The Importance of Recovery
We all know the importance of consistent hard training; however, motivated lifters often tend to undervalue proper rest and recovery, possibly shortchanging their results. If you are the type to think “I’ll sleep when I'm dead”, and that rest days are wasteful, then this article will help you see the value of proper recovery, hopefully improving your results.
How does muscle growth work?
As you may know, when you train you stimulate a series of cascading effects that enable your body to build new muscle tissue. Biology being what it is, these processes are slow and will likely take several days and weeks to come to fruition.
Among these processes, muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is arguably the most important. It is literally responsible for building new protein cells to rebuild, repair, and grow your muscle tissue. Aside from your training, this process requires a steady supply of amino acids to work effectively. Otherwise, it simply doesn’t have enough building blocks to complete its tasks. Typically, a training session will stimulate MPS and increase your sensitivity to dietary protein for roughly 24 to 72 hours.
Another important process you might be familiar with is muscle protein breakdown (MPB). It is responsible for slowly breaking down muscle tissue, basically having the opposite effect of MPS and arguably one of the reasons we are not all Hulk-sized mass monsters. However, the reason that MPB isn’t worth worrying about, is that there isn't that much you can do to affect it. Once you eat anything with a decent calorie content, you’ll maximally reduce MPB (by roughly 50%).
Let’s recap, the total amount of muscle you get to carry on your frame is the net balance between MPS and MPB over time. As you train and eat protein, you reduce MPB and stimulate MPS, thus accumulating quality muscle muss over time. What does any of this have to do with recovery? I’m getting there.
Overtraining and its effects on muscle growth.
As we have already established, training is an essential ingredient of muscle growth. However, once you go beyond the necessary training required to stimulate muscle growth, you enter a problematic territory. Consistent inadequate rest can lead to a variety of effects that mess with the balance we discussed previously.
The initial training sessions are simulative; however, as you keep training over your tolerance, each subsequent session messes with your hormonal milieu leading to an increased rate of muscle protein breakdown and blunts any potential muscle protein synthesis.
In fact, at some point, all the potential new protein cells created are entirely used to deal with the extreme levels of muscle damage you are provoking, leaving no new cells for any actual growth. At best, you manage to maintain your performance, or at worst, you eventually start losing performance, officially indicating that you are in an overtrained state.
It doesn’t stop there either, excessive training volume over a prolonged period has been shown to decrease testosterone levels in men. It also leads to chronically high levels of cortisol, which is likely one of the reasons why your MPB/MPS balance becomes negative. Furthermore, it also increases your inflammation substantially, potentially increasing cellular damage, eventually leading to a drop in performance.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, one of the worst possible outcomes you have to consider is getting injured. Overuse injuries are injuries caused by repetitive stress on a certain tissue, typically a tendon or joint. There is a decent amount of evidence indicating that overuse injuries are the most common and more difficult to overcome. Although injuries are complex, with different possible causes, chronic overtraining and under-recovering are likely causative factors.
Proper rest days and low-intensity weeks can be quite helpful to reduce the total amount of pressure a specific joint is exposed to. Combined with a decent amount of exercise variation and proper volume management, rest days can keep most injuries at bay.
Strategies for proper recovery.
Having established the value of proper rest and recovery, let’s go through some useful protocols that you can implement in your training today to lead to better results:
For the training addicts out there, active rest is a blessing. As the name implies, it’s a form of training that enhances your recovery. Yeah, train more yet recover more—it shouldn't be possible. Active rest days are meant low-intensity unstructured days where you can perform general physical preparedness (GPP) workouts. It's just a sophisticated way of saying that you can use any fun exercises you enjoy, whether that’s calisthenics, barbell exercises, machines, sled pulls, etc.
You can also use active rest days to perform some light cardio. If you have access to a pool, it can be a terrific way to relax and still move around a bit. That being said, it vital that you don't push yourself. This type of workout is meant to be easy and should just be about getting some decent blood flow going.
Deloading is quite common in powerlifting and should probably be adopted by other sports as well. Deloading is a dedicated period of training that can last anywhere from a single day to a week, where you keep your exercises and training the same, except that you decrease your volume and intensity by a certain percentage (10-30%).
Let’s use a hypothetical lifter as an example, this individual typically squats twice a week, lifting 100kgs for 10 repetitions on Monday, and 70kgs for 20 repetitions on Thursday. However, lately, he has been feeling a bit beat up, and he decides to take a deload and reduce his load by 10% and his volume by 30%. The next Monday, he shows up and his squats with 90kgs for 7 repetitions, and on Thursday he squats 63kgs for 14 repetitions. That's a deload in a nutshell.
Believe it or not, taking quick naps can be quite beneficial. Studies have shown that even 15-30 minutes naps before a workout can help you improve your performance. However, naps aren't a replacement for a good night of sleep and should be seen as supplemental help.
Actual Rest Days
All the strategies mentioned so far can be incredibly beneficial to a motivated lifter. However, at the end of the day, you still need to have dedicated days of complete rest. These days can be quite productive if you let them be. Assuming you have a career that you love and enjoy, rest days can be a good time to try and accomplish as much as you can outside the gym.
That being said, the goal here isn’t to trade a type of stress for another. If your work-life is stressful, you should focus your rest days on more relaxing activities if that is an option. Focus on spending quality time with your loved ones. Learn to cook a new dish with your partner, invite your friends for a few beers, learn a new hobby, etc. The point here is to disconnect a bit from the adrenaline-fueled side of your personality and let your body and mind recover.
Train harder, not more.
Although you may not be getting results due to a lack of training volume, the odds are you’re doing too much. I’m not saying that you should forego training altogether, far from it. However, your focus should be on quality training, not quantity. Make sure that every repetition, every set, every training session counts. If your training sessions are hard enough, you’ll look forward to your rest days and won’t try to avoid them.