Recovery- The Most Important Part of Training
Updated: Feb 8
One of the least fun parts of working out is soreness. Many think being sore is an achievement, a "no pain, no gain" mentality. This is just not true; pain does not equal gain. Even if your soreness is not that bad, waking up and not feeling like you can perform optimally throughout your day is not fun. Recovery is an essential part of training, and if you think super sore after working out, chances are you are failing to recover properly.
Learning how to recover correctly will enhance your training. Many workout recovery methods out there claim to be the best. To help you parse out what works and what doesn't, we will review some of the most common ways and what we believe to be the best.
In this post, we will discuss
The importance of recovery
Programing variables for optimal workout recovery
Nutrition and supplementation to maximize recovery
Look into many different recovery methods
Our opinion on what is the best method
Get ready to learn the art of recovery!
WHAT IS RECOVERY?
Recovery is an essential part of training and is a necessary step in physiological adaptations. At its most basic definition, recovery is the process of healing after your workouts. Recovery starts the minute you perform your last rep and ends the next time you exercise. Recovery can be either passive or active, and workout recovery can include modifying your diet or supplementation to enhance the healing process from exercise-induced muscle damage.
WHY IS RECOVERY IMPORTANT?
You may have seen the meme "Muscles are built in the bed." As silly as the meme is, it holds a lot of wisdom. During a workout, you are stressing your muscles, causing the buildup of fatigue and muscle damage. You are weaker when you leave the gym compared to when you go to the gym. This is fine and unavoidable to grow.
After your workout, your body starts running a slew of different processes to help restore your body and repair your muscles. After your recovery, your body converts your forces and physiological systems to be a little bit stronger in a process known as super-compensation. You can help your body be more effective in this repair process through proper nutrition and sleep.
Muscle breakdown and recovery need to work together. You must maintain a balance between training and recovery to maximize muscle growth.
PROGRAMMING FOR RECOVERY
It doesn't matter how many supplements you take or how long you sit in an ice bath; your recovery will suffer if your programming has too much intensity and volume. While there are a lot of "hacks" out there, nothing can reverse improper training.
HAVE A MINIMUM OF 48 HOURS IN BETWEEN TRAINING MUSCLE GROUPS:
Forty-eight hours of recovery between muscle groups is the best practice. This doesn't mean you can work out the next day. It just means to wait two full days before your next exercise session on the same muscles. For example, if you trained your glutes 24 hours ago, train your triceps or back instead, and don't train your glutes again for another 24 hours. This generally gives your muscles plenty of time for recovery. However, this also assumes you're using an appropriate amount of volume (1).
USE AN APPROPRIATE AMOUNT OF VOLUME:
10-20 sets per muscle group per week is the guideline. Assuming that you're performing sets of 6-20 reps. This number doesn't always apply to every type of training. However, generally, if you use the average number of 3 sets per exercise (i.e., 3x9), you shouldn't do more than seven exercises per muscle group per week (3X7= 21 sets).
It's not the end of the world to do more than this once in a while. However, doing 40 sets a week and assuming you're ok because you rested for 48 hours isn't going to fly. You may be able to do more than 20 sets a week once in a while, but the next week, you might want to relax and do less. It is a balancing act.
Suppose you realize that training and building an effective training plan takes much more work than you assumed. That's cool. If making an effective program that leaves room for growth and recovery seems daunting, then have no fear. We can help you! All of our online training plans are set up for optimal recovery!
USE DELOADS AND PERIODIZATION:
An excellent way to optimize your training and improve your recovery is to use deloads and follow some form of basic periodization. A Deload is a set amount of time programmed into your workout where you decrease the intensity and volume of your workout. The most common way to do this is to keep the same reps and sets but cut the weight/load in half. Intermediate and advanced lifters usually take a deload week every four weeks; the average lifter can probably get away with six weeks. This is just one method of giving your body an extended amount of time to recover fully. It may drive you crazy, but it's essential.
Periodization can also help with recovery. Periodization refers to altering the load and intensity of your training throughout a cycle. The most straightforward example would be that you might train for hypertrophy for three months, then prepare for strength for three months, and so on. Daily Undulating Periodization or DUP is one of the best means to do this. This means you change the training variable on a session per session basis. Again, this allows you to apply a different stimulus to mitigate fatigue (training for strength and hypertrophy can cause fatigue slightly differently).
NUTRITION FOR OPTIMAL RECOVERY
Nutrition plays a huge role in recovery and is one area where lifters often mess up. Many people either don't eat an appropriate amount of calories or don't eat the right stuff. It comes down to these two basic things. However, it's not hard to be consistent if you put in the effort.
Eat enough food. Consistently low-calorie diets can decrease your ability to recover.
Drink water and get your electrolytes every day. Dehydration will cause slower recovery and general fatigue.
Make sure that you eat an adequate amount of protein throughout the day (1.6-2.2g/kg)
SUPPLEMENTS FOR RECOVERY
Other than your nutrition, there are many companies that claim certain supplements help recovery. Glutamine is one of the leading supplements you may hear about.
Unfortunately, even though glutamine is vital for recovery, supplementing with it hasn't shown any measurable difference in recovery.
As long as you eat a proper amount of protein, you are already consuming enough glutamine. Taking more doesn't provide additional benefits. The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) has glutamine listed as "Little To No Evidence" regarding its efficacy (2).
Creatine is probably the only supplement to help speed up recovery. Creatine is well known as a muscle-building supplement; however, studies have shown that it can also increase your effectiveness of recovery (3). Creatine has many other benefits and is one of the most studied and beneficial supplements for weightlifters and fitness enthusiasts.
ACTIVE RECOVERY DAYS
Active recovery is one of my favorite ways to enhance recovery. The simplest way to define active recovery is low-intensity (light) exercise performed after more intense training. Active recovery can be made on the same day as your workout or on your designated rest days.
There is a ton of anecdotal evidence, including my own personal experience, that can attest to the fact that active light recovery can drastically reduce DOMS and muscle stiffness. The act of simply walking with intent can be all you need.
MASSAGE FOR RECOVERY
Massage for recovery has grown in popularity. Particularly trigger point and myofascial release. But first, let us discuss sports massage.
Regarding sports massage, meta-analyses show minimal evidence to improve performance or speed up recovery(4). Other reviews have shown possible benefits with massage, but we also need to consider that messages aren't free (5). A single 15-minute session costs around $25-$35. Most people can't afford something like this to be a part of their routine.
Myofascial release and trigger point massage are a whole other thing. Opposite to sports massage, myofascial release has consistently shown benefits in muscle soreness and recovery. So, while rolling around on a pointy log can hurt like hell, you won't feel so lousy afterward (7). Also, trigger point rollers are relatively cheap and easy to find in stores. they carry them everywhere, from your local sporting goods store to TjMaxx. Another benefit is that they are relatively easy to learn how to use alone. This makes foam rollers and other myofascial release tools a reasonable choice for anyone looking for an affordable means to help with recovery.
Lately, there has been a plethora of methods and products that have been suggested to help speed up recovery such as.
Cold Water Immersion (Cold/Ice Baths)
Sorry to burst your bubble if you got excited about these methods, but there is limited evidence to support that any of these help with recovery from weight lifting. An ice bath or cold shower may seem like it might help with recovery however studies show they can impede muscle growth and strength for strength athletes (7)
Studies show that heat may provide some benefit so it may be worth your while to sit in a sauna if you have access to one, but there is not enough evidence that I would suggest you drive out of your way for it (8).
Real talk, most people simply aren't training hard enough or long enough for any of these methods to be practical, even if they did work. Sorry, not sorry.
SLEEP THE MOST IMPORTANT METHOD OF RECOVERY
The one method that will always guarantee that you will have sufficient recovery is SLEEP! I'm sure you know someone who constantly complains about being sore, has a ton of supplements and tools but lives on 4 hours of sleep.
Sleep is your body's built-in recovery system. Skipping out on sleep is one of the most detrimental things you can do if you're an athlete. While programming may be the most critical, bad sleeping hygiene will negate all programming, no matter how amazing it is.
SUMMARY OF POST WORKOUT RECOVERY METHODS:
So as you have read, there are a lot of things that play a role in muscle recovery and growth. Now you also know that the most significant factors have nothing to do with performing a particular exercise or wearing compression gear. The most critical factors for post-workout muscle recovery and muscle soreness are and in this order of importance:
Sufficient protein consumption
Recovery is a vital part of the process; muscle soreness is not. Finding the right balance for yourself may take some time. Everybody is different. Some people may be able to handle higher volumes of training, while others can handle high loads.
Ultimately, it's up to you to find the perfect balance of exercise and recovery for yourself.
Dankel SJ, Mattocks KT, Jessee MB, et al. Frequency: The Overlooked Resistance Training Variable for Inducing Muscle Hypertrophy? Sports Medicine. 2016;47(5):799-805. doi:10.1007/s40279-016-0640-8
Kerksick CM, Wilborn CD, Roberts MD, et al. ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2018;15(1). doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y
Wax B, Kerksick CM, Jagim AR, Mayo JJ, Lyons BC, Kreider RB. Creatine for Exercise and Sports Performance, with Recovery Considerations for Healthy Populations. Nutrients. 2021;13(6):1915. doi:10.3390/nu13061915
Poppendieck W, Wegmann M, Ferrauti A, Kellmann M, Pfeiffer M, Meyer T. Massage and Performance Recovery: A Meta-Analytical Review. Sports Medicine. 2016;46(2):183-204. doi:10.1007/s40279-015-0420-x
Dupuy O, Douzi W, Theurot D, Bosquet L, Dugué B. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology. 2018;9. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
Schroeder AN, Best TM. Is Self Myofascial Release an Effective Preexercise and Recovery Strategy? A Literature Review. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2015;14(3):200-208. doi:10.1249/jsr.0000000000000148
Roberts LA, Raastad T, Markworth JF, et al. Post-exercise cold water immersion attenuates acute anabolic signalling and long-term adaptations in muscle to strength training. The Journal of Physiology. 2015;593(18):4285-4301. doi:10.1113/jp270570
Lee S, Ishibashi S, Shimomura Y, Katsuura T. Physiological functions of the effects of the different bathing method on recovery from local muscle fatigue. Journal of Physiological Anthropology. 2012;31(1). doi:10.1186/1880-6805-31-26