There’s a lot of talk online, in the gym, and on Instagram about workouts, specific training sessions, and intensity techniques.
But almost no one ever truly discusses muscle recovery.
If athletes and hard training folks discussed their rest days in the same way that they discussed their training days, everyone would be experiencing more breakthroughs in training.
Recovery isn’t sexy and it’s likely the most ignored topic in every fitness circle imaginable.
If a supplement company doesn’t make a specific powder combination marketed as a recovery formula, then almost no one thinks of it past a post workout shake or meal.
Often times, athletes I work with have “shiny object syndrome” where they chase the newest workout or the latest hyped technique or pill while ignoring the “low hanging fruit” which are common, every day methods that can produce big results once they are focused on.
As an example, it’s crazy to think that you would get bigger arms without ever doing any direct arm work. Sure, shoulder presses and chin ups work the triceps and biceps as assistance muscles but no one would really talk about building an impressive set of arms and not recommend additional arm work, right?
Then why are people getting frustrated with their progress if their idea of muscle recovery is just a post workout shake?
Optimize these five areas and you’ll recover faster and train harder.
1. Lose Fat Without “Dieting”
I almost never hear trainers or nutritionists recommend losing body fat without dieting to boost muscle recovery, but it can be the key deciding factor if you’re struggling with recovery. Body fat tissue increases the aromatase enzyme which “steals” testosterone and turns it into estrogen.
The more body fat that you have the more estrogen you’ll have, it’s a linear relationship1. By dropping body fat with a low carb, high fat diet, you also cause estrogen to bind to sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) which decreases the amount of estrogen that is available to attach to cells2.
By blocking the aromatase enzyme and binding estrogen, more raw materials will be present to build testosterone, which by itself, increases lean body mass.
The key is to do this without decreasing muscle recovery. There’s a few ways to achieve this:
- Clean up your diet. Studies have shown that simply choosing higher quality food, irrespective of the quantity of the food eaten, will lead to fat loss3.
- Get higher quality sleep (we’ll discuss this below)
- Focus on upper/lower splits or full body training to increase the amount of calories you burn per workout. Add in isolation work at the end of each workout to meet your specific goals.
2. Optimize Your Pre Workout Nutrition
When an athlete comes to me and I ask what they eat before a workout, the answers usually range from whatever they have in the house to a banana with some protein powder.
These are the same individuals who will try the latest variation of creatine or drink the most complex post workout shakes yet ignore, arguably, the most important meal of the day.
Pre workout nutrition must be tailored to the specific workout and training goals of the athlete to reap the most benefits.
Common Pre Workout Recommendations
If you have a strength intensive power workout, I will normally recommend a protein and fat breakfast (bison, grass fed beef, eggs with coconut oil, etc) with some simple sugars such as apple sauce or highly branched cyclic dextrin with branched chain amino acids. I will also recommend a strong cup of coffee to really increase heart rate for the explosive efforts.
If that same athlete comes to me the next day but has a more traditional bodybuilding or endurance workout, I will recommend the same protein and fat foods, but will want them to have more complex carbohydrates such as a white or sweet potato with some green or yerba mate tea to keep their heart rate stable while they train.
While there are slight differences depending on your goal, my point is that you cannot push your body without fueling it properly or you are setting yourself up for lowered testosterone, a dysregulated cortisol pattern, and likely leaky gut syndrome4,5.
It is extremely easy for our body to tap into our steroidal precursors, pregnenolone and DHEA, to drive our workout in the face of inadequate pre workout nutrition which will leave no raw materials to build our hormones and help us recover.
3. Get More and Better Sleep
We’ve all heard about the need for a good night’s sleep and if you really trained hard then you’re likely to sleep well at night. Both the quantity and quality of sleep has profound impact on your metabolism, body fat, and muscle recovery.
One study found that a lack of quality and quantity sleep leads to impaired glucose metabolism, increased appetite, overeating, and decreased energy expenditure6.
We discussed above about how you should attempt to lose body fat to recover faster and who doesn’t want to be leaner? Well if you are staying up late, your blood sugar health is going to be impaired, you’ll over eat because you’re hungrier, and you’ll burn less calories. All because you didn’t get enough sleep.
Hormones aren’t too happy with a lack of quality sleep either. One study found that gherlin and leptin, the hormones that control hunger, both moved in negative directions when individuals were sleep deprived. A study on thyroid health found that thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) was elevated during sleep deprivation which indicates thyroid dysfunction due to poor sleep7.
If you want to optimize your sleep quality and therefore improve your metabolic and hormonal health try the following tonight:
- Cover all of your lights (cable box, alarm clock, etc) and use black out shades to make your room as dark as possible.
- Turn off all tech at least 30 minutes before bed.
4. Supplement Smarter
There’s a lot of quality supplements that can increase muscle recovery, but these are a few that I’ve found to be highly effective.
Curcumin: The active component of the Indian speech turmeric and it’s absolutely something you should consider using. Not only does curcumin fight inflammation and block a major inflammatory pathway, NK-kB, but it may be more effective at doing so than prescription drugs8. In training populations, curcumin reduces muscle fatigue and biomarkers of muscle damage.9
Magnesium Glycinate: While there are numerous variations of magnesium, and they all have benefits, magnesium glycinate is the best absorbed form of magnesium since it is bonded with the amino acid glycine which helps it successfully passes the digestive tract.
Magnesium is heavily consumed for ATP production which is the working muscles “battery” and it has also been shown in studies to help athletes sustain high performance levels10,11.
Rhodiola: This adaptogenic herb has been shown to improve red blood cell count naturally which decreases intra-workout fatigue. Additional studies have found Rhodiola to improve post workout muscle recovery and decrease muscle damage12,13.
5. Active Recovery
I’m all for having multiple rest days per week, I actually think they are required for results. But the traditional concept of a rest day involves one sitting on their couch and drinking extra protein shakes.
That doesn’t do anything to help recovery.
In warm climates or during warm weather, get outside and do some low level physical activity like walking, hiking, or gardening. If you live in a cold weather climate then consider doing some extra mobility exercises or body weight movements to get your blood flowing. Swimming and yoga are also encouraged.
That’s it. There’s not anything fancy involved in proper muscle recovery that you can’t do or that you don’t have access to.
Once you start focusing on your recovery you’ll unlock the keys for more gains.
- The multiple roles of estrogens and the enzyme aromatase.
- Modulation of SHBG binding to testosterone and estradiol by sex and morbid obesity.
- Effects of Food Quality, Quantity, and Variety on Intake
- Associations of exercise-induced hormone profiles and gains in strength and hypertrophy in a large cohort after weight training
- Excessive Exercise May Damage the Gut
- The Metabolic Consequences of Sleep Deprivation
- Changes in Serum TSH and Free T4 during Human Sleep Restriction
- Therapeutic Roles of Curcumin: Lessons Learned from Clinical Trials
- Reduced inflammatory and muscle damage biomarkers following oral supplementation with bioavailable curcumin.
- Effects of magnesium supplementation on blood parameters of athletes at rest and after exercise.
- Magnesium status: Influence on the regulation of exercise induced oxidative stress and immune function in athletes
- Acute Rhodiola rosea intake can improve endurance exercise performance.
- Effects of chronic Rhodiola Rosea supplementation on sport performance and antioxidant capacity in trained male: preliminary results.