Last updated on October 29th, 2022 at 12:33 pm
You’ve hit a fantastic bicep workout, everything seems great, and then suddenly some time later you find that you can’t straighten your arms.
In fact, whenever you attempt to reach for something, or try to use your arms in any way, the soreness is excruciating.
In this article I’ll reveal the main reasons why you can’t fully extend your arms after working out.
Furthermore, I’ll explain how to deal with it at the time, as well as how you can potentially avoid this altogether.
Table of Contents
Why Can’t I Straighten My Arms After a Bicep Workout?
The main reason you can’t straighten your arms after a workout, whether you’ve trained your biceps or even another muscle group, is due to delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS typically start 8-48 hours after you’ve trained. They are usually at their worst 48-72 hours following your workout. The muscle soreness will generally improve each day thereafter. DOMS can last up to 5-6 days.
Here’s Why You Can’t Extend Your Arms After a Workout
The number one culprit in the struggle with your arms is delayed-onset muscle soreness.
Often referred to as DOMS, this is something that most of us will experience at one time or another.
Basically, intense exercise will cause tiny, microscopic tears in the muscle fibres.
Don’t worry, this is actually a good thing.
The muscle fibres will eventually “repair” themselves, and this is how your muscles grow back bigger and stronger.
In the meantime, blood flow will increase to the “damaged” muscles in order to provide essential nutrients to aid the repair process.
However, this increased blood flow will often lead to inflammation, soreness, and sometimes even swelling.
Furthermore, the soreness you feel is often targeted towards the insertion point of the muscle.
And in the case of the biceps, the insertion point happens to be at the elbow,
Therefore, if you’ve hit a particularly intense bicep workout, and you start to feel DOMS come one, you’re likely to feel it most at the elbow.
And this will explain why it’s so difficult to straighten your arms after a bicep workout.
Why Are You Experiencing Muscle Soreness?
By now I’m sure you realise that the fact that exercise causes these microscopic tears in the muscle fibres is the cause of your soreness.
However, why exactly does this occur?
And why don’t you feel this same soreness every single time you train?
Pure and simple, DOMS occur when your muscles aren’t accustomed to the stress they have been placed under.
Just another point, it was believed for many years that the soreness in your muscles was due to lactic acid build up.
Now, while a build-up of lactic acid can cause a burning sensation, it’s definitely different from DOMS.
Furthermore, lactic acid will literally be flushed from your blood within just a few short minutes.
Okay, back to the point, DOMS are caused by high-intense exercise, typically that your muscles simply aren’t used to.
Now, this most commonly occurs in those who are new to exercise.
In fact, think back to the first time you ever exercised, whether it was performing bicep curls, bench press, or even going for a run.
In the vast majority of cases, most of us felt severe soreness in the muscles worked, or even throughout our entire body.
And this of course is because our muscles just weren’t used to the exercise.
That being said, DOMS can develop if you’ve had a long break from exercise too.
In effect, the first time you train it feels as though you’re a newbie once again.
However, it’s just as important to realise that your “muscles not being accustomed to exercise” can also materialise if you perform an extra few reps, more sets, different exercises, different equipment, etc.
In fact, even if you take less rest between sets, this increases the intensity of your workout, and can therefore also lead to DOMS.
So, DOMS are definitely not a “newbie” thing, and anyone can experience them.
How Can You Make the Soreness Go Away?
Okay, as I’ve mentioned DOMS will generally last up to 5-6 days.
However, depending on the severity of your soreness and how “new” your workout was to you, can also make a difference.
That being said, the last thing you want is the inability to straighten your arms coupled with the intense soreness to last indefinitely.
So, of course, you need a solution to make that soreness go away.
I’m sure you’re aware that following any type of workout you should stretch the muscles that have been worked.
Stretching works in three main ways.
Firstly, it will help to lengthen and relax the muscles that will typically be tense after your workout.
It will also help to stop the build-up of lactic acid in the muscle.
Plus, stretching will help to limit the pressure that your joints and muscles feel.
Now, I know exactly what you’re thinking:
The fact that you can’t actually fully extend your arms after a bicep workout means that you’re going to find it extremely difficult to stretch.
However, in truth, it’s not so much that you can’t straighten your arms, but more that it feels painful to do so.
That being said, the relief that you will feel when you finally do stretch your biceps and arms will make that initial pain seem worthwhile.
Rest & Recovery
I guess this should be fairly obvious, but if your muscles are sore then they need to rest and recover.
The very fact that your high-intense bicep workout has left you with the inability to stretch out your arms tells you everything you need to know.
Plus, don’t forget that your muscle fibres now have tiny tears, which require time to heal.
As I’ve mentioned, as your muscle fibres heal they will generally grow back bigger and stronger.
So, it’s important to remember that your muscles don’t grow while you’re working out, but rather when you’re not in the gym.
Give it some time and it won’t be long before everything’s back to normal.
The food that you eat is also an important part of the recovery process.
Firstly, the carbs that you eat will help to replenish the energy used during exercise.
However, probably the most important macronutrient is protein.
Protein is broken down into amino acids.
And it is these amino acids that help to both repair and maintain muscle tissue.
This is often referred to as protein synthesis.
Some of the best foods that will help with DOMS and allow you to extend those arms again include:
- Fatty Fish
- Whey Protein
- Starchy Vegetables
However, a good mix of protein, carbs, and healthy fats post workout will always do you the world of good.
The human body is made up of approximately 55-60% water.
So, this in itself should tell you why it’s so important to drink water on a daily basis.
However, drinking water can also help to alleviate the pain of DOMS.
Firstly, your muscle cells require water to function normally, and it is water that can aid the process of protein synthesis.
Furthermore, drinking water helps to improve blood circulation.
This also means that you can literally flood your muscles with blood, which will aid the healing process.
Finally, water helps to flush the vital organs and body of waste products, which can actually help to alleviate some of the soreness in your muscles.
So, water is essential whether you’re working out or not.
Massage, once again, will help to literally flush lactic acid and other waste products out of the body.
Furthemore, it increases blood flow, which you now know is good for relieving the soreness of DOMS.
Plus, it can help with stiffness and flexibility, in much the same way as stretching does.
Okay, admittedly a contrast bath may not be an option, as you’ll need access to two bathtubs.
That being said, you can use exactly the same principle in the shower.
This involves going from a warm bath to a cold bath, or indeed switching your shower from warm to cold.
What this does is to open and close the blood vessels in the body, which in turn increases blood flow.
And it is this that can actually help to reduce the inflammation and swelling often caused by DOMS.
So, a contrast bath (or shower) could see you able to straighten your arms and relieve the soreness much quicker than normal.
Okay, I’ve spoken of rest and recovery, and in addition to this, getting a good night’s sleep can do wonders for muscle soreness.
Realistically, most adults should aim for 7-9 hours sleep a night.
However, the beauty of getting a great night’s sleep when you have DOMS is to do with the hormones that are released.
Basically, during one of the stages of deep sleep the body secretes the Human Growth Hormone.
As the name suggests, this hormone is responsible for helping your muscles to grow.
And this occurs as the damaged muscle fibres are repaired and essential hormones and nutrients are being passed through the muscle tissues.
So, always ensure that you’re sleeping well if you really want to grow and remain pain-free
How Can You Prevent DOMS?
I’ll be honest and say that the inability to straighten your arms, whether after a bicep workout or any other training session in the gym, can strike at any time.
However, as I’ve said, it most likely occurs when you perform a workout that your muscles aren’t accustomed to.
Therefore, if you’re looking to prevent muscle soreness then you must keep your ego in check.
Whether you’re new to exercise, returning after a break, or simply looking to hit a more intense workout, you still need to train within your current abilities.
Yes, you should push yourself, but there is a fine line between an extremely intense workout and pushing yourself too hard.
I guess the only way to really determine this is through personal hands-on experience.
So, you may have to go through the pain barrier every once in a while until you learn what you’re capable of.
Personally, if we take a bicep workout as an example, when trained with proper intensity, 6-8 sets per week will suffice.
And even if you are specializing in bicep training there’s still no need to be performing more than 12 sets maximum.
Realistically, pick 2-4 bicep exercises, start out light, perfect your form, and regularly progress in either weight, reps, sets, or decreased rest periods.
Trust me, your biceps are far more likely to grow this way when compared to trying to completely annihilate them.
And once more, ensure that you properly warm-up the muscles prior to your workout and then cool down and stretch afterwards
Should You Workout With Muscle Soreness?
Okay, whether you should workout with DOMS will obviously depend on the severity of the soreness you’re feeling.
Furthermore, if you’re having difficulty in straightening your arms you’re going to find it fairly difficult to perform a wide variety of exercises.
As I’ve mentioned, it’s not much that you can actually fully extend your arms, sure you can, but it just feels extremely uncomfortable and fairly sore to do it.
Now, one thing I didn’t mention above, in terms of dealing with the pain, is active recovery.
In effect, active recovery is anything that will get your blood flowing, but that is performed at fairly low intensity.
Hopefully, you now understand how increased blood circulation is part of the “healing” process.
So, this could involve something as simple as taking a walk, performing yoga or some stretches, or even some steady-state cardio.
All these things will certainly help you to recover quicker.
That being said, you probably don’t want to spend days and days out of the gym simply because your arms feel sore.
Firstly, working your upper body muscles could be difficult, and you probably won’t be able to workout with the same intensity.
In fact, you would be better off avoiding training your upper body for a few days.
However, working your lower body can certainly pay some great dividends and can even help with the muscular and strength development of your upper body.
You must remember that the largest muscles are in the lower body and therefore they provide a far greater metabolic reaction in the body when trained.
In effect, by training your legs you will release various hormones that help your entire body to grow (and recover).
So, I see nothing wrong with, say, having a quad-dominant workout, followed by a day of steady-state cardio for active recovery, and then a glute and hamstring-dominant day.
In fact, if you follow this up with another day of active recovery, you should be good to go, ready to work on your upper body again.
That being said, something else to consider if it’s your biceps that are sore is to train your triceps.
The triceps are the antagonistic (opposite) muscle group to the biceps.
Therefore, when you shorten one muscle, the opposing muscle lengthens.
By lengthening a muscle you are in effect stretching it, which of course can aid with recovery.
So, I see nothing wrong with alway performing a tricep workout with some additional ab exercises.
Once more, this allows you to train with minimal discomfort, but you can also help to speed up your recovery.
Abs & Tricep Workout
Other Reasons You Can’t Straighten Your Arms After a Bicep Workout
Okay, so far everything I have mentioned is related to DOMS.
But, could there be another reason for your inability to extend your arms?
Well unfortunately, when it comes to muscle soreness you always have to consider the potential for injury.
That being said, you will usually find that if you have injured yourself that the pain or soreness is noticeable almost immediately.
Admittedly, you may still be on a “workout high” and blood pumping through your veins at a rate of knots straight after your workout.
Therefore, you may not even notice the pain initially.
However, once everything’s settled down you find that not only can’t you straighten your arms, but the pain is also extremely intense and debilitating.
The first place to look is whether you’re feeling the pain in your tendons, as opposed to the actual biceps.
I’ll admit that this could be difficult to decipher, as let’s face facts, pain is pain.
However, if you’re feeling sore in the upper bicep tendon, so it will feel quite tender and painful near the front of the shoulder, this could indicate bicep tendonitis.
That being said, there are also tendons which attach the bicep to the elbow.
And if you have tendonitis in the tendons attached to your elbow, this could also explain why you’re finding it difficult to fully extend your arms.
Bicep Tendonitis Treatment & Exercises Explained
Muscle Strains & Tears
It is also possible that you could have strained or even torn your bicep or the surrounding muscles.
If this is the case the pain is likely to be far more extreme and you may even have issues with using your arms at all.
Realistically, if you are feeling a sharp pain and you’re really struggling to move your arms, you should seek immediate professional medical advice.
This, of course, is a far more serious injury than merely experiencing DOMS.
So, rather than making matters worse you should speak to your Doctor.
If you find that you’re experiencing a sharp pain in your inner elbow following your bicep workout this could be golfer’s elbow.
In fact, this pain and the fact that you can’t straighten your arm after the gym, could be caused by any number of exercises.
Officially known as Medial Epicondylitis, this could be another reason for not being able to straighten your arm.
However, this will feel very different from DOMS or tendon inflammation.
In fact, the soreness can be extremely painful.
This is typically brought about by overuse, poor form, or a training imbalance.
Golfer’s elbow could even be due to a poor diet or certain medications.
This, once again, should be dealt with by seeking professional medical advice.
10 Best Self-Treatments For Golfer’s Elbow
So, as you can see, the main reason you can’t straighten your arms after a bicep workout is due to delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Although there are a variety of reasons why you may experience DOMS, this mainly comes down to performing a workout that your muscles aren’t accustomed to.
This could be because you are new to exercise or returning after a long break.
Then again, simply performing a more intense workout, e.g. increased reps or sets, or decreased resting periods, can also cause DOMS.
The best way to recover will initially be rest and recovery.
However, good nutrition, drinking plenty of water, stretching, active recovery, massage, contrast baths, and ensuring you get adequate sleep, will all help with DOMS.
Finally, if you’re in a lot of pain and feel as though you can’t move your arms, you should seek immediate professional medical advice.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.