Natty Lifter's Guide to Recovery: Build Quality Gainz w/out Steroids

In this four part series, we break down everything natural lifters should know about building muscle without steroids. Part 2 covers workout recovery!

There are three types of people in the gym…

You have those who work exceptionally hard and perceive their recovery abilities as limitless.

They live their lives with reckless abandonment and it seems their physical capabilities (at least to themselves) are only limited by the depth of their minds.

Bottom Line: While their mindset is admirable, there are actual limits to physiology and training needs to be met with ample recovery. You can only train as hard as you can recover and for these individuals, they need much more of an emphasis on time spent away from training (both mentally and physically).

On the other hand, you have certain individuals who liken their training session to acts of war.

These are the folks who are constantly “battling” the weights and posting incessant selfies on Instagram with an excessive hashtag count #gymtweetsleep #professionalironslayer #liftitforthegram.

Last time I checked, no one has ever gotten beaten up by a barbell but who knows these days.

Bottom Line: Listen mac, I have nothing against the use of social media to support one’s lifestyle. But, if most of your fitness apparel has the slogan “hustle” or “grind” emblazoned on it, odds are you haven’t done much of either. You probably need to learn how to train hard before you worry about an extra 10 minutes in a cryotherapy chamber.

Related: Paralysis by Analysis: 10 Reasons You're Not Making Gains

Last, but not least, you have those individuals who understand the demands of training and choose to alter their lifestyles to support their goals.

These folks don’t rely upon social media to justify their training decisions; they follow logical, planned progression and dismiss the need for external validation.

Bottom Line: Interestingly enough, these are usually the same folks who make moderate to substantial progress towards their physique and strength goals. They understand the need for recovery because they have experienced the difficulty of hard training. This article will scratch the surface for them but they’re likely already in tune with these recommendations.

If you’re still wondering which category you fit into, consider taking the athlete readiness assessment (ARA) which I discussed in-depth here: (Wasted Gains: 3 Reasons Your Workout Program Sucks).

Regardless of which category fits you personally, here are a few simple strategies which can benefit everyone.

1. Goodnight to All and to All a Good Night

When it comes to recovery, nothing matters more than sleep. There isn’t a single supplement, nutrition protocol, soft tissue technique, or over-the-counter pharmaceutical which will ever compare to consistent, quality sleep.

This isn’t ground breaking by any means, most people understand the importance of sleep but still, many are terrible sleepers. Don’t assume you’re exempt from this category of poor snoozers – just because you sleep through the night doesn’t mean you experience quality sleep.

Here’s a few simple questions to ask yourself the next time you’re considering your sleep:

  • Can you wake at (roughly) the same time every day without an alarm clock?
  • Do you routinely dream?
  • Do you wake up more than once during the night to use the bathroom?
  • Do you require caffeine when you first wake up to function?
  • Do you drool or snore when you sleep?
  • Do wake up with a dry mouth or have trouble breathing through your nose upon waking?
  • Do you typically feel the incessant need to nap between 1-4pm daily?

If you answered “no” to questions 1-2 and “yes” to questions 3-7, then we’ve got some work to do. You will never be able to train as hard as you want or gain muscle and lose body fat (i.e. the ever elusive and mysterious “recomp” which everyone is endlessly pursuing) until you address your poor sleep.

Start here:

Don’t believe me?

“Sleep curtailment decreased the fraction of weight lost as fat by 55% and increased the loss of fat-free body mass by 60%. This was accompanied by markers of enhanced neuroendocrine adaptation to caloric restriction, increased hunger, and a shift in relative substrate utilization towards oxidation of less fat.”1

Subjects that only slept 5.5 hours per night lost 60% MORE muscle 55% LESS fat during a period of caloric restriction as compared to those who slept 8.5 hours per night. Not only that, their ability to regulate hunger and burn (oxidize) fat became skewed.

Still think training is the most important part of the equation when it comes to changes in body composition? Think again.

2. Shut the Window and Open the Door

Hierarchy of Recovery Graph

There are multiple versions of this schematic floating around the internet but the core content is the same – until you dial in total calories, all the other factors don’t play a meaningful role. So, the entirety of this discussion must be shrouded in the contextual information presented above.

Related: Defeating DOMS - 5 Science Based Suggestions

Your recovery won’t magically double overnight by focusing on nutrient timing. Lock in the basics first and foremost (calorie intake) before you consider the following additions.

PRE-Workout Nutrition

  • Consume 25-35g (~0.18-0.23g/lb) of protein from a high-quality source (meat, dairy, eggs, etc)1-3 hours before a workout.
  • Add 30-60 grams of easy to digest complex carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, fruit, pasta, oats, etc.) to increase blood glucose.
  • Avoid high fat foods during the pre- and post-workout window as this slows the speed of digestion and absorption of nutrients.

INTRA-Workout Nutrition

  • Consider adding liquid carbohydrates (30-60g/hr depending upon the intensity of training – those with higher training volumes can start at the upper end of this range)
  • Supplement with 5g of creatine monohydrate to enhance cellular hydration status.
  • If you did not consume a pre-workout meal within 1-3 hours of training, consider adding a liquid whey protein source (20-25g) during training.
  • PRO TIP: BCAAs are worthless when compared to whey for the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis.

POST-Workout Nutrition

  • If possible, place a large predominance (50-60%) of carbohydrates around your training window to enhance uptake into muscle tissue via GLUT4.
  • If your pre-workout meal was consumed within 1-2 hours of training or you consumed a liquid protein source during the training session then you can comfortably wait 60-120 minutes before eating – let hunger be your guide. There is no anabolic window provided nutrients are provided throughout the training window (pre/intra/post).
  • Salt pre- and post-workout meals generously and consume potassium rich foods to ensure electrolyte replenishment.

3. Friends, Family, and Food

This may sound slightly esoteric but the concept is somewhat simple in nature – we as humans want to be part of a community. We want to belong, we want to feel accepted, and we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

We need others to survive and have our basic needs met – food, water, shelter, etc. But we also have psychological needs which are met through relationships – the need for love, encouragement, respect, and support.

“People want to feel something, anything. They want to connect with the world and other humans around them. They want to fly flags to distinguish themselves from the masses. They want to bond over mutual struggle and pain.” – Dr. Ben House

That’s the beauty of social media, it allows us to connect with others who share a common interest or hobby. It provides us with a platform which allows for the spread of education, ideas or communication.

Related: 4 Things I Wish I Would’ve Known When I Started Training

Not surprisingly, the use of social media platforms has exploded lately with Millennials and those from Generation “Z” (born between: 1995-2012) dedicating more than 10hrs per day to screen time – much of which is likely consumed by social media.

However, social media is a double-edged sword – it promotes the idea of connection without any physical interaction. It seems communication has transitioned into a 280-character limit interspersed with likes, tags, and endless scrolling.

“Constructed emotion builds neural networks around past personal experiences AND shared social constructs. For hundreds of thousands of years, we were primarily influenced only by those we came into direct contact with, and primarily surrounded by tribes consisting of family and close friends.

The technological revolution changed the way we construct emotions, categorize experiences, and WHO we share them with. We are now often inundated with more (less experiential) virtual information than practical, all while losing connection with the actual humans around us. We often subconsciously build intrinsic emotional constructs based upon biased projections.”Kyle Dobbs

Make connections, get off social media, and spend time outdoors with those you love. You’d be surprised just how much better you’ll feel.

Simplicity May Be Boring But it Works

Remember the Pareto principle I referenced in the first article of this series?

Pareto principle (i.e. the “80/20 rule”) - for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

You’ll notice that this article didn’t cover the recovery impact of far infrared compression garments, beet root juice, or transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). All of these recommendations were seemingly rudimentary in nature.

That’s the point. Most people never acquire their goals because they’re too busy chasing the next trend in the industry and they wind up overlooking the obvious.

  • Move well.
  • Move often.
  • Get outside.
  • Eat like an adult.
  • Listen to your body.
  • Go to sleep before 11pm.
  • Wake up with the sun.

Repeat for 10-12 weeks and watch what happens. Don’t take my word for it though, try it and see.