Building and maintaining lean muscle mass is the goal that drives millions of guys and girls to the weight room. It is what fuels their training, as they pound away day after day to add quality size to their frame.
Most people don’t give much thought to what happens after their workout. As a result, they usually fail to realize their muscle building goals.
They simply fail to understand the vital importance of muscle recovery in the mass building process.
Don’t make that same mistake.
In this mega-article, you’ll discover the key role that recovery plays in the muscle building process. You’ll also learn 7 key hacks to fast tracking recovery and get the low-down on pre and post workout nutrition for maximum muscle recovery.
What Really Happens When You Work Out
When you’re in the gym, you’re at war with the weights. You imagine that the weight is mocking you, laughing at your inability to lift it. So, you throw yourself against it with maximum intensity.You leave nothing on the gym floor. When you walk out of there, your muscles are quivering and pumped to the max.
And, yet, you haven’t built one ounce of muscle.
In fact, you’ve done just the opposite. Your intense training has broken your muscles down. The immense challenge of lifting all of that weight has actually caused minute tears in their fiber. When you walk out of the gym, you are in a catabolic (muscle depleting) state.
It’s what happens after the workout that determines whether or not you build any mass. That’s because growth happens during the recovery phase, not during the training phase.
Unless you know how to maximize your muscular recovery, you’ll never build muscle – no matter how many forced reps you perform.
The Vital Importance of Recovery
Your workout has paved the way for muscle growth. What is needed now is muscle recovery, which involves re-feeding,resting and recuperating. By doing these things, you are able to repair the microfiber damage that has been done to the muscle fiber. If you provide it with the correct nutrients and allow it sufficient recovery time, your muscle will grow back bigger and stronger.
If you don’t recover sufficiently, however, the opposite will happen. Rather than getting bigger and stronger, your muscle will get smaller and weaker. That’s because you won’t be giving it the opportunity to repair the damage that you’ve inflicted upon it during your workout.
The Dangers of Overtraining
Overtraining can cause lack of muscular recovery. If you don’tallow your muscles enough time to replace their glycogen levels,as well as repairing fiber damage, you won’t be prepared for your next workout. All you will achieve is to put yourself in more of a catabolic state.
To avoid overtraining, you need to give each muscle group a minimum of 72 hours before you train it again. So, if you exercise your chest on Monday, don’t hit it again until Thursday.
Another aspect of overtraining that will inhibit your ability to recover from your workout is training a muscle group for too long. You need to be able to discern the point during your workout when you’ve hit that sweet spot that divides intense training from overtraining.
For large body parts (chest, back thighs) the point where you have annihilated the muscle comes after about 25 minutes of working out, during which time you should have been able to complete between 12-14 sets.
For smaller muscle groups (biceps, triceps, deltoids, calves), 15 minutes and 8-10 sets should do it.
7 Ways to Boost Muscle Recovery
1. Know When to Stop
We’ve all heard the phrase, “No pain, no gain”, right?
Well, a lot of trainers lack the experience to understand the difference between beneficial muscle extension and contraction pain that engorges the muscle cell with blood and lactic acid and the sort of pain that is actually harming their body.
As a result, they slip into an over-trained state – which dramatically impairs their recovery ability.
You don’t want to push your body to the limit every single workout. Sure, there’s a place for taking your training to the limit, but there’s also a place for pushing just a little beyond your comfort zone.
Make it your goal to do a little bit more than you did during your last workout – not to destroy the muscle.
2. Take Stretching Seriously
Most people who workout don’t take stretching seriously. If they do it at all, it’s usually just a few seconds that mimics the exercises they’re about to do. Stretching, though, is an important part of the muscle building and recovery equation.
A stretched muscle is a more flexible muscle. Stretching the muscle allows you to perform your exercises through a complete range of motion. However, stretching after your workout is even more important.
During your training, you have built up a great deal of muscular tension. Incorporating stretching as part of your cool down routine will reduce this tension, while also lessening post workout muscle soreness.
3. Improve the Quality and Quantity of Your Sleep
Sleep is an under-rated part of recovery. Yet, it is the period of time when the vast majority of the muscle recovery process takes place.
When you’re able to get 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night,your body is able to go to work to repair and rebuild muscle tissue that has been broken down during your workout. It can do this more effectively because it doesn’t have to carry out the myriad of other daytime functions that it is called upon to perform.
It is also during the hours of deep sleep that two vital muscle building hormones are released at maximum levels. These two hormones – testosterone and growth hormone – will give a huge boost to the muscle repair process.
In order for the effects of sleep to provide maximum recovery benefit, you need to stick to a regular night-time schedule that gives you 7-8 hours sleep each night.
This will help to ensure that you get enough REM sleep
To provide the nutrients for cell repair, you should also take a slow release casein protein supplement 30 minutes before bed.
4. Engage in Active Recovery
Active recovery is all about what you do the day after your workout. It may be a full recovery day where you don’t plan to go to the gym at all, or it could be a day when you’re working a different muscle group.
Whether you’re training another body-part or not, the day after a workout is a good time to do some light bodyweight exercise for the body-part you’ve worked the day before. This could involve doing some push ups for chest or body weight squats for thighs.
Swimming is another very effective form of active recovery. It is low impact, yet provides a good deal of resistance as you power your way through the water. Swimming is also a refreshing activity that provides a nice counter to all the time you spend in the gym.
Active recovery also involves what you do inside the gym once you’ve completed working a body part. By performing one or two light sets on the key movement for that body part (for example the bench press when doing chest), you’re able to regain strength more quickly in that body part.
Doing some light work will increase the blood flow through the muscle, fast tracking nutrients to the area and improving circulation. Active recovery will also reduce the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness, and reduces loss in strength following exercise.
5. Eliminate Stress
There are two types of stress that you should differentiate between:
- Acute stress
- Chronic stress
Acute stress is the type that you force upon your muscles when you are working out. This self-induced stress, by itself, is productive. When chronic stress – the kind that is brought on by the anxieties of life – is heaped upon it, however, performance suffers.
Chronic stress will, not only, make your workout less productive; it will hamper your muscle’s ability to recover from those workouts.
Take the effort to reduce chronic stress by prioritizing your workout,leaving your worries at the gym door and rewarding yourself when you achieve a physical goal (just not with food!).
6. Myofascial Release
Foam rolling involves placing a foam or plastic cylinder between apart of your body and a solid surface, such as the floor or wall. You then simply roll up and down on the roller.
Rollers come in all sizes. Many of them are covered in nodules that allow you get deeply into your muscular trigger points. Here are four reasons why myofascial release will help you to recover faster:
- It softens fascia – fascia is a fibrous tissue which connect and secures other structures to each other. It is bathed in ground substance, which is a lubricating gel. When it is thick,we feel pain. Foam rolling transforms it from a thick gel to a fluid liquid.
- It improves muscle tissue quality – foam rolling allows the muscle to be deeply and firmly kneaded. Long, low,sweeping, rolling movements are the best to achieve this.
- It numbs trigger points – trigger points are hot spots around the body where there is more tension and inflammation than in other parts. With a foam roller, you are able to target these hot spot with small, repetitive movements.
- It breaks up scar tissue – intense exercise can cause minor scar tissue. The most common example of this is DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). Using a foam roller will allow you to provide self-massage to break up this scar tissue and provide relief.
Studies have consistently shown that foam rolling effectively relieves post workout DOMS.
7. Stay Hydrated
Drinking water during your workout is a no brainer. But, drinking it after your session is over is just as important.
Water allows all of your bodily function to work more effectively. It will allow for a faster and more effective uptake of nutrients, allowing you to get essential amino acid into the muscle cell faster.
You can tell if you’re drinking enough water post workout by taking a look at your urine. It should be almost clear. If it’s a dark yellow color, you need to be drinking more – aim for 84.5 ounces (2.4 L) per day.
Zooming in on Pre / Post Workout Nutrition
Nutrition is the key to both performance and recovery of your workout. Unless you’re able to fuel your body with the energy required to get you through a training session, your workout will fall flat. And, if it doesn’t have the nutrients it needs after the workout, you won’t be able to recover properly.
Lots of people believe that you shouldn’t eat before you train. But eating will provide the anabolic training environment that your body needs to perform.
The key is to eat the right things at the right time!
You should have a meal 90 minutes before your training session.That gives time for your stomach to digest the food before you start placing training stress upon your system. It will also provide enough time for the nutrients to get into your bloodstream and start fuelling your muscles (1).
Your pre-workout meal should consist of:
- Lean protein
- Slow release carbs
When selecting your pre-workout protein, go for those that are easy to digest rather than heavy. Fish is a great option, as it is light yet packed with the amino acids that your cells need for the workout.
By having slow release carbs along with your protein, you will be providing your body with a constant release of energy over the next few hours (2).
Avoid consuming any high sugar foods or energy drinks before your workout. Any artificial high that you get will soon be followed by an energy crash. If that crash comes through the middle of your squat session, you’re going to be in trouble.
Pre-Workout Supplements: The Ultimate Ingredients
Taking a supplement stack a half hour before your workout will give a huge boost to your training energy, allowing you to workout harder for longer. There is a huge range of products on the market that can leave even the most seasoned trainer bewildered and confused. Here is our definitive list of the best pre-workout ingredients. Look for them on the label.
- Vanadyl Sulfate (3)
- B Vitamins
- Mucuna Pruriens
- Huperzine A
- Citrulline Malate
- Branched-Chain Amino Acids (4)
- L-Tyrosine (5)
Once your workout is over, your body is depleted. It needs nutrition and it needs it fast. As we’ve seen, the tension that your training has placed on your muscle fibers has caused micro tears. To repair them, and stop any more damage from occurring, you need two key nutrients:
After the workout, your mission is to force your body out of it’s destructive catabolic state and drive it into an anabolic state. But you’ve only got a short period of time to achieve this.
If you don’t get protein and carbs into your cells within 20-40 minutes after your workout, you will not stem the catabolic slide. The result may well be that your muscles get smaller and weaker – the opposite of what you want.
The repair and rebuilding process happens as soon as your workout is over. That is when you need to get the fuel into your body. Your goal after the workout, then, should be to take in a quality source of protein and carbs as soon as you can after you put the weights down.
Essential Post Workout Supplement Ingredients
Taking a post workout supplement immediately after your workout, is a great way to provide your body with the macro and micro nutrients that it needs to recover.
Just as with the pre-workout market, there is a huge range of post workout supplement choices. We’ve gone through them all to present to you the essential 4 post-workout supplement ingredients.
1. Whey Protein
As a person trying to gain muscle, you do not want to be in a catabolic state. Yet, that is the very state you get into every time you walk out of the gym.
Your goal must be to get out of that state and back into anabolism as soon as possible. That means that you need protein in your system. The fastest acting form of protein that we know about is whey.
Whey protein is a by product of the cheese making process. It contains all of the essential amino acids, which are able to be transported to your muscle cells very rapidly.
Immediately after your workout, make it your goal to consume between 30-45 gram of whey protein powder.
2. Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
Essential amino acids are those that your body cannot manufacture by itself. Of all the essential amino acids, there are three that are the most important when it come to building muscle:
These three are known as the Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAA). Their uniqueness lies in the fact that they alone are able to be utilized as energy in the muscle cell. The BCAAs’ also trigger the synthesis of protein.
3. Fast Digesting Carbs
Your workout has burned up energy that is stored in your muscle cell. In addition to replenishing your protein level, another post workout priority is to restore energy in the form of glycogen.
Post workout carbs will also cause a spike in your insulin level. Insulin is very anabolic, helping in the muscle repair process.
Replenishing energy means that you have to consume carbohydrates. Your body will transform these carbs into glycogen and then take them directly to your muscle cells.
You want your post workout carb intake to consist of high glycemic index foods that can be easily digested. Dextrose and maltodextrin are good options – look for them on the label of your post workout formula.
Aim to consume half a gram of carbs for every pound of bodyweight straight after the workout. So, if you are 180 pounds, you should be having 90 gram of carbs.
Creatine is a fuel source that the body uses to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is an energy system used for short, intense bursts of energy, such as what you do when you’re weight training to build muscle.
Creatine can be found in meat, fish and is also made in small amounts by the human body. Supplementing with creatine will replace the ATP stores that have been used up during your workout, priming you for your next training session and filling out the muscle. Creatine causes water retention inside the muscle cell, which produces a more full muscled appearance.
You should take 5 grams of creatine daily.
If you want to learn more about what makes muscles grow, this is a great TED education video for you!
Muscle recovery is the key to muscle growth, fat loss and workout success. As we’ve discovered, failure to pay attention to the recovery process will actually lead to muscle catabolism or breakdown.
In order to achieve the fastest mote effective muscle recovery you need to apply the following key points:
- Don’t over train
- Stretch after the workout
- Consistently get 7-8 hour sleep each night
- Do light, active recovery exercise the day after your workout
- Reduce stress
- Use a foam roller after the workout
- Drink plenty of water
- Have a pre-workout meal 90 minutes before your workout
- Take a pre-workout supplement 30 minutes before training
- Get whey protein into your body within 20 minutes of completing your workout
If you have enjoyed reading our mega-article on muscle recovery, feel free to share it with your friends who might like it too!
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(1) Tipton, K.D. et al. (2001) Timing of amino acid-carbohydrate ingestion alters anabolic response of muscle to resistance exercise. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab., 281(2), p. 197-206.
(2) VY, J. and Portman, R. (2004) Nutrient Timing. USA, Basic Health Publications
(3) Singal A, Kaur S, Tirkey N, Chopra K. Green tea extract and catechin ameliorate chronic fatigue-induced oxidative stress in mice. J Med Food. 2005;8(1):47-52.
(4) Kraemer WJ, Ratamess NA, Volek JS, Hakkinen K, Rubin MR, French DN, Gomez AL, et al. The effects of amino acid supplementation on hormonal responses to resistance training overreaching. Metabolism. 2006 Mar;55(3):282-91.
(5) Mahoney CR, Castellani J, Kramer FM, Young A, Lieberman HR. Tyrosine supplementation mitigates working memory decrements during cold exposure. Physiol Behav. 2007 May 22