There is more written about how to perform strength training workouts than about recovery. Mostly everything you read about weight training is about how to get a good work out, what is the best method to work a particular muscle group, how to get a good pump, etc. Although it is true that the purpose of a strength training workout is to safely break down tissue as quickly as possible, it is also true that if this is carried too far, you may eventually suffer from overtraining. Muscle tissue is not being built up during a workout, it is being broken down. The recovery phase is the part of the muscle building process that makes the muscle stronger, not the workout, and is often overlooked.
Recovery Lesson #1: Avoid Overtraining
To avoid overtraining you must learn how muscles recover and grow. Before you begin a strength training workout, warm up properly. Perform exercises strictly. Do not overdo an exercise. Know when to stop doing repetitions and when not to do that extra set. Keep in mind during a workout that although you may have planned to do four sets for a particular exercise, three sets may be just fine–or even two. It may be a good idea to go a week or two at half volume. This is known as detraining.
Here are a few tips:
- After a workout, stretch the muscles that you worked out so hard.
- Cool down and then take a walk around the block.
- Make sure you are properly hydrated. Drink at least a gallon of water a day. If your workout lasts longer than an hour, consider consuming a sports drink that will replace the electrolytes lost during sweating. Remember that strength training is anaerobic and is not meant to be an endurance contest. Some bodybuilding workouts demand for you to exhaust your glycogen stores but this is not the central principle in strength training.
- If you have chronic problem areas or joints, take time after the workout to use a cold compress. Haven’t you seen a baseball pitcher’s arm and shoulder wrapped with cold packs after a game? You don’t have to be so dramatic; perhaps all you need is an ice pack on your shoulder or lower back or wherever else for about 5 minutes (after some light stretching). If it really bothers you, go see a doctor.
- Between your workouts you might want to try walking. You needn’t walk so fast as if you’re a short-on-time tourist on vacation eager to rush and see all the sights. The idea is to get nutrient rich blood flowing better through your joints, pump some extra oxygen to your brain and muscles and also get outside for a dose of vitamin D from the sun. A good pace would be somewhere in between a stroll and a stride. Walk at least two or three days a week; anywhere between 30 to 45 minutes should do it. If you decide to walk more such as every day, this may be good but if you then feel tired sometimes because of walking too much, take a break from walking for 2 or three days.
- Sleep an adequate amount of hours. If you can’t sleep in, then go to bed earlier. How much sleep do you need? Only you can answer that. Most people are not aware of being sleep deprived. If you think you are not getting enough sleep, try to get to bed an hour earlier each night starting this week. Then, after a couple weeks, see if you are performing better with the weights.
- Eat a well balanced diet with plenty of high quality protein. Eat a post workout meal with good carbs for the replenishment of muscle glycogen stores.
- Take a warm bath once or twice a week between strength training workouts. Immerse yourself fully in that warm water. This will help soothe your muscles and let them float a little. If you have access to a hot tub, pool, sauna or such then by all means use those also. You don’t realize how fortunate you are.
- Massage therapy is great. If you are unable to get a professional massage then the next best thing is to buy an electric massager at either a drug or department store. Some have a heating element inside so you can apply warm vibrations to a sore shoulder, lower back, etc. Also, look into using a foam roller for your muscles. Again, if you have a lot of discomfort (pain), then go see a doctor.
- Different muscle fibers require different amounts of time to recover. The larger the muscle (motor) system, the longer the recovery time. For instance, it would take longer to recover from a set of back squats than from a set of curls. This fact is usually contrary to many workout methods published out there. If you are giving an equal amount of recovery time to each muscle group and you aren’t getting stronger then you should look into this.
Recovery Lesson #2: Take a Layoff
Last but not least, when in doubt, take a recovery week off from training. Missing a certain number of reps, tiredness and injuries are some symptoms indicating you may be over-trained. Another lesser known symptom of overtaining is if you are incessantly thinking about training all the time and at the same time experience a constant fatigue and mistake this psycho-physical condition as some lofty athletic attainment. Don’t work-out umpteen days in a row without a break. You should be more or less fresh and pain free before every workout. If you are chronically tired then the wisest thing to do is to take some time off. As you gain experience in weight training, you will develop a knowing of when to take a layoff. This knowing is what separates the men from the boys. There are many accounts of strength athletes taking a three week rest and then coming back to train to break new records.
Recovery Lesson #3: It’s Always Two Steps Forward and One Step Back
On the other hand, you may not come back stronger after a three week layoff. You may have to work up to where you were before but at least most if not all of your border line injuries involving tendons and ligaments will have fully recovered during the layoff. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is normal the next day after a workout but sharp pains in your joints are not. The way of progress with strength training workouts and recovery is always two steps forward and one step back.