Not able to straighten your arms after a bicep workout? You're not alone. As a professional trainer, there’s no better feeling than a great gym session for myself or a client. But sometimes, a great workout comes with consequences, like not being able to straighten your arms.
Is it normal not to be able to straighten your arm after working out? It is relatively normal to experience soreness, tightness, and swelling in your arm that prevents you from stretching the elbow joint comfortably. This occurs mostly after a bicep workout where you have tried a new exercise, changed the intensity, or are a novice.
It is important to mention that while getting a little stiff shouldn’t immediately sound any alarm bells, there are circumstances where it may not be so harmless.
In this article, I will go over some reasons why you can't extend your arms after working out, how to get rid of it, how long it will take to return to normal, whether you should still work out if your arms are sore, and when to know to see a professional.
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4 Reasons Why You Can't Straight Your Arms After Working Out
There may be several reasons you can't straighten your arms after the gym, but it’s more likely one of the following:
- You are new to resistance training
- You tried a new exercise
- You tried a different tempo
- You increased volume/did too much
1. You Are New to Resistance Training
Arms sore after a workout? If you are brand new to lifting weights or have taken a significant amount of time off away from the gym, you’re more likely to see an overreaction to a modest amount of stimuli to the muscles.
Your body went from not doing anything to now having to use the muscles in your arms and is likely experiencing some inflammation and microtears in the muscles as a result.
While you likely will recover from this sensation, it would be more productive for you to ease slowly into exercising so you can maximize your return to the gym rather than have to take days off at a time whenever you try something new.
If you’re returning to powerlifting after a long hiatus, check out these 7 rules for getting back into powerlifting after a break.
2. You Tried a New Exercise
Sometimes, even seasoned lifters can get humbled by simple exercises they haven’t done in a long time. This can be especially true for powerlifters or weightlifters who focus a lot on compound movements and don’t do any or as much isolation work.
If you go from just benching to doing 3+ sets of multiple bicep exercises, you shouldn’t be surprised if you notice it's hard to stretch your arms out the next day.
3. You Tried a Different Tempo
A common reason for your muscles to overreact to an exercise stimulus is that you have slowed down the eccentric portion of the lift. The eccentric portion of the lift has to do with lengthening the muscles, so with a bicep curl it would be the downward motion.
If you have recently done some curls with slower eccentrics than usual, you may feel a little stiff afterward.
For example, I recently did some very light but very slow Romanian deadlifts. My hamstrings were so sore it was hard to move my legs the next day even though hamstring exercises and deadlifts are not a new stimulus to me.
4. You Increased Volume/Did Too Much
Just as there is a minimum required dose for seeing progress, there is also an upper threshold of volume from which you can efficiently recover from. Therefore, it may be possible that you increased the volume of your biceps too much and are one step closer to your threshold. Or you made a big jump from what you normally do.
For example, if you normally do one bicep exercise in your workout, but today you did 3 different bicep exercises instead, or you increased the reps, sets, or load significantly, you may also see a reaction.
If your biceps are sore after a workout and you’re looking for other ways to train on your bicep day, check out What Else Should I Do On Biceps Day? (4 Examples).
How Do You Get Rid of Stiff, Sore Arms After A Workout? (6 Fixes)
If you can't straighten your arms after the gym, only so much can be done after the damage is there. But some things can help you feel better, as well as strategies for preventing it from occurring.
Six ways to get rid of stiff arms after working out are:
- Light, dynamic stretching or movement
- Take an anti-inflammatory
- Drink lots of water
- Refuel with food
- Prime your muscles with for new movements
- Spread out weekly volume goals
1. Light, Dynamic Stretching or Movement
In order to help your body naturally manage inflammation, it’s helpful to promote blood flow, which can be done through light activity.
You may benefit from doing some dynamic movement throughout the day, going for a walk, doing some stretches, or engaging in some yoga-like activity. This may temporarily relieve some stiffness and will help promote and hopefully speed up the healing.
If you’re a powerlifter who wants to take up yoga, check out my recommendations for balancing powerlifting training and yoga practice in my article Should Powerlifters Do Yoga? (Yes, Here’s 6 Poses).
2. Take an Anti-Inflammatory
Drugs like ibuprofen can be helpful if you’re really struggling to get through your day. They work by decreasing overall inflammation and will ultimately relieve your pain.
One thing to note is that there have been some findings to suggest that consistent usage of anti-inflammatory drugs can have negative consequences on muscle building. However, take the findings with a grain of salt if you are just taking a single dose a day after a difficult workout.
3. Drink Lots of Water
Being hydrated before heading into your workout, as well as staying hydrated after your workout will be integral to helping attenuate inflammation. This is because water helps flush toxins and move important substances throughout the bloodstream and into the muscles.
Therefore, making sure to have water on hand will be important if you are feeling really stiff.
4. Refuel With Food
Similarly to staying hydrated, making sure you are eating enough food will be important for your overall recovery. However, it likely won’t provide you with immediate relief.
Overall, a good diet full of carbs, fats, protein, and adequate calories will help increase your recoverability in general and potentially protect against long-drawn bouts of soreness.
This is also why if you are in a calorie deficit you may notice some increased difficulty with recovery over time.
Make sure you’re eating enough to support your training while still making healthy food choices by following the guidelines in my article Do Powerlifters Eat Whatever They Want? (No, Here’s Why).
5. Prime Your Muscles for New Movements
As a more proactive approach, I would strongly recommend priming your muscles for new movements as a novice or someone returning after a training hiatus.
You would do this by spending 1 week or so moving your body in the range of motion you wish but using very, very light weight. You should focus on just moving for the sake of moving without the goal of hitting any high intensities.
What this will do is, in essence, wake up your muscles in a more gentle way so that when you go in the next week and do a more challenging set, the muscles aren’t caught off guard and the recovery systems are in place.
6. Spread Out Weekly Volume Goals
For those who are experiencing soreness because they have overdone the volume for a certain muscle group, it may be wise to split up your weekly volume over the span of a couple of days.
You could try doing several bicep exercises across 2-3 days rather than doing a monster bicep workout on a single day. This will be a more sustainable, long-term approach for most because it will help you avoid extreme soreness while allowing you to complete the same amount of volume per week.
If you want to train the biceps daily, learn how to do it safely and effectively in the article Is It Okay To Do Bicep Curls Every Day? (Yes, Here’s How).
How Long Will It Take For Your Arms To Return To Normal?
If you can't extend your arms after working out, you likely have delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS will peak about 48 hours after a workout and then progressively get better in the following days.
It’s not possible to exactly pinpoint when soreness will subside. But in general, everyone does return to baseline in a couple days. In some cases, you may feel really stiff just a couple hours after a workout but then have no delayed onset muscle soreness the next day because you have recovered overnight.
In other cases, you may feel perfectly fine the same day of your workout but wake up feeling immobile and stiff. This is the classic case of DOMS, which is when the soreness comes later on and typically peaks 2 days out from the workout.
Novices and those who have been away from the gym for a long period of time may find their soreness to last more than 2 days. However, this is not something that will persist beyond the first 2 weeks of returning to the gym and exercise.
Should You Still Workout If Your Arms Are Sore?
Broadly speaking, you don’t need to avoid all exercise just because your arms are sore. However, you may want to give your arms a break.
I would not recommend going into the gym to do lots of upper body work a day where your arms are very, very sore. However, having a more lower-body focused workout with some lighter upper body exercise should be tolerated pretty well and likely won’t cause you too much grief.
You will need to likely warm up your arms in a dynamic way as much as possible, but once you get blood flowing they are likely to feel a bit better.
It’s also perfectly reasonable to take a day off from exercise and give your muscles some time to recover. You may feel better once you do come back for a training session.
The caveat I would propose is that for beginners who may experience soreness for more than 2 days, I would highly recommend you do return to the gym as your body is acclimating to the lifestyle change. The soreness is just a temporary state that can be overcome by continuing to exercise regularly.
If you are still feeling pain after a week, you may consider seeing a doctor to ensure you don't have bicep tendinitis.
If you experience bicep pain when doing bench presses, find out how you can fix it in How To Fix Bicep Pain During Bench Press (5 Tips).
When Do Stiff Arms Become More Serious?
Stiffness or soreness in your muscles can be a sign of something more serious if you see that it is not recovering or is presenting in combination with other symptoms.
Most soreness doesn’t indicate anything very serious, and the sensation normally feels like a generalized tenderness over a relatively wide area. This makes it difficult to bend or extend at joints even though it is possible to still move at the joint.
However, there is such a thing as too much soreness. In those cases, you must seek medical attention because you may be breaking down muscle at an unsustainable and dangerous rate.
See a doctor if the pain is severe, you notice any swelling in your joints, you’re experiencing a loss of range of motion in the joints, or you have dark urine or are producing less urine than normal.
In addition, if you are feeling sharp and intense pain during or immediately after a workout, you may be experiencing actual damage or an injury and should stop and seek advice from a professional.
Takeaway: Soreness typically starts hours after a workout but shouldn’t last more than 2-3 days and should not be accompanied by any other symptoms other than discomfort.
Why can't I straighten my arms after a bicep workout?
After a bicep workout, especially one involving isolation exercises like curls, the bicep muscles can become exceptionally tight and sore, particularly if you're not accustomed to it or have changed the exercise intensity. This tightness and soreness, combined with swelling, can make it challenging to straighten your arm comfortably. It's relatively common to experience these sensations, especially for novices or when trying new exercises.
If you can't straighten your arms after a gym workout, it's normal to be concerned. As a trainer, many clients have nervously said, “I can't straighten my arms after a bicep workout.” Is this normal?
Indeed, it's relatively common to face tightness, soreness, and swelling in the arm, particularly following a bicep workout. Such symptoms may arise when introducing a new exercise, ramping up the intensity, or for those new to fitness.
While having bicep pain and not being able to straighten your arm can be disconcerting, it is usually nothing serious and should dissipate in a few days.
To avoid bicep pain and swelling, you can avoid pushing too hard, use proper form, and gradually progress in intensity (10% a week is a solid starting point at first). Listening to your body and seeking medical help will be the safest bet if ever in doubt.
Now that you understand the core issues, if your arms are sore after a workout and you can't straighten them. Be sure to rest up and apply them in your next gym session.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.