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One of the downsides of working out is waking up so sore you swear you did something wrong. Even if it’s not that bad, just waking up and not feeling like you can perform optimally still sucks. Well, to be honest, chances are you did do something wrong because recovery is a vital part of training, not a punishment. In other words, some people think that being sore AF is some kind of achievement, or they just don’t know how to properly train to OPTIMIZE their recovery.
That’s right, learning how to recover properly will actually enhance your training. Still, there are a lot of workout recovery methods out there that claim to be the best, so we’re going to review some of the most common methods and what we believe to be the best methods for recovery.
This post will go over:
Get ready to learn the art of doing nothing (not really, there’s more to recovery than binging Netflix!)
At its most basic definition, recovery is just the process of healing and recovering from your workouts. It starts the minute you perform your last rep and ends once you perform another rep in the next session. That being said, recovery can be either passive (you don’t do anything to enhance recovery) or active (you’re actively taking steps to try and improve recovery). Furthermore, workout recovery can include modifying your diet or supplementation to enhance the healing process from exercise induced muscle damage. All in all, recovery is a vital part of training and is actually a necessary step in physiological adaptations.
“Muscles are built in the bed.” Yet another meme, which we generally hate, that actually holds a lot of wisdom. What we mean is that when you go to the gym, you are actually stressing the muscles that are causing the buildup of fatigue as well as muscle damage. If you think about it, you are actually weaker and beaten down when you leave the gym compared to when you go to the gym. Again, this is fine and truly necessary to grow.
When you go home, your body starts running a slew of different processes to help restore your body and repair your muscles. This is done primarily through proper nutrition and sleep. However, what happens after your recovery is your body restores your muscles and physiological systems to be a little bit stronger in a process known as supercompensation. In fact, this process is what allows the principle of progressive overload.
As you can see, muscle breakdown and recovery is a GOOD thing. However, in order to maximize the benefits, you need to have the perfect balance between training and recovery. It really is a balancing act.
Out of all the things you can do to optimize your recovery, proper programming is THE MOST IMPORTANT!!! It doesn’t matter how much glutamine you stuff down your throat or how long you sit in an ice bath; if your programming contains way too much intensity and volume, you’re not going to recover. This is why it's important to put together a well-thought-out program using FITT principle guidelines. While different “tricks” you hear may (or may not) be effective, they can’t reverse improper training. In other words, they can help you recover faster IF your fatigue and volume are manageable.
The first thing you need to do is have at least 48 hours of recovery between significant muscle groups. To be clear, this doesn’t necessarily mean two full days before your next exercise session. If you train at noon on Monday, 48 hours later would be Wednesday at noon. So basically, this just means don’t train the same muscle group every day. Studies show that this generally gives the muscle enough time for recovery, but this also assumes you’re using an appropriate amount of volume1.
An extensive range of 10-20 sets per muscle group per week tends to be the given guideline. At the same time, this is assuming you’re using sets of 6-20 reps. In other words, this number doesn’t apply if you’re following a strength or powerlifting routine. Regardless, what this means is that if we use the average number of 3 sets per exercise (i.e., 3x8), this means you shouldn’t do any more than 7 exercises in a week (3X7= 21 sets).
While we routinely will do more than this once in a while, you definitely can’t do 40 sets a week and think you’re ok because you rested for 48 hours. While you might be able to do more than 20 sets a week once in a while, you’d want to program so that while you may do 25 sets one week, the next week, you might want to chill out and do 10 sets. As we said above, it’s a balancing act.
For more volume guidelines, check out our article: How Many Exercises & Sets Should I Do Per Muscle Group & Workout?
An awesome way to not only optimize your training but improve your recovery is to use deloads as well as follow some form of basic periodization. Deloads are just weeks of training when you will decrease the intensity and/or volume of your training. The most common method is to simply keep the same rep scheme but just cut the load by 50%. Easy peasy. While intermediate and advanced lifters may take a deload week every 4 weeks, most people can probably get away with 6 weeks. Also, instead of just cutting your load in half, you can also take a deload to work on other areas such as mobility or work on a technical move. At the end of the day, this is just a method of giving your body an extended amount of time to fully recover so think of it as a time to work on things you’ve wanted but can’t.
At the same time, you can use periodization. Periodization refers to the method of altering the load and intensity of your training throughout a cycle. The easiest example would be that you might train hypertrophy for 3 months and then train for strength for 3 months, and so on. One of the best ways is a form known as Daily Undulating Periodization or DUP. This means that you change the training variable on a session per session basis. Again, this just allows you to apply a different stimulus which can mitigate fatigue (training for strength and hypertrophy can cause fatigue slightly differently).
A major area where lifters mess up with workout recovery is nutrition. They either don’t eat an appropriate amount of calories or don’t eat the right stuff. It’s not that hard if you follow some basic guidelines.
Other than your essential nutrition, there are lots of claims regarding certain supplements that help recovery. One of the main ones you hear about is glutamine. Unfortunately, while glutamine is vital for recovery, supplementing hasn’t shown to provide any sort of measurable difference in studies. Basically, if you’re eating a proper amount of protein, you are already eating a sufficient amount of glutamine, and taking more doesn’t appear to provide additional benefits. In fact, The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) has glutamine listed as “Little To No Evidence” in terms of its efficacy2.
In fact, assuming you’re eating enough protein, the only supplement that can help speed up the recovery process is creatine. While creatine is generally regarded as a muscle-building supplement, studies have shown that it can also increase the effectiveness of recovery3.
There may also be evidence that drinking amino acids as well as carbohydrates during workouts can also improve recovery times. And, timing your protein shake so you're supplying your muscles with protein post-workout, before bed, and as a snack throughout the day, will better help your muscles to repair and rebuild.
A relatively new area of research that offers promising hope in terms of enhanced recovery and improved physiological adaptations is pre-sleep protein. Studies show that taking 30-40g of a casein protein shake 30 minutes prior to sleeping can improve adaptations to resistance training and decrease recovery time4. This is an easy and effective way to improve recovery while you sleep! You literally get benefits when you’re doing nothing; seems like a pretty obvious choice to us.
Inadequate consumption of vitamins is another that people mess up. People often forget that vitamins play multiple vital roles in various physiological systems, including muscle tissue repair and growth. Some of the top vitamins named for muscle recovery are:
Just be sure that you’re adequate amounts, and if you need, you could pop a multivitamin.
Active recovery is one of our favorite methods (actually, it’s our favorite after the best form listed below!) to enhance recovery. The simplest definition of active recovery is a low-intensity (light) exercise that’s performed after a more intense training session to enhance recovery. This can be done on the same day or on rest days.
For example, this study found that active recovery at slower intensity performed after a 200m freestyle swims resulted in faster blood lactic acid removal. However, keep in mind that this is only one part of recovery5. However, another study found that cycling at low intensity in between Wingate tests produced better performance variables6.
Further, there’s a ton of anecdotal evidence, including personal experience, that can attest to the fact that light active recovery can drastically reduce DOMS and muscle stiffness. As far as what type of exercise, simply walking with intent can be all you need. Ideally, you will have easy access to an Air Bike or some other machine that utilizes legs and arms. One of our favorite practices is to get in a 30 min walk sometime in the evening after we have worked out. It’s easy, free, and can definitely help improve your recovery.
Massage for recovery has grown significantly in recent years, particularly trigger point and myofascial release. But first, sports massage.
As far as basic sports massage, meta-analyses show very limited evidence that can improve performance or speed up recovery7. To be fair, other reviews have shown possible favorable benefits with massage, but we also need to consider messages aren’t free8. Being that you may spend $25-50 per 15-minute session, most trainees can’t afford this to be part of their regular workout routine. Instead, we’d suggest saving that money and getting a nice Swedish massage once a month just because “Treat yo self!”
Myofascial release and trigger point massage is another story. Completely opposite to sports massage, myofascial release does consistently show positive benefits in terms of muscle soreness and muscle recovery in meta-analyses. In other words, while rolling around on a pointy log can hurt like hell, you won’t feel so bad afterward9. Plus, trigger point rollers are pretty cheap and relatively easy to learn how to do by yourself. This makes it a reasonable choice for anyone looking for an effective and affordable means to help recovery.
One form of recovery that’s not often talked about is being involved in cross-training. Cross-training is being involved in multiple sports at the same time. How this might look is that you may go to the gym 3 days a week, cycle 2 days a week, and swim 1 day a week. What this does is allows you to still train but use different muscle groups and movement patterns. Now, we understand this may or may not be reasonable for some people depending on their situation or goal, BUT if you are able, we’d highly suggest getting involved with some other type of athletics.
Other than active recovery, lately, there has been a slew of methods and products that have been suggested to help speed up recovery. What we are referring to our things like:
We’re going to save you a lot of time and let you know that first and foremost, there is limited evidence to support any of these for weight lifting. Actually, there are ice bath benefits for elite athletes (who train much harder and longer than an hour in the gym), but studies show they can actually impede muscle growth and strength for strength athletes10.
If your gym does have a sauna, studies show that heat may provide some benefit, so it may be worth your while11. If you're interested in learning more about heat therapy, be sure to check out our article on the sauna vs. steam room for muscle recovery.
You could also consider getting a sauna blanket for at-home use. There are some great sauna blanket benefits that may help with recovery.
The one method that can guarantee you have better recovery is SLEEP! It’s almost annoying that guys will complain about being sore, buy a ton of supplements and tools, and then get 4 hours of sleep. Sleep is literally your body’s built-in recovery system, and skipping out on it is one of the worst things you can do if you’re an athlete. While above we said programming is the most important, sleep takes that spot IF your programming is in check. If you are having trouble with recovery and muscle soreness, but not getting enough shut eye, you’re shooting yourself in the foot, and NOTHING can reverse the effects of poor sleep. Just sleep! Sleep is one of the most effective ways to reduce muscle soreness (aka DOMS).
As you can see, there are a lot of factors that can play a role in optimal muscle recovery and growth. However, you will see that the most significant factors have nothing to do with performing a particular exercise or wearing tights. The most important factors for post workout muscle recovery and muscle soreness are:
After this, active recovery and myofascial release are your next best friends for recovery. At the end of the day, recovery is a vital part of the process, and it will take some time for you to be able to find the right balance for yourself. Some people can handle higher volumes of training, while some can handle high loads. Not everyone is the same, and it’s up to you to find the perfect balance of training and muscle recovery for yourself. And now that you know how to best recover, let's figure out exactly how long does it take for muscles to grow.
Related: How to Avoid Burnout & Overtraining
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