Most guys who workout are primarily concerned with which body part to do that day, how many reps and how many sets, and what weights they should be using. But all of that will get you nowhere if you don't give your muscles a chance to recover from their work. Likewise, your body needs the opportunity to reform your muscles and rejuvenate itself. If guys think about this at all, they usually do so in terms of the rest periods from one gym day to the next. But to really get everything you can out of your time in the gym, you need to think seriously about recovery from a variety of perspectives. Here are a few of the variables that come into play with recovery, and what you can do to maximize your downtime.
1. Days Off
It is extremely important not to overdo it in the gym each week. I know we all want to get bigger and stronger, but you have to let your body rest. Sufficient rest is every bit as important as hard work. Always give yourself at least one day of "active rest" each week. That doesn't mean lying on the sofa all day—especially for athletes and gym boys, it's tough to just sit around and do absolutely nothing. So, for your "off" day, take a hike, take your bicycle out of the garage and go for an easy ride. Your "active rest" day is a great time to start that simple yoga class you've been meaning to do, or work on some low-intensity stretching. Get out of the gym and let your body take a break from the stress of the week and the strain of your workouts.
2. Post-Workout Protein Uptake and a Balanced Diet
Supplementing your protein can really help maximize your ability to rebuild muscle after a workout. Some benefits of protein ingestion include increased muscle protein synthesis while improving your recovery from endurance and strength training; decreased muscle protein breakdown; increased use of fat energy at rest as well as during training; and reduced muscle soreness and fatigue. So you probably want to take in some protein. Still, there are many different opinions on when and how to consume that protein. That's why I've consulted a professional.
According to Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area, creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs, and founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You, in order for your muscles to have optimal protein uptake, you should combine your protein with some carbohydrates. When you combine protein and carbs, you increase your insulin levels. Insulin causes vasodilation, or expansion of the blood vessels, which allows for more blood and nutrient transport. Increased insulin levels also help to decrease muscle breakdown and help to speed up protein synthesis within our muscles.
You need to consume these nutrients within a short period after exercise, so they can help your muscles during their most intense period. Villacorta recommends that you ingest a lean protein and carbohydrate drink within 15 to 30 minutes of your workout. That means choosing a drink with 15 to 20 grams of protein and 30 to 40 grams of carbohydrates. Make sure, though, that it is also low in sugar and fat. This is far better than eating an energy bar, for instance—liquid ingestion will be transported throughout your body to muscle cells faster than solid food. Of course, just drinking your protein and carbs drink isn't going to do much good if eat poorly the rest of the day. For more on creating a balanced and healthy nutrition program, see Villacorta's RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs and Muscle Weight-Gain Programs.
Periodization is another, more active version of giving your body a break. Periodization means mixing up your standard workouts with periods—usually a week—during which you do something very different. You don't just do this to take a break, but actually to allow yourself to get bigger. Even though you are pushing hard each workout, your muscles continually work to adapt to your method. They become used to the stress you are placing upon them, and your hard work will very quickly stop paying off. You need to re-introduce the element of surprise. So, about every four to six weeks, use lighter weights for your routine and mix things up with a circuit or completely different routine (power, bodyweight only, heavier cardio—the options are pretty limitless). This will help you get out of the complacency of your workout and also give your body a chance to recover, while still maintaining the work you have done.
I know we all lead busy lives, but sleep is one of the most important factors in muscle recovery. A lack of sleep causes a decrease in your productivity and can lead to injury and illness. When your body is tired, you don't have the endurance to get through your busy day, let alone to lift as much weight and keep up your workouts. You should really be getting about eight to ten hours of sleep each night. Your body depends on this. Also, if you have the luxury, afternoon naps can be extremely beneficial. Some benefits of sleep include increased blood supply to muscles; a lowered metabolic rate, which is optimal for tissue repair; and peak secretion of growth hormone during deep sleep. All of these are crucial to rebuilding muscle fiber after tough workouts. Also, sleeping improves your immune function—and being sick will make you either miss workouts entirely or barely scrape through them without accomplishing much.
To help you get the proper rest you need, you need to make sleep a priority. Here are some tips: Try to go to bed at the same time every night and stick to it, so your body becomes primed for sleep each day at the same hour. Also, avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol starting about four to five hours before your bedtime. These drinks impair both your sleep quality and your ability to enter REM or deep sleep. Finally, the more you use your weekends to party and stay out all night drinking, the less rest you have going into a week of training. That's starting at a deficit. If you are serious about wanting results in the gym, then your weekends should be the time for your toughest workouts, since you have all day to push yourself and can even so get more rest.
Stretching is the single most neglected aspect of working out. Given the way we beat down our muscles while lifting, we need to really put an emphasis on counteracting that with functional flexibility training. That said, how to stretch will be different for everyone. Stretching should be used as a tool to correct muscle and posture imbalances so that your body remains in correct alignment for your workouts and exercises.
To get a feel for stretching, you can invest in taking a stretching or yoga class. To design a stretch program particular to the needs of your body, try using foam rollers (see photos 2 and 3 in this stretching article for an example of a foam roller). These common gym tools are a great place to start your research into finding out what areas of your body are tight and need lengthening. I recommend foam rolling before you start your workouts since it brings blood to your muscle and opens them up in a therapeutic way—much like massage. Using a foam roller can provide similar benefits as deep-tissue massage. By increasing flexibility and decreasing muscle tension, it can help prevent injury and improve performance for your workout to follow. After you have completed a workout, I recommend more foam rolling and or static stretching. For stretching you want to hold the stretch for at least 20 seconds. For the first 20 seconds of a stretch, your muscles will think they are still working. After 20 seconds, the Golgi tendon organ, which is responsible for sending contraction and relaxation impulses, releases and allows for the stretch and lengthening of the muscle. In general, we should all incorporate about 10 minutes of investigative stretching into each workout session.
About Diakadi Fitness Tips: Diakadi Fitness Tips is a series of weekly features and interviews with Billy Polson and Mike Clausen, founders of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want them to answer? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.