If you have recently started exercising after a long layoff or you have a good enough memory to recall when you did, then you are probably aware of the need for recovery from training. Performing a handful of light barbell squats on a Monday and then being unable to walk up stairs from Tuesday to Thursday should be a clear enough message!
This is an example of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and you’ll probably have noticed that the more frequently you train, the less this has affected you. This is because your muscles have grown accustomed to training, sure if you go hard in a session you’ll feel it the next day, but it’s not the same as it was before.
This sensation can lead people to forget the importance of proper recovery. Taking a day off from the weight room is seen as counter-intuitive to getting results, but actually, it is essential. In this article, we are going to discuss the importance of adequate recovery from exercise, and discuss some of the most important strategies.
The Benefits Of Recovery
When you perform a bicep curl you probably feel that you are directly causing muscle growth. Technically you are, but there is much more going on than just a dumbbell leading to bigger muscles. Without adequate calories, particularly protein, the muscle will not be able to grow even if you’re training.
So nutrition is important, as is technique. Full range of motion is necessary for optimal growth, as is time under tension (i.e., tempo), and adequate rest between sets. Finally, you have recovery, this is where the muscle repairs and rebuilds bigger, stronger muscle fibers. Lifting weights lead to increases in mechanical tension and metabolic stress. This, in turn, leads to increased fiber recruitment, cellular swelling (the pump), and an increase in acute hormonal response (although this has less of an impact on muscle growth than previously thought).
It also causes muscle damage, an essential factor in muscle growth, but also the cause of muscle inflammation and soreness. Without going into too much detail about how all of this leads to increased muscle size and strength, what you need to understand is that post-exercise a process called muscle protein synthesis occurs (provided you have adequate recovery practices in place).
Protein synthesis is the use of proteins (mostly from dietary protein intake) to repair damaged muscle fibers and help rebuild and repair them. The order looks something like this:
Exercise → Mechanical Tension, Metabolic Stress, Muscle Damage → Protein Synthesis → Recovery → Increased Size and/or Strength
This is a very simplified explanation, but it drives the point home that without protein synthesis and recovery (you need proper recovery for protein synthesis to be optimal) you will not see increases in size and strength. Now even someone following the world’s worst recovery protocol will still be able to recover to some extent just by not exercising, and taking performance-enhancing drugs can help speed up recovery massively. But having optimal recovery will always lead to the best results.
Proper recovery from exercise will not only lead to strength and hypertrophy gains, it can also reduce discomfort after a session and reduce the risk of injury.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
Delayed onset muscle soreness (known as DOMS) is a common issue for brand new gym goers and more experienced lifters who may have pushed themselves further than usual during a session. While the symptoms of DOMS and regular recovery can be very similar, DOMS is usually a more extreme version, instead of slight muscle tiredness, you may experience actual pain (not injury) and discomfort.
Another difference is that the symptoms of DOMS may not manifest themselves for a day or so. Many people may not feel much discomfort the day after a workout, but then really notice pain the day after that. The symptoms of DOMS can last for 3-5 days, particularly in first-time lifters who have gone all out during their first session.
DOMS is thought to be caused by eccentric movements (muscle lengthening) rather than concentric or isometric. An example of an eccentric movement would be slowly returning the dumbbell back down after curling it up during the bicep curl. A controlled and slow eccentric movement will cause more muscle damage and micro tears .
If you are a brand new lifter, or you are a regular lifter who has been away from training for a month or so, there is little you can do to avoid delayed onset muscle soreness. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t lessen the effects.
Training within your limitations is a good way to do so, only training for 30-40 minutes with a full warm up and cool down will also help (rather than starting off with a 90-minute mega session – which so many people misguidedly do). Keeping exercise intensity quite low is probably the best way to reduce DOMS.
You can also look at your recovery strategies. While the rest of this article will hopefully impress on you how important recovery is, this goes double for preventing (or recovering from) DOMS. Your body is always trying to reach equilibrium, in science this is known as homeostasis. If you are in a hot country your body will try to reduce your body temperature, if you are in a cold country your body will shiver to increase your body temperature. The same thing goes for hormone regulation and many other functions. Exercise and recovery are no exception.
Immediately after you have finished exercising your body is looking to return to homeostasis. This is known as metabolic recovery, and it involves your body trying to regulate your metabolic rate and oxygen consumption . When you exercise at a high intensity you can end up using more oxygen than you are breathing in, this builds up what is known as an oxygen debt. After finishing a workout one of the first forms of recovery is increasing breathing to pay that debt.
You will also notice a reduction in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), or more accurately you probably won’t notice it! NEAT is a measure of all the movements and activities that you perform during the day that are not classed as exercise. They can range from high-calorie activities such as carrying some heavy bags of shopping back from the store, to low-calorie activities such as fidgeting or not being able to sit still during a long movie.
Studies have noticed that people unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) move less after a hard workout. Think about the hardest workout you’ve done in years after that workout do you remember lying comatose on the couch? Exactly. This is your body trying to rebalance itself, lowering your metabolic rate and helping you to recover.
The Difference Between Rest And Recovery
There is a difference between rest and recovery, In fact, rest is an aspect of recovery. Rest is a passive thing, not exercising for a couple of days is rest. Lying down on the floor for an hour after an intense deadlifting session is a form of rest. You’re not actively doing anything to improve your recovery, you’re just resting.
Recovering from exercise is an active process . Utilizing any of the recovery strategies that we mention in this article is doing something active to improve your natural recovery time. Even sleeping more is active, because you are setting aside more time to sleep, and acting on that. Hopefully, that makes sense!
Differences Between Long Term And Short Term Recovery
One more thing that we should mention before listing the different forms of recovery that are available to you is that there is a difference between short-term recovery and long-term recovery. Short-term recovery is the most common form of recovery, it affects everyone from casual gym goers to elite athletes.
It is a reactive process for most – in other words, you wake up stiff and tired after a workout and look for ways to recover. Short-term recovery usually lasts 2-3 days after a workout and will involve all of the different strategies we are about to mention.
Long-term recovery is often only used by athletes or bodybuilders/fitness models. In truth, anyone who trains 3-4 times per week for months on end should also consider utilizing it, but few do. Long-term recovery is about reducing workload for certain periods – usually after a competition or sporting event.
This comes up a lot in strength and conditioning programs and involves reducing training volume (i.e., lowering training from 4-6 times per week to 1-2 times) for a week or even two depending on the volume and intensity leading up to that point. All of the usual recovery strategies are also used, as they would be throughout the year. If someone feels that they are suffering from overtraining then a long-term recovery strategy is usually one of the first changes that they should make.
The Different Forms Of Recovery
Now that you have a good idea about why recovery from intense exercise is important, what the difference between rest and recovery is, and the difference between short and long-term recovery is, we can look at the different forms of recovery that are available.
Recovery Strategy #1: Sleep
It is incredible how underrated a good night’s sleep is, a 2011 study by Mah et al in Sleep journal found that extending sleep led to a significantly improved performance in collegiate basketball players . Similar studies have also found improvements in mood and cognition.
You can increase your sleep time by going to bed earlier, waking up later, or napping during the day. Many professional sports teams have started taking post-exercise naps very seriously, particularly teams such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Manchester United who have even set up special rooms for their sports stars to sleep in.
Improving sleep quality is also important, having a specific bedtime that you follow every day will help your body to fall asleep quicker. Avoiding electronic devices for 30 minutes before bedtime is also a common way to improve sleep quality.
Other changes to make include buying a better mattress and pillows, getting room temperature perfect, meditating before bed, and consuming foods such as casein protein, milk, or cottage cheese that contain the amino acid tryptophan – which can help improve sleep (while the casein can improve recovery – but more on that later).
Recovery Strategy #2: Nutrition
Getting your nutrition right is the most important factor in how well you recover from exercise, and how good your results are from exercising. Increasing your water intake to deal with the number of fluids lost during training is a really important job. But the most well known nutritional strategy for recovery is increasing your protein intake.
A study In the Journal of Applied Physiology (1992) by Tarnopolsky et al found that athletes require twice as much protein as regular, sedentary people . This is mostly due to the increased use of protein for protein synthesis, but it is also partly due to the fact that because athletes burn more calories, they need to consume more calories to compensate.
Many lifters believe that you need to take your protein immediately after a workout to prevent muscle loss (catabolism). This timeframe is referred to as the “anabolic window”. But this is incorrect, an article in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (2012) by Aragon & Schoenfeld found that overall protein intake for the day was what mattered  not when you took protein.
Making sure that you are eating enough protein, from a variety of sources (which helps provide what’s known as a complete protein profile) will help fuel protein synthesis and therefore recovery. Consuming carbohydrates and fats are also important as they can fuel recovery, reduce inflammation, and protect your immune system – plus a hundred other benefits.
Recovery Strategy #3: Soft Tissue Work
Myofascial release is a common recovery strategy that has caused a lot of debate/controversy within the fitness world. The idea behind the Myofascial release is that the fascia covering muscles can be manipulated to help reduce inflammation, pain, and stiffness. Adherents also claim that Myofascial release can improve flexibility and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness.
There have been many studies that have poked holes in these claims. A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association found that the amount of force required to affect fascia is more than a human could exert . Meaning that you can’t change the shape or flexibility of fascia using traditional techniques.
Other studies have failed to find a significant improvement in range of motion , or an improvement in sporting/gym performance . That does not mean that Myofascial release has no benefits though. Foam rolling (the most common form of Myofascial release) has been shown to reduce fatigue in muscles when used pre-workout (while recovering from the previous day’s workout).
There is also a lot of evidence that foam rolling can reduce post-exercise soreness , though not DOMS. What does this mean? There seem to be some benefits to foam rolling, it can reduce fatigue in the muscles and may alleviate some soreness mainly due to neurophysiological changes. But there appears to be no direct evidence that it can improve your performance or long-term flexibility. Nevertheless, as a recovery tool, there is definitely some merit to using it but you don’t need to spend 20-30 minutes foam rolling. 🙂
Recovery Strategy #4: Stretching
As with Myofascial release, stretching has been the subject of much debate. It used to be the most common recovery tool, with immediate post-exercise stretching being a very popular cooldown. Now, most people in the fitness industry avoid static stretching as it has been shown to weaken muscles by relaxing them and reducing blood flow. The increase in blood flow is essential for muscle recovery.
But a study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning (2016) found that very short bursts of static stretching (15-20 seconds) can actually improve performance . This means that you can add short static stretching into your recovery strategy, just keep them to a 15-20 second hold per muscle (with a maximum time of about 60 seconds per muscle group).
In addition, by coupling your post-workout static stretching with some diaphragmatic breathing, we can help switch the body more quickly from a sympathetic state (i.e., fight or flight) to a parasympathetic state (i.e., rest and digest) which is better for the recovery process.
Recovery Strategy #5: Active Recovery
Other than nutrition and sleep, active recovery is probably the best strategy for recovery. An example of active recovery is walking 10,000 steps on a day off, doing some yoga, doing some easy bodyweight exercises, or going for a light jog. It’s exercising but in a low-intensity way. This will increase blood flow to the muscles and can help to reduce pain and stiffness.
Active recovery is a very common strategy in professional sports, where players come in the day after a big game just to use an exercise bike or go through some easy drills. It is also good for people looking to lose weight, for two reasons. One, it’s a good calorie burner on its own and helps establish a daily routine of exercise. Secondly, it can reverse a common issue, where stiffness and pain lead to a reduction in NEAT (mentioned above).
Other Recovery Strategies: Massage, Cryotherapy, Ultrasound, Homeopathy
There are many other recovery strategies, sauna, massage, cryotherapy, ultrasound, and homeopathy. While some may have a couple of benefits (sauna, massage, and cryotherapy), a lot of them are less effective. The reason that none of these strategies are on this list are that they all require a second person or access to expensive equipment.
Now you have a good idea of why you should use recovery strategies after intense exercise, and know which recovery practices are most effective it’s time to start implementing them into your training program. Here is an example of what a typical 3 days of training/recovery would look like.
Day #1: Training
- Dynamic Warm Up (see my Beginner’s Guide to Movement Preparation post for a routine)
- Total Body Strength Training (see my An Introduction to Strength Training post for a routine)
- Static Stretching – 15-20 second holds per muscle group (up to about 60 seconds of total time per muscle group)
- Post-workout protein shake (if you didn’t have a pre-workout meal with protein)
- Drink a glass or two of water as well for hydration
- Sleep 8-10 hours
Day #2: Active Recovery
- Low-intensity exercise – long walk, cycle, elliptical, yoga, medium distance jog, mobility circuit
- Foam Rolling (if required)
- Static stretching – 15-20 second holds per muscle group (up to about 60 seconds of total time per muscle group)
- Sleep 8-10 hours
Day #3: Training
- Foam Rolling (if required)
- Dynamic Warm Up
- Total Body Strength Training
- Repeat Recovery Strategy from Day 1
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