When you think of your fitness goals, the first thing on your mind is probably your workouts. But training is only part of the equation. What's your RECOVERY plan? Remember: No recovery, no progress.
First, take care of the obvious stuff (sleep and diet), then try these advanced recovery methods.
Walking is the best thing you can do to spark recovery and protect you from future injuries.
Sometimes the simplest of methods can produce the most game-changing results. The problem most people have with the concept of active recovery is not the theory, but rather the execution. If you're devoted to fitness and lifting, it's damn hard to turn off that switch when every fiber of your being is telling you to grind out another high intensity workout.
If your "recovery session" started out as a walk on the treadmill and turned into a full-on interval sprint session with the hamster wheel jacked up to 12.5 mph at an incline of 4%, then you know what we're talking about. More is always better, right? Well, not when it comes to tissue and central nervous system regeneration.
Try walking the damn dog for longer than the time it takes him to take a dump. You think walking is too low level of an exercise to have any physical or orthopedic benefit? Research coming out of Dr. Stu McGill's lab in Waterloo would beg to differ.
Not only is walking one of the most fundamental movement patterns known to man, it can also spark recovery and be a protective mechanism for future injuries to the spine, hips, and other regions of the body. It all has to do with the idea of the "active muscle pump," which is essentially the muscles of the lower extremities contracting over and over in an antagonist and agonist nature. This puts pressure on the vasculature and aids in lymphatic drainage, which is a powerful recovery mechanism.
Along with clearing systemic waste and fluid buildup, an authentic and non-compensated gait pattern can also improve gross joint and spinal positioning and enhance the tone and position of the all-important musculatures of the shoulders, core, and hips. Walking is literally the perfect form of active recovery and it can be done anywhere and at any time. There's nothing sexy about it, but if you want to start recovering and performing at your optimal level, you better start walking your ass off.
Taking in pre- and intra-workout nutrients allows you to perform better and recover faster.
The idea of the "30-minute post-workout window" was a bit overblown. Today we know that pre- and intra-workout nutrition is more important. When it comes to enhancing recovery, you need more than just clean eating, plenty of water, and a protein shake. What you take in before and during your training is crucial when it comes to maximizing long term performance.
Prioritize the fuel you put into your body before your training session and then continue doing it during the training session. In short, maximizing the pre- and intra-workout windows will limit protein breakdown (a good thing) and the inflammatory response during training (another good thing), while maximizing all the hormonal response benefits associated with increased growth and fast recovery.
My choice for workout nutrition is Surge® Workout Fuel, and over 50 of my strength athletes also use it. By preloading and pumping key nutrients into the muscle and then maintaining their levels, Plazma allows you to recover far faster than you could otherwise, enabling you to come back to the gym fresher and ready to hit it hard again.
Instead of foam rolling before a workout, practice Self Myofascial Release (SMR) after your workout.
Stop walking into the gym and squandering half an hour of your precious training time flopping around on a foam roller. How the hell has this practice become so popular? Any type of soft tissue work, whether it be a passive treatment like a massage or a self-administered technique like trigger point release or foam rolling, is largely centered around generating "results" from the inhibition of muscular tone from the central nervous system.
Don't fool yourself, that spiky foam roller isn't "breaking up scar tissue," and you absolutely aren't adding any length to that muscle. What you are doing is very effectively tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system, you know, the one responsible for rest and recovery. Let's connect the dots here. If you choose to mindlessly partake in time wasting, the least you can do is to delay these self-soothing sessions until after your training session.
The use of hands-on Self Myofascial Release (SMR) Techniques directly after training has produced more notable results in a more efficient manner than any foam rolling drill.
Though these techniques aren't for everyone because they take some concentrated focus and knowledge of movement anatomy, those with the drive to truly be their own physical therapist will flourish with this skill set.
To get started, be sure to match the emphasis of training with the specific techniques. If it's chest day, you'll of course work the pectoralis major and minor after the workout. This seems like a simple concept, but in the world of twice a day, half-assed full body foam rolls, this is an important point. Get in while the tissues that were active during your workout are still pumped and get your SMR work done.
Self Myofascial Release for the Pecs
Rather than use bad form, lower the amount of weight, cut a couple of reps, or do an exercise variation that reduces stress.
One of the best ways to increase recovery is to not dig yourself into a deep hole to begin with.
Don't lift with bad form. Sounds pretty simple, right? Maintaining good form decreases the risk of unwanted joint stresses and connective tissue micro-trauma that's highly associated with prolonged recovery times.
The key here is not the elusive perfect form, but rather having the level of movement mastery to first appreciate what crisp clean movement patterns look and feel like, while secondarily having the physical skill set to appropriately execute these movements. Realize that optimal movement technique for a given exercise isn't graded on a pass/fail standardization, but instead carried out in a continuum of various levels of execution, starting at the worst and ugliest movement you've ever seen and ending at physical perfection.
Think of the form required to stay healthy and to not piss off your joints too badly as a bell shaped curve, where the outliers on both ends are few and far between, and a majority of the things you do are somewhere in the middle. Simply put, if you're too broken down to increase any of these variables over time, you won't be able to sustain a regimen and reap the long-term benefits.
When the goal of training is to decrease risk of injury and chronic micro-trauma while still working to make progress, there are two major aspects of programming that you can manipulate:
- If a specific movement or exercise leaves you chronically beat to shit, reprogram an exercise variation that's similar in muscular recruitment and patterning, but with a reduced amount of stress somewhere in the chain that's causing the hurt. For example, pull from blocks instead of the floor to reduce lumbar spinal flexion patterns that may be causing irritation in the back.
- Reduce the loading or intensity of the specific exercise causing the problem(s). By reducing overall load of a movement, you'll be able to improve your technique and build it back up over time by priming the neuromuscular system and authentic motor pattern recruitment. Similarly, cutting the set a rep or two short and avoiding grind-out sets where you're most likely to deviate to the suck side of that bell-shaped curve also works great to reduce harmful stresses and keep you recovering at a faster rate.
Deadlift from Blocks
When it comes down to making the choice between risking injury and making big-time progress, err on the side of movement regression. I'd rather see lifters go heavy and balls to the wall on a movement pattern I know they can dominate than to pussyfoot around with light weights or low intensity and feel like they're wearing handcuffs while training.