Muscle Damage: What’s The Difference?
In the simplest terms, muscle micro tears are the small damages that occur in your muscle fibers when you exercise, particularly during high-intensity workouts. They’re a normal part of the process and are crucial for muscle growth and strength gains.
On the other hand, exercise induced muscle damage refers to more significant, often painful injuries to the muscle, such as sprains or strains, which can occur due to overuse, trauma, or improper technique. They usually require more time and care to heal, and in severe cases, can be permanent.
Let’s break down the differences.
How Each Feels
Muscle Micro Tears
Muscle micro tears often result in a phenomenon known as DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
You’ll typically start feeling this 24-48 hours after a strenuous workout. It’s a dull, aching pain that can make your muscles feel tight and tender to touch. It might be accompanied by slight swelling.
The ‘muscle micro tears myth’ suggests that the more sore you are, the better your workout was, but remember, excessive soreness could indicate that you’ve pushed too hard.
Also known as exercise-induced muscle damage, this feels different. The pain is usually sharper and more localized, often showing up immediately after exercise or within the first 24 hours.
The affected muscle might be visibly swollen, bruised, or even appear deformed in severe cases. You might have difficulty using the muscle.
Muscle Micro Tears
If it’s just muscle micro tears from working out, the discomfort should peak around 48 hours after the workout and lessen over the following few days. The key sign here is if your range of motion is relatively unaffected and if the pain reduces when the muscle is warmed up.
For more severe muscle damage, the pain doesn’t usually ease with warm-up and might even worsen when you attempt to use the muscle.
The pain is unlikely to be evenly distributed throughout the muscle, often presenting more like a sharp pain in a specific spot. You might also experience swelling, bruising and difficulty using the muscle at all.
Muscle Micro Tears
Recovery involves rest, appropriate nutrition, hydration, and gentle movement to encourage blood flow and prevent muscle stiffness. The ‘muscle rebuilding sore muscles micro tears’ process is a normal one, with your body adapting to the new exercise intensity.
With exercise-induced muscle damage, you should seek medical advice, as it may require a more cautious treatment strategy, including rest, anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy, or in severe cases, surgery.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Does a Micro Tear Feel Like?
Micro tears in the muscle often result in DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness), which is a dull, aching pain that you begin to feel 24-48 hours after a strenuous workout. Your muscles might feel tight and tender to the touch, and there could be minor swelling.
Why do micro tears hurt so much?
Micro tears can cause significant discomfort because they create inflammation in your muscles. This inflammation can lead to pain, swelling, and stiffness. It’s part of your body’s natural response to injury and is a signal that healing processes are taking place.
What Is the Difference Between a Micro Tear and a Macro Tear?
Micro tears refer to small damages in your muscle fibers that occur as a normal part of exercise, especially during high-intensity workouts.
They are crucial for muscle growth and strength gains. Macro tears, on the other hand, are larger, more severe muscle injuries that can result from overuse, trauma, or improper technique.
They often cause more intense pain, swelling, and bruising, and can significantly limit your range of motion.
Do Small Muscle Tears Heal on Their Own?
Yes, small muscle tears often heal on their own with appropriate care. This includes rest, proper nutrition, hydration, and gentle movement to encourage blood flow and prevent muscle stiffness. However, if pain persists or worsens, it’s crucial to seek medical attention to avoid further damage.
How do I stop my muscles from tearing at the gym?
Preventing muscle tears involves a combination of proper technique, gradual progression, and adequate recovery time.
Always ensure that you are performing exercises with the correct form and gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts to allow your muscles to adapt.
Adequate rest between workout sessions is also crucial for allowing your muscles to recover and rebuild. Regular stretching and flexibility exercises can also help prevent muscle tears.
The Bottom Line
Muscle micro tears are a normal outcome of an intense or new workout, causing mild to moderate discomfort but leading to muscle growth. Muscle damage, on the other hand, is an abnormal condition caused by overuse, trauma or improper technique, resulting in severe pain and possible permanent damage if not treated promptly.
It’s normal to feel sore after a workout, but you should also be able to tell when that soreness might be a sign of something more serious.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A review of nutritional intervention on delayed onset muscle soreness. Part I (2014,nih.gov)
- Anatomy, Skeletal Muscle (2022,nih.gov)
- Dehydration and Symptoms of Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness in Normothermic Men (2006,nih.gov)
- Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) (2011,acsm.org)
- How Microtears Help You to Build Muscle Mass (2021,uhhospitals.org)
- How does sleep help recovery from exercise-induced muscle injuries (2021,nih.gov)
- Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods (2019,nih.gov)
- Over-the-counter pain relievers (2022,medlineplus.gov)
- The Application of DOMS Mechanism and Prevention in Physical Education and Training (2022,nih.gov)
- Tart Cherry Juice Reduces Muscle Pain and Inflammation (2010,ohsu.edu)