Muscle Growth Begins and Ends with Recovery
In an era of hard gainers, hardcore powerlifters and the idea that more is more - you might feel like you could find the same people at the gym even if you went every day.
You might also feel out of place without brightest amino shake, loudest grunt or the heaviest stacked barbell.
People are so overwhelmed with getting fast results and taking shortcuts that they forget one of the most critical factors in any growth, whether in size or performance.
Every other aspect of fitness and progress gets more attention - training, nutrition, supplementation - but recovery somehow gets overlooked all the time.
In this article, we’ll explain why recovery matters and why you should plan it out, just like you plan your routines, nutrition, and supplementation.
Although it may sound a bit boring, Recovery means Healing - and this is exactly where your gains happen. The performance boost that follows a good recovery will make it all worth it. Let's dig a bit deeper to show you why.
Recovery - the Secret to Serious Growth
The number one reason why people neglect recovery so much is because it’s passive and nobody has ever said, “Woah - did you see how much that guy recovers? Nice.”
In other words, it’s just something you need to do rather than brag about. Recovery isn't exciting, but it's vital.
A Snapshot Of How Muscle Growth Works:
You need to exert more physical strain on your body than it’s accustomed to handling on a normal day. Lifting those heavy weights or putting yourself through an intense circuit isn’t just for fun. You’re telling your primal body that if it wants to survive it needs to rise to these requirements.
Muscles get damaged as you lift weights. After your workout, your body gets to work repairing the micro tears in your muscle fibres by synthesising protein from the amino acids you get from your nutrition. These repaired muscle fibres increase in number and size to accommodate your needs resulting in muscle hypertrophy (growth).
Whey Protein is metabolised very rapidly into amino acids your body can put to work - which is why you take a protein shake after your workout.
Your body doesn’t store protein for later use like it does with fats and carbs. So, if you don’t have enough protein in your system, it makes it difficult for your muscles to heal and grow quickly.
Amino Acids (Protein) are used to repair and maintain your body in general. If you are in an catabolic state (not enough protein) your body will actually break down your muscles to get the amino acids it needs for more vital functions.
Carbs are your body’s primary source of energy. When you lift heavy weights, you burn that energy quickly. Restoring those glycogen stores is another very important reason to eat right and rest between workouts so you can go in strong next time.
Fats - while not so directly related to muscle growth, help to support your immune system. Overtraining can tank your immune system and derail your training progress.
Risk of Injury
If you don't rest enough, you’re overtraining. This not only increases injury risks, which can put you out of the gym for a long time but also makes your workouts less effective and even counter-productive.
How Much Time Do I Need to Recover?
There are different types of rest you need to consider when asking this question:
Recovering between workouts
The body is in the process of repairing the damage for 48-72 hours after a workout, which means you should wait at least two days before working out the same muscle group.
You can still train 5 days per week if you do splits. But make sure you spread apart big movements that target similar muscle groups as much as possible, especially if you strain your lower back. Ideally do squats on Monday, deadlifts on Friday.
Of course, if you do total body routines, working out multiple days in a row is not an option. Instead three or four workouts per week is optimal.
Rest between sets
The rest between sets is probably the most neglected part of a workout. Screw up the rest period between sets and you’ll either reduce performance by taking too short breaks, or you’ll lose intensity if you rest for too long.
Aim for a happy medium and follow the advice set out below as a guide.
A stopwatch or wristwatch with is more ideal than your phone to time your sets. Why? Distraction and functionality. It can feel very clumsy trying to manage a stopwatch on your phone, set after set - whereas a stopwatch just has a few buttons and can hang from your neck ready to go.
Your rest begins the moment you re-rack the weight and it ends the moment you unrack it again. Loading the weights is rest too.
The actual amount of rest time you should take between sets depends on the number of reps you do:
- 1-6 reps - strength training requires the longest rest between sets, as you strain your body the most. If you work low reps and lift (near) your max weight, 3-5 minutes of rest between sets is optimal.
- 6-12 reps - if your focus is muscle building, you should rest 1-2 minutes between sets. Because your rep range is higher, you’ll use less weight, which means you will tax your body less. For that reason, resting for more than two minutes is unnecessary, as you will lose intensity.
- 12+ reps - if your goal is gaining endurance or burning fat through lifting, you need to rest short, no more than 30 to 90 seconds. Doing high reps with lower weights is the closest you’ll get to cardio while lifting weights. It doesn't tax the body that much, but you still need those breaks to rehydrate and catch your breath.
Night time rest (A.K.A sleep)
You've heard this a million times before, 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night is a must. Sleep regulates your hormones, metabolism, cognitive function, and of course daily performance and energy levels, so getting the right amount is crucial.
Easier said than done?
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make sure you get the recommended amount:
Set an alarm 8.5 hours before the one that wakes you up in the morning. Once it sounds, finish up all activities, brush your teeth and go to sleep. That is the only way to ensure you get the same amount of rest each night.
Use blackout blinds or eye covers
For your body to fully relax, you need to sleep in the dark. If it's impossible for you to put blackout blinds on the windows, consider eye masks. They may feel strange at first, but you’ll get used to them after a few days.
Consider earplugs or white noise
If you want uninterrupted sleep, you need a quiet room. But if you have noisy neighbours or live near a busy road you’ll have to adapt.
Your best bet are earplugs, an inexpensive way to block off the noise. If you find them uncomfortable, you can use a white noise machine, or put a white noise playlist on YouTube.
White noise produces the same or similar sound continually. Think of rain on a tin roof. Those noises block off any other sounds that are not continuous. Our brain adapts to constant noise as without that it would be impossible to fall asleep in the wilderness. But sudden noises alert the brain as they are detected as a potential threat. That doesn't mean it wakes us up, but it affects the sleep quality.
Plan B | Include afternoon naps or sleep longer during weekends
If it's impossible for you to meet the target goal at night, you can try with 45-minute afternoon naps. They will help re-energize you before a workout. Just make sure you schedule them as soon as you come home from work, no later as you don't want them to interfere with your night sleep.
Also, if you are chronically sleep deprived, sleeping longer during weekends will help. It’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. Your goal is to get 7 lots of 8 hours of sleep per week, and sleeping more over the weekend will help you achieve it if there’s no other way.
Active Recovery - Is It Just a Myth?
Active recovery is performing a light exercise during the rest period. The best idea is to do some low-intensity activities such as swimming, cycling, jogging, or to do things that supplement your workouts such as mobility exercises, bodyweight exercises or cardio.
Although overtraining can be a serious risk, our bodies are much more tolerant to exertion than most people think. After all, plenty of old-school bodybuilders (including Arnold!) were also physical workers, doing their workouts after full-time intensive physical labour. That doesn't mean you need to shovel snow between workouts, but doing some light cardio won't hurt.
Supplementing Your Recovery
Although sleep is the most important factor, there are some things you can do to speed up your recovery outside bed:
- Include some recovery-boosting supplements - try casein protein in your evening shake. This slow digesting protein is released into your bloodstream over an extended period, which will fuel your tired muscles, helping them get repaired and become stronger. You can still use whey in your other shakes, but your last shake during the day should be casein or blend. BCAAs, creatine, and carnitine also improve recovery.
- Time your pre-workout and coffee - most pre-workout supplements contain caffeine, a key component responsible for that energy kick. But caffeine suppresses sleep, so make sure you stay off it at least six hours before going to bed.
- Relax two hours before bed - in other words, don't work out immediately before your bedtime. Strenuous activity will prevent you from falling asleep, and for that reason try to quiet down and relax before going to sleep. The best activity you can do before bed is reading a book – it’s quiet, relaxing, and you can do it while in bed.
- Stretch - stretching extends your range of motion, giving an opportunity for new muscle growth. Also, it helps you reach depth and proper form in compound movements such as OHP, squat and deadlift. It will also reduce soreness, making your resting days more tolerable. Twenty minutes of cooldown and stretching after your workouts will make a world of difference.
Final Thoughts on Recovery
As you can see, there’s so much more to recovery than meets the eye. Muscles are made outside of the gym. The gym and weights only trigger growth; all the rest happens away from it.
Don't neglect recovery. Yes, going to bed early isn’t exactly glamorous, but your future gains are. The only way you’re going to get those is through proper training, nutrition, supplementation and recovery.