Thursday, January 2, 2014

Recover Like No Other

Perhaps you're after bigger numbers in the major lifts, or maybe a better physique. How about improved athletic performance and injury reduction, or even faster times in your CrossFit conditioners? No matter your fitness goal, in order to achieve that goal you must be at your best each and every training session. In other words, you have to have recovered from your previous workouts in order to maximize your performance on subsequent ones.

Just as fatigue takes many forms (muscular, neurological, and psychological), so must recovery. Below, we take a three-pronged approach to the recovery process: (1) post-workout cool-down, (2) program design, and (3) general refueling. Attending to these matters will keep us feeling our best and performing at our highest level workout after workout.

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1. Post-workout Cool-down

We're all guilty of it from time to time: going from all-out exertion on the last set of a workout directly to seated in the car driving home. The lightheadedness that often ensues is fairly uncomfortable, not to mention dangerous. The good news is that it's easily preventable with just a few minutes of cool-down after the workout.

Essentially the reverse of the warm-up -- and equally important -- cool-down gently returns the body to its resting state, allowing us to transition seamlessly back to our regular activity. The two primary tools in our cool-down toolbox are, in fact, the exact ones we swore never to use in our warm-up: the treadmill and static stretching.

That's right, 5 to 10 minutes of post-workout treadmill walking is the perfect way to bring your heart rate and respiration back down to resting levels. Start at a brisk pace with the treadmill on a good incline, and gradually reduce the speed and grade as you go. If you don't have access to a treadmill, simply walk around the block.

After the treadmill, grab a mat and settle into a few of your favorite static stretches. Remember, static stretching is ill-advised prior to exercise due to its inhibitory effects on strength and power. However, after the workout, stretching may be one of the best ways to ward off DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) over the coming days. Plus, it feels great.

Choose the stretches you like best. Here are a few of my favorites for the shoulders and hips. Take a few deep breaths to get yourself deeper in each stretch.

(a) Back scratch stretch:

(b) Box hip flexor stretch:

(c) Triangle glute stretch:

(d) Butterfly adductor stretch:

Finally, experiment with foam rolling as part of your cool-down. It's purely a matter of personal preference whether you do it before, during (as inter-set rest), or after your workout. You'll reap the same tremendous benefits no matter what.

2. Program Design

The number one rule when it comes to program design is simple: listen to your body. If you planned to back squat heavy but for whatever reason aren't feeling up to it, switch it up. Do some light front squats or split squats. Let's face it: unless you're a genetic freak, you can't go balls-to-the-wall every session. Be sure to program in some low intensity, high-repetition training each week, perhaps in the form of a circuit.

Recovery can be further promoted through appropriate exercise selection. Very rarely should you perform the same exact exercise in two consecutive training sessions. Instead, repeat the previous session's movements at low intensity as part of your warm-up the following day. Though counterintuitive, this practice will actually reduce soreness. For instance, let's say you bench pressed (horizontal push) and deadlifted (lower body hip-dominant) yesterday. Today, incorporate hand-release push-ups and the unilateral hip hinge and reach into your warm-up. 

Rest gives your body a chance to grow and rebuild, so schedule it in. Even if you don't feel like you need it, pencil in at least one day of complete rest per week -- and perhaps more if you train particularly hard. Too many consecutive days of training will catch up with you eventually, resulting in staleness, overtraining, or injury. In addition, incorporate active recovery into your weekly routine. Examples include doing yoga and going for an easy bike ride. Light aerobic training actually accelerates recovery.

Finally, if you train really consistently, do yourself a favor and take an entire week off every two months. Your ligaments and tendons will thank you. You might think that you'll lose strength in that time, but many lifters actually report coming back stronger after the rest. Don't worry about your conditioning, either; you can regain that quickly enough.

3. General Refueling

In order to recover from the micro-trauma we inflict on our muscles through resistance training, we must pay special attention to nutrition, fluid intake, and sleep. First and foremost, 8 hours of shut-eye is a must. In terms of hydration, 8 glasses of water a day is still a decent recommendation. Also be certain to drink as much water as you sweat out during your workout. Weigh yourself before and after you train, and drink up the difference in water afterwards.

Recommendations for the optimal combination of carbohydrates and protein differ. In general, shoot for between 0.5 and 1.0 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. Keep carbs to a minimum if aesthetics are your primary concern; eat them freely if performance is your priority. Power athletes tend to need more protein than endurance athletes, who need more carbs. Getting your nutrients through real food is best, but protein shakes are okay, too.

Putting it all Together

Unless you're either (a) sedentary or (b) the three-time Fittest Man On Earth (pictured at the bottom of the page), you likely need to pay attention to recovery. By emphasizing a proper cool-down, intelligent program design, nutrition, and consistent sleep, you radically improve your ability to recover, thereby allowing you to train harder sooner. While you still might never be the Fittest Man on Earth -- you will be the fittest you, and that's pretty good, too.

If all the various elements of recovery seem like too much to think about, try incorporating just one new wrinkle into your recovery plan each week. Pay close attention to the positive difference it makes.


  1. Listen to your body. If you're not up to the workout you had planned, switch it up.
  2. Throw in some lighter weight, higher rep work each week.  You can't go heavy every training session.
  3. Repeat the primary movements of the previous training session in your warm-up at low intensity.
  4. Walk on the treadmill for 5-10 minutes after your workout, then spend a few minutes static stretching.
  5. Schedule in both active and complete rest days. Cross-train, go for a bike ride, do some yoga, or just take the day off altogether.
  6. Drink plenty of water, fulfill your daily protein requirement of about 0.5-1.0 grams per pound of bodyweight, and get 8 hours of sleep each night.

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