Recovery Is Where Gains Are Made
If you ask someone what their recovery plan is like, they'll mumble something about deloading, taking a day or two off, and not much else. And this is unacceptable. If recovery is where the magic happens, how come lifters treat it like a salad topping rather than part of the entree?
Here's why: fear and impatience. They think their muscles will shrink or suddenly get hidden by a layer of fat if they're not in the gym going all out, all the time.
But most seasoned lifters will tell you about how a period of forced rest (sickness or injury) lead them to unexpected gains. Even after an entire month of doing nothing, you might find your body does the unimaginable: it looks fuller, harder, and in better condition than it was before.
Even so, those same experienced lifters will continue to have the irrational fear of losing gains. All they know is, "maximum volume, lift the heaviest weights possible, grind, hustle, no days off, push the extremes!" In their minds that's what makes someone jacked.
Whether you want to use the term overtrained or under-recovered (boy, there's some semantic hair-splitting), the point is, fearing time off isn't based on either anecdotal evidence or scientific knowledge.
The Consequences of Impatience
Patience is one of the hardest virtues. Lifting weights is no exception, despite lifters hearing on a consistent basis that building muscle is a slow process. Spending even more time in the gym isn't going to speed that process up if the work you've already done was good enough to stimulate growth. Most lifters have to experience the repercussions before it ever sinks in.
Once you've stimulated the growth process through training, MORE training won't accelerate it. In fact, it can become the very thing keeping you from making progress.
If the growth response has been initiated through training, then after that it's about eating, sleeping, and recovering.
So, do you suck at recovery? Be honest. If you do, then it's time you had a recovery protocol. Make it your priority, one which begins with understanding what recovery is.
Localized vs. Systemic Recovery
There are two types: The localized, muscle-specific recovery, and systemic recovery, which can be slightly more arbitrary but is actually far more important.
This means the muscles you worked during training have gone through the process of repair in relation to the amount of stress that you placed on them. The harder the work and the greater the volume, the longer the localized recovery process will take.
However, you CAN train a muscle when it's sore, and one of the best ways to speed up recovery from delayed onset muscle soreness is to push some blood into a sore muscle. The advice, "don't train a muscle when it's sore" is outdated.
Your nervous system doesn't live in a training vacuum. Everything outside of training, your entire lifestyle, has an effect on how taxed or recovered you are.
But training stress and life stress are intertwined. Your body doesn't know if you're about to pull a max deadlift or if you've reached your limit with your boss or spouse. All it knows is that it must release norepinephrine and epinephrine in response to these situations and spew cortisol all over the place.
Now you've probably had a day where you left work and were completely stressed. So you did the meathead thing and said, "I'm stressed, I'm going to go pull some deadlifts." You believe this alleviates stress, but it's actually another stressor. Then you spend the next two days wondering why you're utterly exhausted. It's like a full-body hangover.
Homeostasis is Your Friend
Recovery is when your body systems return to baseline. That's essentially homeostasis. If one system goes up, then an opposing system must go down until balance is restored. Recovery can't happen until those two systems, whatever they may be, are back in harmony again.
For systemic recovery to happen there must be a give and take relationship that allows for homeostasis to occur within the autonomic nervous system, which is comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is your fight or flight response, the "I'm close to punching my boss in the grill so I'll pull some heavy deadlifts instead" one. You turn it on in the gym before your heaviest sets. Each time you turn on that system, here's what happens immediately:
- The adrenals are activated and kick out some epinephrine.
- Cortisol increases, raising blood pressure, suppressing the immune system, and turning fatty acids into available energy.
- Your body prepares for some big-time violent muscular action, or running away.
Go there too often and this is what happens:
- Sexual impotence.
- Decreased longevity (a nice way of saying you're going die early).
If you want to be unable to have sex and would like to die early, then by all means keep blaring your angry music while beating the steering wheel and believing that rage is what makes you awesome. But you won't be kicking much ass from your lonely bed or your grave.
Parasympathetic Nervous System
This is your "rest and digest" system, also known as the "I'm petting some puppies while getting a massage" nervous system. It works in contrast to what the sympathetic nervous system does. Here are some benefits associated with it:
- Better sex.
- Better sleep, which means higher rates of fat oxidation.
- Lowered blood glucose.
- Increased longevity.
You can't find your recovery baseline again until you learn how to do something that should now jump out at you. To accelerate the recovery process, you should have an appropriate function of recovery for every action of stimulation. And while you may not like this, if you're smart enough you'd know that doing some deadlifts after a very stressful day at work is a pretty horrible idea.
Recap: Every stress response needs a de-stress response, which helps to ensure recovery, which leads to performance, progress, and gains.
Think Heavy Deadlifting IS How You De-stress?
It's not. It may take your mind off work stress or life stress but it's still another form of stress. Your opinion on this is irrelevant. You can't fool your body.
I'm not telling you that you can't do some deadlifts, but taking a walk and clearing your mind, then finding ways to laugh and unwind, is better. Then do your deadlifts the next day because it will almost certainly yield a more productive workout.
Try it. Gauge this for a few weeks. On a stressful day, offset it with something that allows your parasympathetic (puppies and massage) nervous system to respond.
How to Create a Recovery Plan
1 – Create a blank space.
The most successful people in the world have a morning ritual. A huge part of setting the tone for your day starts the moment you open your eyes. What are you opening your eyes and mind to? Stress, worry, anxiety, or irritation?
Here's a life tip: Most likely whatever it is that's bothering you, or whatever problem you have in your life, can't be fixed in that very moment. And even if it can, there's a good chance it can wait.
Start your day disconnected from worry, fear, stress, and angst. This is one of the best gifts you can give to yourself regarding recovery. It may take some practice if you're a natural worrier or a social media warrior looking for an argument.
If you want to worry and stress over things outside of your blank space time, go right ahead. But give yourself permission to take care of you for a half hour in the morning so that you can start your day with a clear mind and relaxed body. After all, you might have a stressful life situation arise or a set of ugly deadlifts to do that afternoon. Read something in the quiet for half an hour, or do some meditation and focus on relaxing breathing in that time.
Some experts suggest a nighttime breathing practice. They say to press the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth near your front teeth, and take 7 deep breaths, inhaling and exhaling very slowly (around 5 seconds for each) while focusing on a positive memory. This works exceptionally well for those who have trouble turning their mind off at night. It stimulates the PNS and will help to refocus your thoughts and relax.
2 – Get a hit of oxytocin.
Oxytocin, also known as the love molecule, is released when you do a number of feel-good things, like hugging, cuddling, petting your pet, and being generous. The effects are both psychological and biological. The brain is awesome like that.
Any form of physical touch from a loved one or friend will release oxytocin. Cuddling is like hugging on steroids. And I'm not talking about "Netflix and chill." Legit cuddling.
But yes, sex is on the list, and if it's with someone you're actually in love with then the release of oxytocin is like that of a tidal wave that erupted from a meteor strike while a tsunami was going on in the same ocean. Yeah, it's that good.
Finally, giving is living. Instead of obsessing over all the gains you don't have, take some time to help someone less fortunate than you. Redirecting your thoughts toward others instead of being a self-obsessed jackass helps to improve gains by also releasing oxytocin.
Oxytocin stimulates the "rest and digest" system and promotes recovery. Which means you make gains and become a better person at the same time.
3 – Have strategic carbs and make serotonin.
Get carbs into your last meal of the day. It'll increase your body's production of serotonin, which will help you sleep. Believe it or not there are foods you can eat to help improve sleep and relaxation, and foods you should probably avoid at night as well.
Protein should be scaled back a bit. Even though it's highly satiating, it's also harder to digest and can keep you from relaxing while your body is working on breaking it down. So have it with dinner a few hours before sleep. And if it's loaded with tryptophan, then it's even more ideal.
Then a couple of hours later, right before bed, have the complex carbs by themselves. Does this sound weird? Here's why you might consider it.
Complex carbs are responsible for driving the tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier. The carbs should cause a bump in insulin, which doesn't affect tryptophan, but should push the other amino acids into the cells so tryptophan isn't battling with them to get into the brain. This should cause an increase in serotonin, which will help you to relax and fall asleep while you're in the middle of your blank space, doing some meditation. See how this all ties in?
Throw in a glass of tart cherry juice which is high in phytochemicals, including melatonin, and you set yourself up for an amazing night's sleep.
4 – Try decompression training.
Give the nervous system a break while still getting your gym time in. What you do is make the muscle work while focusing on two things:
- Deep breathing. Pay attention to every inhale and exhale.
- The mind-muscle connection. Focus on the stretch and contraction of each rep.
Do away with counting reps and select a weight that doesn't require blaring music to psych you up. If you're usually blaring music that makes you want to beat your head into the bumper of a rusty Ford truck, now's the time to pick something that makes you feel like slipping into a bubble bath. It's lifting, but it's meditative.
You shouldn't wince or grimace at all during any of the reps. If you do, terminate the set. If I had to guess at the number of reps you'll hit for these sets it would be around 12-15, but don't make them your main focus.
On the days you have workout hangover or just feel worn down, these kinds of sessions are invaluable to help your mood and recovery. Think of these workouts as the "filling the trench back in" to counteract your all-out high intensity sessions.