Hitting it hard in the gym feels great but, without recovery, you’re risking injury. And we don’t want that. Here’s how to get the balance right.
“The pain you feel today, will be the strength you feel tomorrow.”
“No pain. No gain.”
“Go hard or go home.”
Ah, who doesn’t love a stereotypical fitness quote?
Short, punchy sentences that will have you believe that if you want to make real changes to your body and fitness then the only thing you need to focus on is going all out in the gym, pushing your limits and embracing the burn.
Whilst it’s true that to change your physique you’ll have to go outside your comfort zone (20 heavy squats anyone?), it’s important to remember that you should only train to an intensity that you’re able to fully recover from.
It’s all well and good downing a pre-workout as you walk into the gym ready to ‘destroy’ a set of 30kg dumbbells or ‘smash’ your HIIT routine – but without sufficient recovery protocols in place this approach will eventually (likely sooner rather than later) catch up on you and your body.
Take it from somebody that knows first-hand.
Recovery is crucial
Back in my early twenties, like most other guys that age, I thought I was invincible when it came to lifting weights – my recovery didn’t even get an afterthought.
At the time I had a deadlift PB of 140kg but I was desperate to join the 200kg club.
So, I decided to do this by adding 10kg to my deadlift every four weeks (if you’re shaking your head at me at this very moment, don’t worry, so am I).
The first two months went as planned.
140kg shot up to 150kg which then stuttered its way up to 160kg the following month.
It was time for the 170kg attempt.
I loaded up the bar for my new personal best and stood over it feeling strong and powerful. I reached down, gripped the bar with all my mite, took a breath into the depths of my stomach, locked into position and drove my feet hard into the floor. I pulled the bar up and…
Snap. Crackle. Pop.
No, I wasn’t thinking of my favourite childhood cereal.
That noise came from my lower back.
It was at this point I knew I had to focus on training smarter, not harder, and start making recovery a priority.
Pushing your body to its limits in the gym is great and is needed in order to progress and build muscle. However, you need to be careful that all your hard work isn’t just getting washed down the drain along with the dribbles of your post workout protein shake.
It’s vital that you take the appropriate measures to recover from the stress that you put your muscles under in the gym to, ultimately, avoid injury.
The last thing you want is all your progress to come to a dead stop from a deadlift gone wrong.
So, to help you on your way with actually looking after your body, I’ve put together a list of seven things you can do that will help with your recovery. Just quickly, before we get into it, it’s worth mentioning…
The misconception about muscle growth
It’s a common belief amongst gym-goers that they’re getting stronger and bigger whilst pumping iron in the gym.
This is often due to “the pump” they feel, which gives you a bigger appearance because your muscles are flooded with blood. In actual fact, you’re technically getting weaker.
When you put your body under stress it’s not used to, it causes little micro-tears in your muscle fibres. In that very moment, it reduces your strength – but it’s ultimately what gives your body a reason to grow.
And it’s outside of the gym that this growth occurs.
Recovery leads to results
You may have heard the term “over-training” before but, for most of us, what is likely happening is a case of “under-recovering”.
So, how exactly do you go about recovering properly in order to maximise your results and gym performance?
Let’s get stuck in. Here are my top seven tips to rapidly increase your recovery.
1. Incorporate de-load sessions into your programme
De-loads are when you drop the volume of your workouts so that your central nervous system (CNS) gets a break and some time to recuperate from previous sessions. It’s important, however, not to confuse a drop-in volume with a drop-in intensity. You should still put 100% effort and concentration into your de-load workouts.
This isn’t an excuse for a day off.
De-loads are typically factored into training programmes every four weeks but they can be included as and when you feel you need them. Learning to listen to your body is a skill you should definitely master.
As a good rule of thumb, incorporate a de-load week into your programme when your training starts to plateau.
You can lower the volume of your workouts by:
- Dropping the number of sets performed for each exercise
- Decreasing the number of reps performed per set
- Lifting a smaller percentage of your 1 rep max
- Increasing rest periods between sets
2. Start foam rolling
Now, I can’t go through an entire article about recovery without talking about DOMS. Oh yeah.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is the by-product of inflammation in the muscles due to those micro-tears we talked about. They’re caused during training and it’s what gives you that sore, stiff sensation in the days following training.
Though it might give you a sense of pride, for having hit a workout hard, DOMS can be as enjoyable as having your 4th plate of plain chicken and rice in a single day, so it’s a good idea to try and reduce it the best you can.
One study has shown that foam rolling can help decrease the effects of DOMS and speed up the recovery process, with the biggest benefits seen 48-hours post-exercise.
Either before or after your workout – both ideally – grab a foam roller and spend 10-15 minutes working the tension and knots out of your muscles.
It can be uncomfortable at times but bear with it and reap the benefits over the following days. Obviously, if you’re crying in pain then stop foam rolling and go see a doctor…
3. Get plenty of sleep
This is probably the most overlooked aspect of recovery.
In fact, it could be the most overlooked factor for good health in general because, when you don’t get enough sleep, your body doesn’t get the chance to fully recharge, physically or mentally.
It’s when you’re sleeping that your body kicks into recovery mode and starts to repair the damage you caused to those muscle fibres during your workout.
In general, you want to aim for around 7-9 hours sleep per night. The optimal number of hours varies from person to person, it’s really just a case of finding out what works best for you.
Here are some tips to help you get a good night’s kip:
- Put away your phone/screens 1-2 hours before bed and STICK TO IT
- Write down your thoughts to clear your head
- Minimise your coffee intake after 3pm each day
- Drink plenty water throughout the day
- Black out your room, natch
- Start to unwind 1-2 hours before bed – try reading or listening to music, not TV
- Keep bed time consistent
- Have naps, when possible, if you struggle to get a full night’s sleep
4. Get your nutrition right
If sleep has the starring role for recovery then your nutrition plays best supporting actor.
Not only is it important to mind how much you’re eating but also what you’re eating.
To recover properly, you need to make sure you eat enough calories each day. How many calories exactly? It depends on your goal. You can use a macro calculator to easily find out your calorie targets, whether your goal is to build muscle, lose fat or just maintain your weight.
When the goal is fat loss, however, you want your deficit to be as small as possible whilst still yielding fat loss results. This will give your body the best chance of repairing itself and will provide enough energy to get you through tough workouts.
When it comes to what you eat, the goal should be to focus your attention on whole, nutrient-dense, high-volume options. To put it simply: ‘clean’ foods, #cleaneating.
For a full and quick recovery, it’s vital to give your body the nutrients it needs to stay healthy and function properly. Your body can only work with the fuel you put into it, so make sure your giving it what it needs.
The other key aspect of nutrition is making sure you stay hydrated during the day.
Drinking plenty of water before, during and after your workouts will mean your body can regulate its temperature and properly lubricate your joints.
And all those nutrients you’re going to be taking in? Well, you need water to transport them around your body.
Fail to keep your body hydrated and you risk tiredness, a drop in physical output, muscle cramps and digestion problems. Not a lot of fun.
How much water you actually need will differ from person to person but a good goal to set is around two litres per day.
5. Nail your post-workout meals
Its long been believed that, to recover after a hard workout, you need to neck a protein shake immediately afterwards so that you don’t miss out on the “anabolic window”.
This just isn’t the case, especially if you’ve had a meal 2-3 hours beforehand.
Thankfully you can be a lot more relaxed about when you eat after your workout but it’s advised you have a meal that puts both protein and carbohydrates (simple or complex) on the plate. This helps with the muscle repairing process and replacing glycogen stores, your muscles’ main energy source.
That said, feel free to have a protein shake post-workout if you aren’t hungry after training or if it’s a more convenient way to help reach your overall protein targets for the day. Just know it doesn’t have any miracle effect on muscle growth or recovery.
6. Stay active on rest days
If you’re anything like me you will hate having rest days away from the gym. Unfortunately, they are an essential part of the recovery process.
This doesn’t mean you have to sit around all day watching the clock tick by, waiting for your next opportunity to pick up a barbell.
Staying active on your rest day is a great way to flush fresh, nutrient-rich blood into your muscles, helping them to recover quicker.
I also find it helps to reduce the effect of DOMS, which can leave you feeling tight and stiff if you sit around for too long.
Try simple activities such as walking, running or a few straightforward bodyweight exercises or stretches at home to keep yourself moving and mobile.
7. Be smart when programming your routines
A well-designed workout plan will do wonders for helping you recover fully.
For natural trainees, it’s recommended to work each muscle group at least twice a week. But workouts need to be planned so they don’t train the same muscle group on consecutive days, which wouldn’t allow enough time for recovery.
When you break down muscle tissue, your body repairs itself through a process called ‘protein synthesis’. This process lasts for around 48-hours before the body reverts back to normal and stops the process of repairing and building muscle.
In layman’s terms, this means we want to allow at least 1-2 days’ rest before training the same muscle group again.
Depending on how many days a week you train, a programme made up of two full body workouts, one upper body and one lower body workout, spaced evenly throughout the week, is a good place to start. For example:
Monday – rest day (get walking!)
Tuesday – Full body
Wednesdays – Lower body
Thursday – Rest day (stretches?)
Friday – Upper body
Saturday – Full body
Sunday – Rest day
Invest in rest
Unfortunately, it often takes a serious injury or total burn-out for us to realise how important the recovery process is for training and for being in good health overall.
But, remember, progressing with your physique and fitness isn’t just about what you do during the one hour in the gym, it’s what you do with the other 23 that really counts.
Do you have any of your own tips for recovery? Share them below.