Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Maybe you’re getting back into yoga after taking a break. Or you take class with that instructor you know will kick your butt three times a week. Or maybe you just did one too many Chaturanga during your home practice yesterday.
A day later, you’re barely able to lift your arms or stand without wincing. And we all know the second day can be even worse, with more stiffness and aches.
Although it can be tempting to swear off your practice until after you feel better, stretching those sore muscles through yoga can actually help minimize your misery.
Why do muscles get sore?
Whether you’re practicing yoga, lifting weights, hiking more than usual, or training for a race, when you do any activity that lengthens your muscles and then loads them through weight-bearing of any sort, it causes microscopic damage to your muscle fibers. These microtears cause inflammation and pain.
In the days after activity, your body works to repair or replace the damaged fibers, which eventually makes your muscles stronger. In the meantime, discomfort kicks in. Although it can be a pain in your butt—as well as your legs, shoulders, and just about everything else—the good news is that it’s a normal part of the muscle recovery process as your muscles strengthen.
How do I know if my muscles are sore or injured?
The achy stiffness that presents 12 to 72 hours after you exercise is your body repairing those damaged fibers, otherwise known as delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS is different than the burn you feel in your quads during Utkatasana (Chair Pose). That’s acute muscle soreness and is the effect of lactic acid building up in your muscles. This usually goes away as soon as you move out of the pose.
If you feel acute pain while you’re working out or immediately afterward, it’s more likely that you’ve injured yourself and need to seek the advice of a physician.
Is it better to stretch sore muscles or let them rest?
One of the ways to help your body recover and ease DOMS is to get in some easy movement. While that might be the last thing you want to do, increasing circulation and blood flow will help your body repair your muscles faster. That doesn’t mean a full-on workout—we’re talking about easy stretching, a slow walk, or a casual ride.
Stretching sore muscles can bring measurable relief by reducing muscle stiffness and maybe even making that walk from couch to bed easier.
6 yoga stretches for sore muscles
Stretches for your entire body
Why this stretch helps with muscle soreness: Standing Forward Bend Pose stretches and releases your hamstrings, calves, and hips, and is also a lovely way to let gravity do the work to lengthen your spine and stretch your back.
How to: Stand at the front of your mat in Tadasana, hands on your hips. Take your feet a little wider than your hips. Exhale and bend forward at your hips—not your waist—and let your chest fall toward your thighs. Rest your palms or fingertips on the mat slightly in front of your feet, place them on blocks or stacks of books, or cross your forearms. Relax your neck and shoulders. If you need, bring a bend to your knees. Press your heels firmly into the mat and lift your sitting bones toward the ceiling. Turn your inner thighs slightly inward and toward the wall behind you.
Breathe. With each inhale, lift your body slightly. With each exhale, release into the pose a little more. Let your head hang and feel your shoulder blades release. Remain here for anywhere from 30-60 seconds. Slowly rise to standing.
Why this stretch helps with muscle soreness: Much like Standing Forward Bend, Seated Forward Bend stretches your spine, hamstrings, and shoulders while reducing fatigue and calming your brain.
How to: Sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front of you. You can slide a folded blanket beneath your buttocks if that helps your pelvis tilt forward in a more comfortable position. Press your heels toward the front of your mat and draw your knees toward your hips. Take a deep breath and keep lengthening through your chest and back as you lean forward from your hips, not your waist. Stop reaching forward when your upper back starts to round or the stretch in your back or hamstrings becomes intense.
Rest your hands alongside your ankles or reach for them around your feet. If you can’t reach your feet, loop a strap, towel, or sweatshirt around the bottoms of your feet. Breathe. With each inhale, lift and lengthen the chest slightly; with each exhale, release a little more fully into the stretch. Remain here for anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes.
A stretch to target your hamstrings
Why this stretch helps with muscle soreness: Hamstrings howling? Here’s a stretch that is perfect for isolating and stretching your hammies—and only your hammies. Feel the love.
How to: Lie flat on the mat with your legs extended straight in front of you. You can support your head with a folded blanket if that’s more comfortable. Inhale, bend your right knee, and draw it in towards your chest. Press through your left heel toward the front of the mat. Loop a strap, a towel, or a sweatshirt around the arch of your right foot and hold the strap in both hands. Exhale and start to straighten your right knee, pressing your right heel up toward the ceiling but keeping your shoulders flat on the mat. Imagine you are making a footprint on the ceiling. Keep a bend in your right knee if you need.
Walk your hands up the strap until your arms are straight. Gently press your shoulder blades into the mat and widen your collarbones away from your sternum. Breathe. Remain here for anywhere from 30-60 seconds. Bend your right knee, bring it into your chest, and let the strap drop. Straighten your right leg and switch sides.
Want more? See: 7 Yoga Poses to Release Those Tight Hamstrings
A stretch for your glutes, hips, and back
Why this stretch helps with muscle soreness: When your body is sore, there’s nothing like a good twist to help loosen things up. This pose allows you to multitask and stretches your back, glutes, shoulders, hips, and neck.
How to: Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. If it feels more comfortable, slide a folded blanket beneath your buttocks. Bend your knees, place your feet flat on the mat, and then slide your left foot under your right leg and bring it to the outside of your right hip. Step your right foot over your left leg and stand it on the floor outside your left hip. Your right knee will point directly up at the ceiling. Exhale and twist to the right, placing your right palm on the mat just behind your right hip and pressing your left elbow against your outer right thigh near your knee. Pull your chest and inner right thigh snugly together. Actively press your right foot into the mat. Inhale and lift the top of your head toward the ceiling to lengthen through your back. Exhale and relax into the twist. Turn your head to look over your right shoulder or back over your left shoulder. Breathe. Remain here for anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes. Switch sides.
Want more? See: The 15-Minute Stretching Routine for Glutes & Hips
A stretch for your inner thighs and groin
Why this stretch helps with muscle soreness: This inner thigh and groin stretch can be a little intense but also feels soooo good.
How to: From Baddha Konasana, walk your hands back so you slowly recline, first resting your weight on your forearms and then come to your back. Support your head and neck on a towel if needed. Place your palms on your inner thighs and gently press toward the side to rotate your thighs externally. Don’t press your knees to the floor, just let gravity do the work. If this is too intense, slide blocks, pillows, or rolled blankets beneath your knees. Let your arms rest alongside your body, palms facing up. Breathe. Remain here for 1 minute. If you like, you can work up to 5 minutes.
Want more? See: 5 Yoga Poses to Safely Stretch Those Groin Muscles
A stretch for your shoulders and back
Uttana Shishosana (Puppy Pose)
Why this stretch helps with muscle soreness: A cross between Child’s Pose and Downward-Facing Dog, this godsend of a stretch eases tension in your spine and shoulders.
How to: Start on your hands and knees in Tabletop. Make sure your knees are directly below your hips and your wrists are beneath your shoulders. Walk your hands forward about a foot and a little wider than your shoulders. As you stretch your arms forward, drop your forehead to the mat and let your neck relax. If your forehead doesn’t touch the mat, slide a block, a stack of books, or a folded blanket underneath. Breathe. If you want, with each exhale, lower your chest toward the mat for a slightly arched back. Remain here for anywhere from 30-60 seconds and then relax back into Child’s Pose or move out of the pose completely.
Want more? See also: These Shoulder Stretches Will Unkink Even the Tightest Upper Body