“You don’t get stronger from lifting weights. You get stronger from recovering from lifting weights.”
Those words, from Dan Giuliani, CSCS, founder of Volt Athletics and adjunct professor at the University of Washington, are all you need to know about the importance of recovery.
When it comes to any kind of exercise program, no matter your goals or your specialty, recovery is the real secret to progress and results.
And while it's a lot more fun to tinker with your weekly mileage, your heart rate, your max bench, and all of the actual training, the biggest changes you'll see happen after you learn to master recovery.
Here are 5 ways to bounce back faster, reduce injury, feel better, and transform your body.
Muscle Recovery Tip #1: Listen to Your Heart (Rate)
Your goal is to feel as good as possible every day. Now, that doesn't mean your muscles won't be sore, but it does mean you shouldn't feel crushed or lethargic or feel like you need to crawl back into bed at the thought of going to the gym.
A lot of recovery is understanding when your body is just sore and when it really needs a break. The answer is hiding (not-so-secretly) in your heart rate. Taking your resting heart rate is one of the best ways to know if you need a break or if you need to step up your post-workout recovery strategies. Here's how to do it.
Step 1: Take your resting heart rate every morning for a week and determine your average before starting a new program. This is your baseline.
Step 2: Whenever you're feeling a little too sore or your muscles are exhausted, test your resting heart rate first thing in the morning.
Step 3: If you’re resting heart rate is jumping up, typically by 10 beats per minute or more, you need more recovery (take off an additional 1 to 2 days) or schedule a "deload" period (see below).
Muscle Recovery Tip #2: Deload (Don't Disappear)
Schedule a “recovery” week every three or four weeks of intense training. This doesn't even necessarily mean stopping all training (although it can). This "deload" allows your body to adapt to the stresses of consistent exercise and prepare for a spike in your performance after the recovery week, Giuliani says.
Recovery doesn’t mean you have to sofa-surf with a bag of Bugles. You can spend off-days doing things like foam rolling and stretching or alternative activities that you don’t usually do. Or, you can do a variation of your regular routine but scaled way back.
“The mistake that’s often made with athletes and coaches working through a recovery week is that they fill the time with something that creates equal stress, like maybe doing a bunch of sprints because they like the feeling of a hard, fatiguing workout,” Giuliani says. “But that’s not really unloading—that’s just transferring the stress and stressing the athlete in a different way.”
So, the goal during a recovery week is to really reduce your time under tension—the volume of work you’re doing, as measured by both time and the load.
A deload can work in many ways. You can try adjusting any of the following variables:
Sets: Do fewer sets per exercise, so instead of 3 sets per exercise do 2.
Reps: Do fewer reps; so instead of 10 reps per exercise, try doing 6 reps at the same weight.
Weight: Use about 60% of the weight, but maintain the same number of reps and sets.
Muscle Recovery Tip #3: Plan Your Off Days
Whether you focus on speed, endurance, lifting, or a combination of various athletic skills, you need to approach rest from both a micro level (during the week).
While specifics will vary depending on your training, experience, goals, and ability, these are some starting-point guidelines:
Give 48 to 72 hours between intense work sessions in one specific area. That means you could split up your workouts (say, upper and lower body on different days, so you give two to three days of rest between working specific body parts). It could also mean that you should space out high-intensity sessions of running or other endurance sports throughout the week (one or two max).
Muscle Recovery Tip #4: Active Recovery
The benefits of foam rolling -- or other types of low-intensity movement -- can make your body feel much better. And that even applies if you do these exercises before your workout.
Instead of viewing your warmup as cause and effect, think of it as part of a system, with each part playing a role in enhancing another element of muscle growth. Specifically, a great warmup prepares your body for the stress of lifting weights.
If your muscles are warm and prepared, then they can generate more force and move more weight. And on any program, you know this is a part of packing on new size.
Maybe, more importantly, the warmup keeps you in the one place you need to be to grow: the gym.
The biggest enemy of progress is a lack of consistency and injuries. When you don’t warm up you’re placing your body at a greater risk of injury.
Why? A cold muscle is like a cold rubber band. Ever frozen something seemingly pliable? It changes everything. What was once easy-to-move is now stiff; what once seemed unbreakable can now easily snap.
This is the hidden value of foam rolling. A little pre-workout prep (or even work on off days) can help keep you injury-free. Is this full-proof? Of course not. I’ve seen guys who can come in after a 15-minute walk in the snow and bust out a 300-pound deadlift with no problem. But that’s the exception to the rule.
Put differently: There’s a reason athletes go through such a rigorous pregame routine. It’s not to make them jump higher or run faster. it’s to prevent injury in a situation where there’s lots of stress on your body.
Muscle Recovery Tip #5: Eat Smarter
“To recover completely, you need to replenish. The most gains come when you’re resting or in recovery,” says Stephanie Howe Violett, Ph.D., a professional trail runner. “Without proper nutrition, you won’t be able to fill the gas tank up fully. When you don’t do that, you’re starting three-quarters full. And instead of feeling good, you’re starting three-quarters full.”
After a workout, you want to balance between carbs and protein. Focus on eating at least 20 grams of lean protein after your workout to help your muscles recover (either whey protein or plant protein will do the trick), and combining with good fats, as well as fruits and vegetables. If you're looking for an extra edge, here are two additional foods that might help.
One of the richest known sources of antioxidants, tart cherries are an anti-inflammatory powerhouse. New research suggests that tart cherries offer pain relief from gout and arthritis, reduce exercise-induced joint and muscle pain, lower cholesterol, and improve inflammatory markers. Drink a glass of tart cherry juice in the morning with breakfast or combine dried tart cherries with nuts for a snack.
A mustard-yellow spice from Asia, turmeric is a spice often used in yellow curry. It gets its coloring from a compound called curcumin. The University of Maryland Medical Center found that curcumin can help to improve chronic pain by suppressing inflammatory chemicals in the body. Make a homemade curry with turmeric or mix it into other recipes once or twice a week.
When combined, even using just 1 or 2 recovery strategies will change the way you feel. Once you do many of them repeatedly, that's when you'll hit a higher level of performance.