Recovery Strategies

I’ve been getting some questions about recovery methods and strategies, given how I’ve been training recently. I figured that would make a good update for this week.

Recovery methods can be broadly grouped into three categories: organizational, manual/external, and chemical. That’s not the precise naming scheme but that’s how I remember it. This reflects your program, things you physically do to your body, and things you take to help recovery. Not surprisingly, most attention focuses on the latter point thanks to drugs and a robust supplement industry. The other facets of recovery are just as important, if not more.

We’ve all heard that we recover outside the gym, not in it. This is largely true, with some caveats. It’s the caveats that make the difference, as they always do. Thinking of recovery as an all-or-nothing matter is, bluntly, wrong. The state of your body at any given time is an on-going balance of building-up and breaking-down. When translated to exercise, you’re constantly recovering from stress and creating new stress. This is unavoidable.

Don’t be fooled by this idea that resting a week between muscle groups or exercises is sufficient for full recovery. As a rule of thumb, “volume” stress will mainly affect muscle and other peripheral/tissue factors, take longer to recover from, and create a milder disruption to the body. By some measures, the body’s tissues can take upwards of 4-6 weeks to completely finish the adaptive remodeling cycle from a single workout; when you start compounding that with multiple sessions, you’re looking at a state of on-going, constant recovery — and this happens on the fly, as you continually train.

“Intensity” stress is a much greater hit to the system, more of a central or neurological stress, but it can peak and recover much faster in many cases. Regardless of what muscle groups were trained, central “intensity” stress can still be an issue; there is a cascade of mostly negative effects on the body that can arise from too much mentally-challenging exercise. Even if one week were sufficient for full tissue recovery, you’re still dealing with different factors that recover at different rates.

The moral of the story: You are never fully recovered between sessions, so it’s pointless to design a program as if you will be.

Rather, we need to chase optimal recovery for the goal at hand, and then program according to how those factors recover in the short term. The Russians designed programs with the goal of riding the recovery curve for whatever they were training for, with minimal impact from post-training fatigue. You’re trying to train as much as you can while minimizing the effects of fatigue.

After muscle growth? Then you should train in a way that keeps protein synthesis maximally elevated. After strength? You need to train in a way that optimizes neurological output and avoids central/CNS fatigue.

This is why the frequent training approach works if you train in a way that optimizes the daily stress while minimizing fatigue. This is why you can see people growing when they train a muscle group two or three times a week. You get the idea.

This is the first step in recovery: don’t get too beat up in the first place. Organize your program so that frequency and volume are in line with how you’re training. Bodybuilding will look a little different from competitive powerlifting and those will both look different than general athletic strength training. Train accordingly and plan frequency and rest days from that.

Manual therapies will cover everything from stretching and foam-rolling to sitting in a hot bath or sauna and everything in between. I don’t have a whole lot to cover in this area except to give an overview of things I’ve tried that seemed to work well.

In the general warmup and/or warmdown, stretching and foam rolling definitely helps a lot. I know static stretching is not in vogue these days, but keeping the hip flexors, piriformis, and shoulders/pecs/lats stretched is what keeps me going. Foam rolling the IT band, adductors, glutes, and lats hasn’t hurt anything either. Granted that’s for my specific set of injuries, but the hips and shoulder girdle are a common trouble spot. Dynamic stretches are another useful warmup tool, good for the phasic or working muscles.

Other methods are useful post-training or to help feel better between sessions. I like hot baths with epsom salts. Whether it does anything physical I don’t know, but it sure feels nice on beat up legs and back. It’s also mentally relaxing, which might be the important part. Sitting in the sauna will be about the same thing. Heat seems to do nice things as far as loosening up tight muscles and encouraging relaxation, so even a hot shower could fill this role.

I haven’t yet resorted to icing, although by all indications it does help with local tissue trauma and inflammation. If you’ve had a massive session and are really beat up in a given muscle, it may be worth a go. This may be one of those things that is most valuable immediately post-training, to manage inflammation, if you’re so inclined.

Massage and other forms of manual therapy are nice. You may or may not have access to a massage therapist or physio that can deliver such services. Even so, having some kind of therapeutic session on a regular basis is probably a good idea. I’m the number one offender in being lax on this, but every time I get some kind of manual therapy done I’m glad I did.

I would add that the benefits to a lot of this stuff will be largely mental. I’m not convinced there is a huge performance-boosting effect here, but you shouldn’t discount them because of that. Mental relaxation and recovery is easily more important than physical, in my ever so humble opinion.

And then we have chemical solutions, which would encompass both legal dietary supplements and neutraceuticals, along with not-so-legal performance enhancing pharmaceuticals. There’s a hell of a line regarding what’s natural and thus ethically okay, and what’s an artificial change in chemistry that should be condemned as a moral failing. I’m largely not interested in having that debate, due to my stance on human self-enhancement in general and the fact that it is incompatible with mainstream views on sporting ethics. So I won’t.

Anabolic steroids (AAS) work by increasing rates of protein synthesis in muscle and other peripheral tissues (for example, they can alter collagen synthesis in tendons), and in some instances by increasing neurological output. These effects are variable between compounds, and some may offer secondary effects in addition to this primary action. In large doses, AAS will tend to increase muscle mass both through increased protein synthesis (new contractile tissue or ‘myofibrillar hypertrophy’) and by increased retention of water, glycogen, and energy substrate (‘sarcoplasmic hypertrophy’). This is the most common way that they are used by recreational athletes, for a quick “cosmetic” effect.

AAS can also be used in much lower doses for a more therapeutic effect, and indeed this is how many athletes employ them. The training schedules of high-level athletes can be extremely demanding. So they take a small amount of winstrol or dianabol to help them recover that much faster and keep up the training.

Besides being an interesting look at the physiological effects, I wanted to point this out because it’s an interesting look at the mindset behind the usage of any performance enhancer, legal or not. Your average gym lifter wants to take something to give him gains. Your competitive athlete wants to take something to help him recover better and thus to train harder.

I can’t tell you how many times I see relative newbies judging any supplement or recovery aid by how fast they add weight on the scale, or how quickly their lifts improve. Creatine is dismissed by a lot of guys as useless because they don’t add 5kg when they go on it, or they don’t instantly see a 10kg PR.

To me creatine is one thing that is almost essential if you want to train hard and often. This is because I fall into the latter camp: I want to take things that help me recover faster. I’m not looking for a magic potion to carry me in lieu of bad training and/or diet. But I digress.

Creatine should be in there because it’s shown numerous wonderful effects on recovery, and new benefits seem to pop up all the time. It’s safe, it’s cheap, and it’s proven. There’s little reason not to take it, unless you’re like me and just forget all the time. The effects on recovery are just too good to avoid it, especially given the price point for plain ol’ monohydrate (which is the only thing that actually works anyway).

I’ve mentioned before that I love ibuprofen as a general means of controlling inflammation. This would apply to any non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID). I try to keep this in reserve for the really bad days, so as not to become reliant on it. That’s probably a good suggestion for you, too.

Magnesium, zinc, and calcium may be worth looking at. These are usually pretty cheap and depending on how you eat you may be deficient. These minerals play an important role in our bodies, so they might be worth adding in for general recovery purposes.

Fish oil is another good cheapie that has a lot of wide-spectrum positive effects on physiology. I don’t think you need to mega-dose. A range from 6g to a high end of say 12-15 grams per day is plenty. Fish oil is omega-3 fatty acids, which are called essential fats for a reason. Your body needs these to do a wide variety of things. So take them.

I’ve seen some indications that ginger and curcumin (found in the spice turmeric) have positive analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects. I can’t really say how much these things help or even what a daily good dose might be. On the other hand, my ground beef, chicken, and green tea taste a lot better now.

Speaking of green tea, that’s just good stuff in general. I try to get at least a cup a day.

And while I’m on that subject, keeping so-called nutrient-rich foods in your diet is a good idea. This is really getting away from supplementation and more into having a good diet, and that’s okay because having a solid diet is a more important recovery aid than messing around with any of the detail-work.

Fruits and veggies can sometimes be underrated in our diets in the quest for More Calories, but there are a whole range of neat little nutrients and such that can be of use to us. Green veggies like broccoli and spinach have a ton of goodies in them. Berries are basically nothing but antioxidants and worth keeping in the mix. I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff I’m overlooking, too. The point is, if it grows from the ground and is brightly-colored (and non-poisonous, remember that one!), it’s probably worth eating.

The lesson here: eat good, eat healthy, then worry about the detail stuff after that.

That is a very rough overview of my take on recovery. It’s a holistic thing, as you can see, not dependent on any one thing and certainly not on any magic pill. Take care of your program, take care of your diet, supplement smartly, and add in manual/physical methods as needed.

18 thoughts on “Recovery Strategies”

  1. Sauna alternated with cold showers does wonders for me. Might be placebo, but I feel more energetic the day after a workout if I hit the sauna and cold shower immediately after the workout.

    Ibuprofen gives me nasty heart palpations so I haven't been able to experiment with it for recovery purposes. Haven't tried the other NSAIDs though.

    Whats your take on ginseng and other adaptogens? Rhodiola rosea and ginseng seem to give me slightly more energy in general, doesn't really make my good workouts better. But seems to cut down on the frequency of sluggish workouts. The effect, if there is any, is so subtle though that its hard to tell for sure.

  2. @ Johan – The Russians were big on herbal adaptogens. I remember seeing several mentions of ginseng and similar compounds in Siff's restoration manual (which unfortunately I don't have right in front of me at the moment). Western research is a lot less positive about that sort of thing.

    But as with most of these recovery methods, if they provide you an effect and it's worth the cost to you, there's no harm in using them.

  3. So you don't buy the idea that NSAIDs inhibit hypertrophy? I don't either but I've seen that idea thrown around quite a lot. Because they're anti-inflamatory they'll inhibit or limit hypertrophy. I've got to google that again because I can't recall off and where I read it. Then again, Martin Berkhan recently posted on his blog that a study showed that NSAIDs might actually improve hypertrophy so who knows. I take ibuprofen after every workout because my right shoulder gives me some minor issues and it seems to help me sleep that night without rolling over fifty times when my shoulders get sore while sleeping.

  4. Matt, nice summary. Things I've found that help me recover better from sessions in no particular order:

    – Glutamine: Anecdotal or not, when I take 10g first thing on waking everything seems better, immune system, soreness, overall feeling or well being.

    – Magnesium: Citrate powder before bed and Magnesium chloride spray on the skin. This stuff helps you sleep better and relax, reduces cramps, and the transdermal stuff is great for general muscle aches massaged in. Same stuff in Epsom salts.

    – Rhodiola Rosea: Little known herb, adaptgen like ginseng and reduces stress. I'm certainly more chilled when I take it.

    A foam roller was some of the best petty cash I've ever spent.

  5. Hi Matt. I discovered your blog earlier this summer and downloaded your book. Your philosophy and content is phenomenal and I just wanted to stop by to say keep up the great work! I love your blog and look forward to your future posts/possible new books haha

  6. Hey Matt,

    Came across your website a few weeks back on a research hunt for auto-regulation studies. Great site, and a well organised, easy to read mish-mash of training methods, thoughts etc!!

    With regard to recovery/regeneration, i think in my experience, that lots of people are looking for the last 5% of the equation (ice baths, contrasting etc), without focusing on the basics. Sleep, basic good nutrition, limit drinking alcohol caffiene etc. Liking the rare shout out for the use of static stretching!! Lets keep it alive!!

    Good post, thanks for your insights.

    Matt A

  7. fantastic entry. I had a great time reading and learning from it. I was unaware that creatine helped you recover. I thought it was just for looks and a str. bonus.

  8. I just stumbled upon this article from another website, this is really good stuff here. Do you have any opinion on treatments like prolotherapy for long term overused muscle tissues?

  9. Just a quick question:

    On less of a powerlifting basis and more on a bodybuilding plan of lifting, would high frequency training be benefitted by altering rep ranges each session?

    I'm currently alternating upper and lower 6 days a week (3x a week for each), and going through the cycle of 6-8 reps, 12-15 reps, and 20-25 reps. The idea is that each day will provide a growth stimulus and trigger protein synthesis, but train different biomotor capacities, so as to not overwhelm just one. I also think it rotates neural stress so that you don't get fried there either.

    Obviously the rules you use when do high frequency for powerlifting still apply (no grinding reps, being conservative, etc.) but could altering rep ranges keep recovery intact at all? What do you think?

  10. Tim that's not too far off Leo Costa's old Serious Growth workouts, including Big Beyond Belief and Titan Training. To answer your question, I do thing there is some use for alternating the stimulus like that. Whether it has to do with recovery or training responsiveness or both I don't know, but it does work.

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