Recovery is a hot topic nowadays. The general myth holds that one can do stuff like work themselves hard in the gym over a short period and thus fall into a dangerous period of “overtraining”, resulting in loss of muscular and strength gains. Thus, a careful application of recovery and effort must be synchronized in order to prevent such a possibility.
In general, this view of overtraining is simplistic. Overtraining is a syndrome which affects high volume athletes who are generally training for hours daily, and its symptoms resemble depression and similarly may take a period of long months to overcome. In essence, overtraining results from a long and sustained period of under-recovery, and is unlikely to be the result of a hard week or four of lifting.
One common prescription to thwart overtraining is the use of rest weeks, usually one in every four. While this may have its merits, this is generally a waste. Westside uses it, for example: does that mean that all exercisers training for strength should? No, because chances are you’re not training nearly as hard as the Westside athletes, who aside from lifting very heavy very regularly are also training twice per day on training days and are probably doing a much higher volume of work than your copied “Westside” template. For most beginner and even intermediate lifters, this week off is just another week you could be lifting instead of sitting on your ass.
We also have plans outside of the traditional conception of stress and recovery, like the recently popular Bulgarian-style systems. For those unenlightened, the Bulgarian Olympic lifting team, under the tutelage of Ivan Abadjiev, began training under a program in which they lifted to near maxes on a variety of lifts each and every day, including squats, deadlifts, clean and jerks, and snatches. While common sense holds that such an intense workload should dictate poor recovery and lots of injuries, the Bulgarian team instead skyrocketed to immediate success, reaching levels of strength you probably dream about while sucking down preworkout and putting on Kanye West to get yourself pumped up for your 200lb 1RM bench press. (Guilty, in a past life.)
Matt Perryman’s excellent ebook, Squat Every Day, examines the factors of recovery and points out that it’s a much more complex system than most people expect. (And if you're not following Matt because of the probably 9000 times I've already mentioned him, that's a mistake.) Since repeated stressors over time are less and less effective by nature of the body becoming more accustomed to them, constant training means that you actually train your body to recover more quickly over time - this is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy, meaning that both the people who say you should train one lift heavy only once per week and the people who say you can train it all seven days are right. The difference between the two is only the time/adaptation required to change from one set of habits to the other, and your body becomes accustomed to one volume and correspondingly adjusts your recovery ability to match.
In general, you can do whatever you want in the gym, provided that you’re in decent shape, without worrying about injury or overtraining being the result of poor recovery. Beginners (less than one year of lifting) should take it more carefully, and structure themselves around a more basic program with at least 2-3 days off per week. Injury can be related to poor recovery/overwork, but generally in such cases an injury is only incurred by ignoring negative signals or pushing the body too hard within a single workout, such as what happens when you make a sudden jump in workload or intensity that your body isn’t accustomed to. Advanced athletes (3+ years of hard training) have likely improved their recovery to the point that they can recover quickly and easily from even high volumes of heavy work, and so long as outside factors don’t compromise their recovery (high levels of stress, lifestyle changes, lack of basic recovery factors) and they don’t push themselves extremely hard for a sustained period of time (1 month+) they are likely to be able to handle nearly anything thrown at them. They're all the incredible Hulk, even if they're convinced they have more in common with mild-mannered Bruce Banner.
Muscular soreness, while certainly a real indicator of physical damage, is rarely solely an indicator of such. Since pain responses are mediated by the brain and its customization to repeated trauma, novelty stimuli (such as that invoked by an unexpectedly intense workout, or a movement the body isn’t accustomed to) will always cause more soreness than ones it’s more conditioned to respond to. Soreness is NOT an indicator of the effectiveness of a workout, and should never be taken as such. It's just the penalty you pay for trying something new. It's the respec cost you pay to change your talent points on your World of Warcraft character.
Soreness generally means that, in conjunction with some degree of trauma to the tissue itself as a result of exercise, the brain thinks that this area must be protected by the negative pain stimulus to prevent further trauma. It's like when you're a kid and you learn not to touch hot things after the first time you accidentally do - but then we find ourselves regularly pulling hot bowls out of the microwave with our bare hands when we get older because we're too impatient to wait and we know we won't hurt ourselves too bad. This doesn’t mean that training a sore muscle will cause injury - for a well-conditioned individual, this is unlikely to be the case. Sore muscles will not perform as well as fresh ones, and high amounts of soreness should not be trained around, but lightly sore muscles can still be trained, albeit at a lower intensity/volume than they could be were they fresh. Again, this poses no unusual threat of injury.
When it comes to actual injury, such as a pulled muscle or a sharp pain as a result of exercise, the best reaction is to reduce intensity and volume. The severity of the injury determines the severity of this reduction. A small muscle pull might require only that you skip the heaviest sets of a strength workout or a slight cutback in the volume of a hypertrophy workout, whereas a broken bone or other serious trauma would obviously require a complete reduction. However, the individual should always aim to exercise to tolerance, within reasonable limits and with the help of a qualified medical practitioner such as a physical therapist. The more movement you can perform, the faster you’ll be able to recover and the more function you’ll have upon recovery. Movement helps remove the negative association the brain makes with that movement, essentially telling it that you don’t have to be afraid.
However, the key here is a proper understanding of what constitutes safe movement, since many people will try to go back to a regular volume too quickly and reinjure themselves. Even simple bodyweight movements may in some cases be too much, and some injuries present challenges that may make it difficult to get in safe movement. Simple mobility and flexibility exercises to tolerance may be all that can be done. Again, it is important to seek out a qualified physiotherapist rather than attempting to go it alone.
That being said, here’s what we do know about recovery, and what works.
When it comes to recovery, sleep is probably the single most factor. Greg Nuckols has already written up a pair of excellent articles here and here to cover the effects of sleep deprivation on training. In general, sleep deprivation is BAD, like, Sauron level of bad. If you don’t get enough sleep, you’ll see reductions in anabolism and gains in catabolism, resulting in less lean mass and more fat mass over time, further resulting in loss of strength as a result. You NEED to get enough sleep if you’re going to function at your best.
Unfortunately, this can be difficult in the modern fast-paced world. Many may turn to exercise to help correct sleep issues the way I did when I was first starting out, and while the effort of exercise will generally improve sleeping efforts, it’s still possible to not get enough sleep due to a demanding schedule. You should sleep as much as your body demands, particularly on weekends when you’ve got more free time. While sleep needs will vary from person to person, getting enough sleep should be a necessity and not an option.
When it comes to recovery, diet is a close second. If you’re not eating enough calories to fuel your activity level, you’re going to lose weight. Obviously this is the point if you’re attempting to lean out, but if you’re training for performance or muscle mass you should be always consuming enough to fuel that activity level. The body performs best when in a slight caloric surplus, and when in a deficit performance will suffer the way I do when faced with a glass of ice cold Coca Cola while on a cut.
Another factor is adequate protein consumption. If you’re not getting enough protein (0.8g/lb/day is more than sufficient for most individuals) then you won’t be building/maintaining optimal amounts of muscle in your training. Protein should be consumed within 2 hours of the workout (before or after) to minimize the acute catabolism of exercise, but aside from that it can be consumed throughout the day as needed to make up the total macro.
When it comes to recovering from long-duration workouts, we need to replenish what is lost as a result. On long cardio activities, you may need to consume water, fast-processing carbs for energy, and electrolytes to replace those lost through sweat. Sports drinks such as Gatorade are ideal for this purpose. However this only matters in workouts lasting longer than 1 hour, meaning that typical gym workouts of less than an hour (where you see 90% of all Gatorade consumed in the fitness setting) have no need of such replenishment. Further, if you’re attempting to lose weight, that Gatorade can be a hindrance since it’s adding additional calories. The protein shake is generally an ideal post-workout nutrient source, because it provides the protein needed for maximal anabolism while also providing the carb needed for maximal energy store replenishment.
In general, this is it! When it comes to dietary factors influencing recovery, people often hype up the importance of micronutrients, plant foods, and supplements. While these have a small impact on performance, particularly in significantly non-standard populations, they are generally unimportant compared to the holy sleep/diet duo.
Albeit in a distant third, other factors certainly can have a massive part in aiding your recovery. Massage, foam rolling, physical therapy, chiropractic, mobility work, flexibility work, cold/heat therapy, and more can all potentially work for you. In general, research confirms that most of these methods are only a little bit better than placebo (see Paul Ingraham’s excellent site for more analysis). That’s not to say they don’t work, but in general that means that most of their force comes from the force of placebo associated with them.
All recovery methods can work, provided that they are pleasurable, easily accessible, and that they provide a positive stimulus. Stress reduction techniques such as meditation can also improve recovery, probably by many of the same mechanisms. Having great sex can be relaxing! Taking a day off to play Pillars of Eternity can be relaxing! (My solution, having finished my first fantasy ebook.) Binge watching the new Daredevil series on Netflix can be relaxing! Just because these methods all function mostly by placebo doesn’t mean that they can’t be useful. Individual methods will certainly vary in power based on the individual’s response, and so it matters more that you find something you like and stick with it more than that you search for the “ideal” recovery technique or that you do all of them at once in order to “maximize” your recovery. Thinking about recovery in such terms is unhelpful, because it’s more of a self-mediated subjective response than an objective and measurable one.
Additionally, since the placebo effect accounts for a large percentage of the effectiveness of such techniques, we must beware the possibility of nocebo effects as well. (The opposite of placebo, like orcs to elves.) Many of these techniques provide stimuli which, while generally considered positive, can induce pain or stress as well because they’re still based around physical stress to the body, albeit at a very minimal level. Centering your recovery methods around “fixing” “issues” within your body can often create these very issues by positing them as things to be fixed and thus creating heightened associated pain/dysfunction responses. Avoid going overboard and focus only on recovery techniques that you feel actually benefit you - again, it’s a subjective matter, so be as subjective as you want.
And that’s really it! You don’t need to go super crazy on figuring out ideal recovery methods, because as mentioned above sleep and diet account for the majority of your recovery, in ways that we can objectively measure. When it comes to everything else, it’s simply a matter of reducing stress, providing positive physical stimuli, and making sure that you’re enjoying yourself. Since the response to other recovery techniques will largely be subjective in nature, it’s up to you to decide what works and what doesn’t. I may have rambled a bit today, but I hope that I’ve covered just about any question you could think of related to training recovery, and if not GFY!
(Just kidding. If not, send me an email! I’d love to tackle any confusion/omission in a further post.)