It’s funny, most trainees will happily scour the internet for hours searching for the top secret training program/pec exercise/supplement regime that will finally get them progressing again. Spoiler alert, there are no secrets; us strength coaches don’t convene in dark alleyways to share the top-secret training plans passed down from Odin’s personal trainer only to deprive the rest of the word of them.
Training is (relatively) simple, so long as you follow a sensible program with a progression system and train hard then you are ticking the box you need to progress as far as training goes. Are you training hard enough? Now, that’s for you to introspect about, many think they do, but most don’t.
But for the sake of this article let’s assume you put as much effort in to your training as Johnny Depp does in to thoroughly washing his bed sheets.
Now, if you’re reading this article then you probably like training. Training is the easy part of the equation because you enjoy it! But do you put the same attention and focus on what you’re doing with the other 95% of your time??
The Importance of Recovery
You don’t improve if you don’t recover. It’s as simple as that. The training session is essentially a traumatic event that signals to the body that adaptations are needed to help your body survive should a similar stressor happen again. If you’re chronically under-recovering then your body never has the opportunity to improve its physical capacities to bring about these adaptations.
Think of it this way; let’s say our average workout causes 20 “units” of “damage” to our body (it’s not literal damage, but you get the idea). Now, our immune system, even in ideal circumstances (adequate sleep, calorie surplus, low life stress) may only be able to repair 12 units of damage per day.
So if our average trainee wants to do their workouts 5 days per week then we’re going to run in to a problem:
5 workouts @ 20 units of “damage’ each = 100 units
7 days of recovery @ 12 units each = 84 units
Weekly balance = -12 units
So straight away we’re in a “recovery deficit”. Even if our weekly “damage” came to 84 units, that would just put us at back at square one. We need our weekly “damage” to be a little LESS than our recovery ability because after all we want to not just recover but positively adapt also, which takes resources.
So if we want to start moving in the right direction once again we have two options:
Do less “damage”
Increase your recovery ability
So how do we go about getting ourselves in to a positive recovery balance?
Method 1 – Train Less (More is not better)
Amongst those of us that enjoy training we are guilty of doing TOO MUCH far more often than we are guilty of doing too little. It’s easy for us to rationalise needing to train more to get more gains but we find it very difficult to get our head around doing LESS to gain more.
What most people need to address here is the amount of junk volume in their plan. You know what I’m referring to here:
Incline Barbell Press – 4 sets
Flat Dumbbell Press – 4 sets
Decline Dumbbell Press – 4 sets
Incline Dumbbell Fly – 3 sets
Cable Cross-over – 2 sets
Here the trainee has just performed every sort of chest exercise that they can think of with the idea of “leaving no stone un-turned”. But this amount of workload usually means one of two things:
The sets being performed aren’t nearly intense enough to cause the stimulus we want
The sets ARE intense enough and the cumulative stress from this number of sets is so high you have almost zero chance of recovering adequately.
To understand how much volume you need you need to understand the concept of maximally effective reps (here on in MER). Without going in to too much detail, MERs are reps that recruit all readily available motor units and muscle fibres, including the fast-twitch fibres, which are the ones we’re targeting for hypertrophy (slow twitch fibres have little to no hypertrophy potential). For a rep to be maximally effective it must require 80%+ of your available force potential at that moment in time. So for example, if you just used 80% of your 1RM for a set then all the reps you would perform would be maximally effective.
Now, in a set if you stop one rep short of failure (a.k.a 1 rep in reserve/RIR) then you will get 5 maximally effective reps per set. If you stop 2 reps short of failure (2RIR) then you will get 4 and so on.
Yes, you can COULD go to failure on all sets and get 1 more MER per set but unless you’re using very low neurologically demanding exercises this generally isn’t worth the trade off.
The average intermediate will need 20-25 MERs per muscle group to stimulate progress. Bare in mind, we don’t get “extra progress” for going above and beyond this. Once you hit that 20-25 MER target you have two choices:
Go home and start recovering now
Keep going and give yourself more workload to recover from with zero benefit
Make your choice.
So let’s look at our previous Monday evening bro chest workout from earlier. If all sets are done to 1RIR then we get:
Incline Barbell Press – 4 sets – 5MER x 4 = 20MER
Flat Dumbbell Press – 4 sets – 5MER x 4 = 20MER
Decline Dumbbell Press – 4 sets – 5MER x 4 = 20MER
Incline Dumbbell Fly – 3 sets – 5MER x 3 = 15MER
Cable Cross-over – 2 sets – 5MER x 2 = 10MER
Here we get 85MER. Over 3 times the upper limit of what we need to stimulate the maximal amount of progress from this workout. In fact, our lifter here could have literally done the first exercise and gone home!
But the above is rarely what we see. What we normally see is this:
Incline Barbell Press – 4 sets – done to 4RIR (but thinks it’s 1RIR) – 8MER
Flat Dumbbell Press – 4 sets – done to 4RIR (but thinks it’s 1RIR) – 8MER
Decline Dumbbell Press – 4 sets – done to 5RIR (but thinks it’s 2RIR) – 4MER
Incline Dumbbell Fly – 3 sets – done to 3RIR (but “pushed it to the limit bro”) – 9MER
Cable Cross-over – 2 sets – done to 5RIR (“Was so pumped I could barely move”) – 2MER
Here our lifter has accumulated 29MER. So they’ve gone just above the upper limit, which isn’t too bad. BUT look at how much volume they did to achieve this! They performed 17 sets to get their 29MER. THIS is what we mean by “junk volume”
Our lifter in the previous example could have gotten to the same number of MER in 6 sets because they were pushing their sets to an appropriate intensity. From a recovery (and time consumption) standpoint this is far superior because they are performing 1/3 of the volume to achieve the same end goal.
Please note that here I am referring to the maximal stimulation and volume required from ONE WORKOUT. This does not mean you can’t do more work for those muscle groups later in the week. But the point is that at this point you have already stimulated as much protein synthesis from that workout as you possible can; so there’s no point doing more work until it’s dropped back down to baseline (48-72 hours later).
Train harder and don’t fall in to the common trap of using excessive volume to try to compensate for a lack of intensity. Give yourself less workload to recover from without sacrificing the signal we’re sending to our body to adapt.
Method 2 – Calorie Balance
It saddens me that we have to address this as it SHOULD be obvious. But you’d be amazed how many lifters/athletes are essentially training with one arm behind your back by constantly training while in a calorie deficit; usually because they are afraid of not being shredded any more (bro).
Even if your goal is performance based, for most athletes putting on muscle is going to be one of the quickest and easiest ways to improve your power/speed/strength. Yes, once you get to over a double bodyweight squat and deadlift the benefits for athletic performance start to decrease (it’s still beneficial to get stronger, the returns ratio is just reduced) but even then you shouldn’t actively AVOID gaining muscle by staying away from calorie surplus (unless you’re in a weight class sport, but even then, eat at maintenance!). Likewise, the benefit to gaining muscle is even greater if you are a strength-based athlete such as a powerlifter/strongman/”Oly lifter” (I use this term purely to annoy Chris).
A calorie deficit is something you use for a specific period to reduce bodyfat % or make a weight class or whatever, it IS NOT a permanent state to be in.
Even if we are in a situation where we want to avoid any hypertrophy, eating in a calorie deficit reduces our recovery abilities. To use our example from the introduction, if our body has 100 units of recovery ability per week in optimal conditions, then in a calorie deficit it may only have 70-90 units (depending on the severity of the deficit).
So straight away it means we can recover from less training, meaning we must train less. Training less is going to lead to less results. So where is the benefit here?
Oh, and for the “dude I’m re-comping so I eat more on training days and less on rest days” crowd…. Stop, please please please, just stop. Unless you are: on drugs, coming back from a layoff or are the next Brad Castleberry then all this will result in is spinning your wheels. At worst, you’ll make no progress in fat loss or hypertrophy. At best, you’ll make painstakingly slow progress in one or both.
Christian said it best in graphic below so I won’t address this specific anymore:
Method 3 – Sleep and Stimulants
At the end of the day we still don’t REALLY understand why we have to sleep. We just know that’s it’s really f***ing important. Especially for neurological recovery.
The way I like to simplify it is like this; during the day (especially in our modern society) our brain is constantly bombarded with stimuli. Whether it’s noise, work stress, your phone screen, being forced to interact with your suspiciously sweaty co-worker who death stares you all day. My point is our brain has all these inputs to process all day long.
When we sleep it’s the only time we get give our brain has (almost) no external stimuli. Which allows it to recover and keep our receptors from desensitizing/burning out etc. The central drive of your nervous system (afferent signal sent from motor cortex to your motor units) and the sensitivity of your beta-adrenergic receptors (which adrenaline binds to) are two huge factors affecting your ability to perform.
Now, everyone knows they should be getting 7-9 hours of sleep a night (some studies on high level athletes have even shown continuing benefits up to 10 hours of sleep per night) so I’m not going to harp on about that. But if you are one of these people who are worrying about what type of creatine to buy to improve their “gainz” but is then only getting 5/6 hours of sleep a night because you’re up all night on PornHub and Facebook; then I’m sorry, but you may just be an idiot.
The nervous system is what governs your performance (for the most part) so looking after that first and foremost is key if you want to perform at a high level. Getting more sleep is the easiest way to do that.
These are my go to’s for improving sleep quality:
Emphasise your circadian rhythm – this is what tells your brain when it’s time to wake up and be alert and when it needs to wind down. So how can you expect to sleep well if your brain doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going? Everyone should strive to not need an alarm as part of his or her daily routine.
To achieve this, first, you need a reasonably consistent schedule with regards to when you go to sleep and when you wake up. Ideally, this would match the sunrise and sunset timings as closely as possible. This isn’t realistic for everyone; if you’re one of those people then I’d simply give the guideline that everyone hour of sleep you get BEFORE midnight is worth double.
Next you should start and finish every day by cementing that rhythm, this is incredibly simple. Every morning aim to get at least 10-15 minutes direct sunlight exposure as soon as possible after you wake up. Just to give your body the clear message that this time is the time to be awake and alert. Likewise, just before you go to bed get yourself outside again and this time spend 10-15minutes+ in the moonlight to give your body the signal that it’s time to wind down and rest.
Make your bedroom the best possible environment for sleep – yes, yes we all know there should be no TV in your bedroom (or any blue light sources for that matter) but I’m not going to be the guy who ruins your Netflix and chill time.
But there are plenty of things you can do to still make your bedroom more conducive to good sleep. Firstly, get yourself blackout blinds, you need your bedroom as dark as humanly possible. Any sunlight that can seep in through your blinds/curtains can knock you out of REM sleep and begin the waking process. Then there’s the fact that most of us live in environments where there is a constant source of background artificial light that can also disrupt sleep patterns. If making your bedroom very dark isn’t realistic for you then get yourself a sleep/eye mask, but this definitely an inferior option.
Next up, your bedroom needs to be cool, cooler than normal room temperature. Ideally you want your bedroom kept at 16-19 degrees Celsius. I mean, our body developed in a time where we didn’t have nice insulated walls and central heating. So subconsciously we associate night-time with lower temperatures. Men tend to prefer the lower end of this whereas women often need the room a touch warmer. Now if you’ve got air-con/climate control this is an easy fix. If, however, like me you live in a country like the UK where air-con isn’t common (because we get like 5 “hot” days per year and spend that whole time freaking out like hell has come to Earth) then get yourself a fan or two for your bedroom. I sleep with a fan on year round to keep the bedroom cool enough for me to sleep properly. Getting your bedroom in this temperature range can vastly improve your sleep quality, especially if you find yourself waking up regularly during the night (which can often be from over-heating).
The upside of using fans here can also be that it provides some constant background noise. If you struggle to get your bedroom quiet (another pre-requisite for a good sleep environment) then having low-level background noise is the next best thing as it can mask sudden noises that may otherwise disturb your sleep.
Limit stimulants – I’m really not a fan of regularly using stimulants. They mask neural fatigue and often leave people digging themselves in to a ditch (recovery wise) that can take a long time to get out of. Stimulants like caffeine can very quickly down-regulate your beta receptors either leaving you feeling fatigued and de-motivated or, more regularly, progressively using more and more just to feel normal.
Most commonly those that abuse stimulants are high-stress individuals that have a lot on their plate and feel they “need” it to get everything done that they need to. So they are already in a high stress state with elevated cortisol; which in turn leads to elevated adrenaline and over-time down regulated beta-receptors. Stimulants like caffeine then exacerbate this even further until eventually your lawyer friend is drinking 8 cans of Red Bull a day just to not feel like a zombie.
Stimulants can be very useful tools AT THE RIGHT TIME. They are not for every day use. For example, I use 100mg caffeine (basically an average cup of coffee) prior to my heaviest training session each week, that is essentially the only caffeine in my diet (the copious amount of amphetamines is irrelevant so we’ll bypass that conveniently). That 100mg of caffeine has a VERY noticeable effect on my performance and energy level. But I only get that pronounced effect due to my limited and infrequent use of it.
If you are going to use caffeine/stimulants then you need to limit the negative effects:
Don’t use stimulants past early afternoon (1/2pm) so the elevated adrenaline has less effect on your circadian rhythm (cortisol starts to come down when the sun sets to help you unwind to sleep)
Use the minimal effect dose; if you need more than100-150mg of caffeine to get any effect then you need to lower your dependency and likely take a break from them for a short while. The good news is your beta-receptors will re-sensitize pretty quick and then you can re-introduce them (at a low dose)
Use supplements to help bring your adrenaline back down. My favourite ones here are glycine and magnesium. If you’re using stimulants pre-workout then take these immediately post-WO to kick-start the winding down process for your nervous system. If you’re using them for another reason (long drive, after a poor nights sleep) then I would be taking these around 4/5pm when your cortisol/adrenaline naturally wants to start dipping down.
Another supplement than can be of use here is Ashwaganda. It helps modulate cortisol (and therefore adrenaline) to stop it from going too high (or too low) which can help minimise the negative effects of stimulant use. This generally works well when taken both in the morning and evening.
Method 4 – Recovery Methods
In the previous 3 methods I have addressed 90% of the recovery game. If you are training, sleeping and eating well and in-line with your goals then you’ve already won a huge part of the battle. These methods are more like the icing on the cake as it were. But they are still going to be very important if you do really want to squeeze every ounce of progress and performance out of your body
Meditation/Breathing practice – I’m honestly a huge believer in meditation. But I do find it’s a massively misunderstood concept. Meditation doesn’t have to be a religious, nor does it mean you need to atop a mountain in full lotus position humming and chanting to yourself. Meditation is simply the act of sitting still and clearing your mind to give it less stimuli to deal with. This can look like completely different things to different people.
The only hard and fast rules in my opinion are:
You should be still – get in to whatever position is most comfortable. You want a posture that doesn’t require much conscious effort to maintain. So it could be as simple as lying down or you could do like I do and sit in “zazen”, it doesn’t matter. It’s whatever allows you to relax and focus on your breathing
It’s not about thinking of nothing – you’ll soon find that thinking of nothing is impossible. The only time the brain thinks of nothing is when we’re dead. People who go in to meditation with that goal simply end up getting frustrated and ruining the whole point of it. The goal of meditation is to let your thoughts happen BUT not to dwell on them. Without sounding like a wannabe shaolin monk (which I am) the goal is to imagine your thoughts like the water of a river running in front of you. You can see it/them but they flow past and disappear.
Breathing should be slow and through your nose – nasal breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), which is the goal here. We want to slow our breathing rate down as low as possible, which will in turn stimulate the parasympathetic system and bring our heart rate down. There is not right or wrong method here so long as the breathing is slow, down in to the belly and through the nose. I like to shoot for a 2:1 ratio of exhale in to inhale time, i.e. if your inhale takes 3s then your exhale should last 6s.
So do meditation your own way. If after it you feel relaxed with more mental clarity then it’s worked, even if you’re using an unconventional method. My method is to sit in zazen pose immediately after a workout or at the end of the day and listen to some form of music I find relaxing (that’s right I don’t always listen to bands called things like Cattle Decapatation or Destroy Destroy Destroy; just most of the time) with my eyes shut. Then I simply focus on breathing down in to my hips and getting my breathing and heart rate low. I don’t put a time goal on it that simply adds stress, it takes as long as it takes. Sometimes I only listen to one song and I feel refreshed, other days I’m there for 20-30minutes. Don’t force it.
Soft tissue work – even if you do everything right recovery-wise training that is intense enough to stimulate progress will also cause muscle tightness along with knots and adhesions. Now, you could rely on regular sports massages but I like people to be as self reliant as possible (plus we don’t all have the money for that anyway). Traditional stretching CAN work well for loosening off any tight areas but it won’t get rid of knots and adhesions. Likewise loaded stretching is a far more robust tool for increasing mobility while bringing a host of other benefits
for more info read Christian’s article on loaded stretching
Rest days are great time to get this sort of work done. My favourite two methods for this are using a Gua Sha or Cupping. Please note that for these methods to work you MUST first massage the area you are going to treat. The area must be warm with good blood flow otherwise these will not only have very little effect but also be more painful.
Gua Sha – these are used for “muscle scraping”. Essentially you break up the adhesions in the muscle tissue by scraping the “blade” over the muscle fibres. In a similar way to your sports masseuse might do using their hands/elbows/claws. When using a Gua Sha make sure the muscle is warm and fully relaxed, any muscle tension will make this even more unpleasant.
Run the “blade” up and down the muscle IN LINE WITH the muscle fibres. You will invariably find areas that are more sensitive and have a feeling almost like that of bubble wrap. These are the areas you focus on. Scrape back and forth over the area with progressively more pressure. If you have a knot in the muscle then you may well get a very satisfying “POP” sensation at some point when you apply pressure in the perfect spot and break it up.
*Expert tip – use some kind of thick moisturiser/massage oil while doing this. Provided you want some skin left after it*
If you have some very stubborn adhesions then you can try scraping PERPENDICULAR to the direction of the muscle fibres. This will feel more uncomfortable but is a more aggressive technique that works well if required.
You can also use a “flossing” technique where you apply pressure to a particularly stubborn adhesion or knot and then have the muscle relax and contract while the pressure is applied. For example, if you have a knot in the middle of your quad you would apply pressure down on the trouble spot and then perform full ROM leg extensions with that leg. The muscle then lengthens and shortens while under pressure which can help you get at stubborn or deeper lying issues.
Cupping – You can pick up a set of cups off Amazon etc. now for pretty cheap. Cupping simply works by pulling extra blood in to an area that has already been treated, but it is very effective. So you would massage the troublesome area (or even use the Gua Sha on it) and then apply the cups to the areas that needed the most attention. You need to apply enough suction/pressure that the skin clearly pulls up inside the cup but not so much that it becomes very painful. It SHOULD be uncomfortable but not unbearable.
You want to be as still as possible while the cups are in place and then leave them there for 5-8 minutes. Once the time is up, release the cups and then move the effected area around to pump further blood through the area (if you did you biceps for example then do some imaginary bicep curls or something similar).
You can also do a scraping-type method using cups which is very good for flushing blood through an entire muscle. Say you’ve done a hard session yesterday for your quads. First you’d massage the whole muscle to “soften it”. Then you would apply a cup to the top of the quad; from here you’d pull the cup (while it’s still suctioned on to your quad) up and down the length of the quad repeatedly. Not only does the edge of the cup give a scraping effect similar to the Gua Sha but it also pulls blood through the whole muscle belly. However, this doesn’t feel great, so be warned. Likewise, this method works GREAT for tendons but it’s definitely better suited for those with a high pain tolerance or a penchant for BDSM.
I know, lot the most thrilling article you’ll ever read. I’ll include some chainsaw juggling, fire breathing and Marvel references in my next one to make up. BUT sadly this “boring” stuff is the stuff that the committed folk do to get the results that everyone else is after.
Going to the gym for 1-2 hours a few times a week is easy. It’s the fun bit. Or at least, it damn should be! If you’re not enjoying your training, even if it’s in masochistic kinda way, then you won’t last long enough to get far anyway.
It’s making the other 22/23 hours of the day work towards your goals also that is the hard part. That requires real lifestyle changes performed day in and day out doing stuff that is generally boring at best or painful at worst.
If you really want to be performing as well as you can then you need to ask yourself “Am I really doing EVERYTHING I can to get my body to where I want it to go?”. I doubt you are. And hey not everyone wants to be elite, not everyone wants to be 8% bodyfat or deadlift 800lbs. Not everyone needs to do all these things to get to where they want to be.
But EVERYONE would benefit from doing at least SOME of these things.