I know you’ve been hitting the gym hard and busting it in your training. You went to depth on every squat rep and pushed your reverse lunges to failure. Your quads are beat and your hamstrings burn. Your workout was tough. But let me tell you this, it didn’t build an ounce of muscle.
What if I tell you spending hours lifting, day in and day out, might actually stall your progress? The answer to this lies in your post-gym regime.
The opportunity for muscle growth begins the moment you stop lifting, and that growth can’t happen without proper recovery protocol. Recovery and rest are essential parts of any strength and conditioning program—and most coaches and trainers would argue it’s just as or more important than the lifting itself. Recovery must occur before progress can be made. It’s important for staying injury free, long-term consistent training, and maxing out from time to time.
Muscles don’t grow in the gym; they grow after. When you lift heavy, muscles suffer micro-tears and are actually broken down via a process called catabolism. Immediately after you lift, your body begins repairs, but it needs your help.
If you want to get the most from each and every workout, you need to prioritise post-workout recovery. Heed these tips to maximise recovery, stay on top of your game, and ensure maximum gains.
1. Push The Barrier, Don’t Annihilate It
“No pain, no gain!” has probably been spat in your face as you struggled to rack a one-rep max bench press. Pushing beyond your limits is a good thing, you tell yourself, but just how far should you push? It is important to hit the muscle just enough to create that needed stimulus for muscle growth, but not in completely destroying it to the point where your muscle hurts for days.
If you obliterate your body with every workout, your body will revert its energy to repairing the downstream effects of the damage rather than building muscle.
“The focus shouldn’t be on how fast you recover, but instead on how productive your recovery is”. If you constantly obliterate your body to complete and utter exhaustion with every workout, this damage accumulates over time and your body will revert its energy to repairing the downstream effects of the damage rather than building new muscle.
The trick is to “work out hard enough to push yourself past your comfort zones—trying to do more than you did the workout before, for example. Just don’t destroy yourself entirely.” By following this sage advice, you’ll make solid and steady progress rather than taking one step forward and two steps back.
2. Get Serious About Pre-Workout Nutrition
By now, most people understand that the foods they eat after their workout and throughout the day factor into the quality of their recovery. The foods you eat before a workout can also play an important role in pre-empting the tissue-rebuilding process once the workout is over.
Digestion is a lengthy process; proteins and carbs that you ingest prior to the workout will still be circulating in the body afterward. For this reason, choose your foods wisely. Make sure you get high-quality, lean protein along with some complex carbohydrates, especially if you plan on an intense workout. I personally have a small 200 calorie meal with some carbs and proteins, 45 minutes prior to heading to the gym. It may include a banana, or a couple slices of bread with cheese or peanut butter, or some almonds and an apple.
In addition to eating near your workouts, there have been substantial reported benefits of taking BCAAs before and during a workout, as well. BCAAs have been designed to encourage efficient absorption by the muscle cells. Having said that, I would like to add that I am not an advocate of supplements, and it is always down to your personal preferences. However, I do consume 1 serving of BCAA during my workout.
3. Don’t Skip The Stretching
Stretching probably doesn’t sound sexy (or even necessary) when all you want is size, but it might be the most underrated player in muscle growth. By not having the necessary flexibility and muscle pliability, you might short yourself on muscular gains in many compound lifts. For example, if your ankles are too tight, you can’t go deep enough in a squat to reap maximum benefits.
Barbara Bolotte, IFBB pro, stresses, “Make sure you allot at least 20 minutes after a workout to cool down and stretch. If you don’t plan for it, you are more likely to skip it.”
Stretching is a great way to relieve muscular tension and potentially downplay the soreness you experience later. “Prolonged stretching with moderate exercise and diet control will reduce cholesterol and significantly reverse hardening of the arteries,” notes Barbara. Knowing these things, more people should be taking stretching more seriously!
4. Perfect Your Post-Workout Protein
Go ahead and giggle at the burly types chugging their post-workout shake. While you chortle ’til you choke, they’re feeding their muscles the necessary fuel to grow and improve. Post-workout protein is vital, especially if you haven’t eaten anything for hours. Aim for 20-50 grams of protein after each workout depending on your bodyweight.
Whey protein is the most popular protein supplement, and for good reason: It is convenient, easy to mix, and it offers a rapid absorption rate that’s perfect after a tough training session. Don’t merely go for taste or cost. Invest in quality whey isolate to see a difference. Casein can also be on your route to the top. If your goal is to build size, you can prefer this type of protein, since it takes a significantly longer amount of time to absorb. There are many bodybuilders I have come across, who consume Whey proteins right after a workout, and Casein right before they go to bed.
One trick that I use to optimize my recovery is to drink about 30 grams of whey protein followed by lots of water and some carbs. “You need immediate, fast-acting carbohydrates during your post-workout window to replenish glycogen levels, restore energy, and bump up insulin levels”. “Insulin can be extremely anabolic at the right time, helping the restoration of muscle proteins by inhibiting protein breakdown and stimulating protein synthesis.”
5. Eat Potassium-Rich Foods
While we’re on the subject of post-workout nutrition, you should consider including a source of potassium in your post-workout cocktail. Your potassium reserves will inevitably be sapped from an intense workout session. Potassium, among other nutrients like sodium and calcium, is a key mineral which plays a role in muscular energy. Bananas or potatoes are good potassium sources. Bananas go with nearly everything, but mashed potatoes in your first meal following the workout are also winners.
6. Focus On Quality Sleep
Catching quality Zs seems like a no-brainer, but it’s still all to common to hear how many people get less than six hours of sleep.
“Sleep is not just for relaxing. This is the necessary downtime that your body needs to restore itself”. Sacrificing hours of sleep over a long period of time can even make you mentally weaker and negatively impact your drive in training sessions.
At least seven hours is the ideal target to hit, although many people, including athletes, may need up to nine hours. Find ways to make changes in your day that will allow you to get to bed earlier.
It has been shown that lack of adequate sleep can decrease and reduce tolerance to training, alter mood, increase perception of fatigue and negatively affect the physiological mechanisms responsible for adaptation from the stresses of training. Hormonal secretion during sleep is one of the most important factors influencing recovery; after all, the purpose of sleep is to induce a state of recovery in the body. Anabolic (muscle-building) hormone concentrations and activity increase during sleep while catabolic (muscle-wasting) hormone concentrations and activity decrease. Disrupted or shortened sleep will negatively influence the effects of these anabolic hormones.
Try to develop a regular sleeping routine where you go to bed at a similar time each night of the week. Remove distractions like light, smartphones, and TVs. If possible, try for 8 hours of sleep per night and/or fit in an afternoon power nap for 30 minutes to rejuvenate the body.
7. Do Some Active Recovery
Rest days give your muscles a hard-earned break from a self-induced beating at the gym. If you feel up to it, some light movement like walking to the store, an easy bike ride, throwing a Frisbee around, or even doing mobility drills could confer recovery-promoting effects as well. This is known as “active” recovery.
“Bodyweight exercises or light cardio after a heavy strength training session will help relieve soreness by stimulating blood flow and improving circulation to the muscles,” says Barbara. If you experience muscular tightness, she also points out that foam rolling can be an excellent way to combat this.
Light Cardio after a heavy strength training session will help relieve soreness by stimulating blood flow and improving circulation to the muscles.
8. Reduce Your Stress
Acute stress—like the kind you create from exercise—is a good thing. Chronic stress from other sources like work deadlines and inadequate sleep can significantly influence how you feel on a day-to-day basis as well as how quickly you recover. Too much stress can drastically protract your recovery time between workouts.
When intense workouts are thrown into the volatile combination of high chronic stress and an already overworked body, you are asking your body to eventually break down in the form of lackluster results or, worse, severe injury. Any form of stress in your life is going to take a toll on your overall well-being and your body’s capacity to take on anything further.
Take steps to reduce your stress level to ensure you can bounce back faster. Do something you really enjoy, make yourself laugh, and surround yourself with people you love.
9. Schedule “down” weeks and recovery workouts
The recovery process needs to be proactive, planned and effectively executed. It’s important to remember that you break your body down when you train (weights or cardio) – your energy stores are depleted, your muscles and other tissues are broken down and your body is in a fatigued state.
A lack of proper recovery can lead to overtraining otherwise known as under-recovery or over-reaching. Exhaustion can ensue if the training stimulus is too high or too frequent—so maxing on your bench every week is a big no-no! Worse yet, Overtraining Syndrome can develop if fatigue is not addressed, which can lead to a host of physiological and chemical changes. To put it simply, building fatigue upon fatigue results in the inability to adequately adapt, resulting in more fatigue, inflammation, missed lifts and shitty workouts.
Every 3-5 weeks, plan a recovery week. For all your main lifts, perform half the number of reps with sub-maximal loads. Perform less volume with your assistance lifts and leave the gym feeling refreshed and energized.
10. Schedule ample recovery time between workouts
Delayed onset muscle soreness—DOMS, for short—is a common sensation felt after lifting weights. Most trainees actually base the success or effectiveness of their training sessions on how sore they get; however, this is not a good way to think about your progress. Typically, DOMS is characterised by muscle tenderness, stiffness, and reduced joint range of motion, muscle flexibility and force production, about 24 hours after your training session. Compensating for muscle fiber damage and returning to the gym prematurely will increase your risk for injury potentially sending you in for physiotherapy.
Ensure you have 24-72 hours rest between intense training sessions involving the same musculature. Less rest is needed between sub-maximal training sessions.
Dehydration can reduce performance potential, but also delay the recovery process. Exercise and an increased metabolic rate both increase the body’s need for water and electrolytes. It has been suggested that the minimum amount of fluid intake per day for males is 3.7L/day and 2.7L/day for females.
You can also refer to a post I made earlier on hydration here : Health & Fitness 1.2 – Water And Walking : The most underrated activities, cause we love to complicate!
12. Get your nutrients
Recovery is a time where proper nutrition is essential. Protein sources are required to rebuild muscle tissue and to supply the building blocks for various cells, tissues, enzymes, and hormones. Depending on how often you train during the week, protein recommendations can range from 1.0 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.
Carbohydrates, on the hand, are muscles major source of energy; therefore, eating carbohydrates is essential at refueling your body’s glycogen stores. Your body refuels glycogen at a higher rate within 3.0 to 60 minutes post workout so it’s important to consume a post workout snack or shake during this time. It has also been shown that including a small amount of protein in this snack speeds up the rebuilding and recovery process.
13. Massage it out
Massage from a therapist or self-massage AKA self myofascial release (SMR) with foam rollers, massage sticks and even baseballs can reduce muscle stiffness, promote circulation and induce a state of relaxation in the muscle, although research has been equivocal. It might be painful during, but SMR can be performed the night of a hard workout to remove scar tissue, adhesions in the muscle and restrictions in the fascia (a type of connective tissue that wraps around the whole body).
Gently roll a baseball or massage stick over all major muscle groups until you find a sensitive spot. Apply direct pressure until the pain dissipates. Roll over the muscle again and repeat if necessary. Even if massage doesn’t speed up recovery, it might make you feel better compared to not getting massaged in the first place.
There are various other non-traditional methods that athletes swear by, in order to aid their recovery. However, they’re expensive and since an athlete’s livelihood depends on his/her body, it only makes sense for them to take excessive measures to take care of it.
- If you’ve noticed, during The Rio Olympics 2016, Michael Phelps had various red-purple spots all across his back and arms. Its the consequences of somethings called as “The Cupping Therapy” and Michael Phelps swears by it. And as a proud winner of 28 Olympic medals (23 of which are gold) and as a person who has more gold medals than 108 countries, I think his credibility cannot be questioned.
- You must’ve seen a lot of athletes step into tubs filled with ice or ice-cold water as they believe a cold dip of 20-30 minutes significantly improves their way to recovery.
- Another advanced procedure to that is Cryotherapy. Cryotherapy is widely used to relieve muscle pain, sprains and swelling either via soft tissue damage or postoperative swelling. It can be a range of treatments from the very low technology application of ice packs or immersion in ice baths (generally known as cold therapy) to the use of cold chambers (whole body or partial body cryotherapy) and or face masks or body cuffs with controlled temperature, sometimes called hilotherm.
As you now hopefully know, recovery is a crucial component of any fitness-related goal. Whether you want to get stronger, faster, or better, you’ll need to weave each of these tips into your daily recovery plan to ensure that you get the results you want out of your hard work! Do you have any secret recovery tips you swear by? Or have come across more athletes that swear by a different procedure? I’d love to hear them in the comments below!