Monday, August 11, 2014

The Road to Relentless - Recovery

Here's the lay of the land: you do not get stronger in the gym. You get stronger recovering FROM the gym. It's called supercompensation, and it works like this:
Charts make everything better. Cribbed from Wikipedia
Your body is an adaptation machine; it reacts to the stresses it encounters. Bones, for example, will get thicker and stronger in the direction of stress placed upon it. That's why CSI types can identify whether a person was an athlete or nerd just by looking at the bones. Muscles work the same way. When you train you tear apart your muscles. When the body sees this, it overcompensates in anticipation of the next time you train. A more full model of super compensation might look like this:

This basic mechanism leads us to a few conclusions
  • Recovery is important. If you train and train and train and train and train, with no time to recover, you'll never make it back on the rebound of the curve
  • Timing is important too. Train again before you're fully recovered and you can affect your gainz.
  • To continually gain in strength and/or hypertrophy (muscle size) you MUST use a progressive overload in your training. Essentially: if you always DO the same thing, you'll always GET the same thing.


If you always do the same thing, you'll always get the same thing.

There is, I think, a difference between exercising and training. Neither one is necessarily better than the other, it just depends on goals. Or on having goals for that matter. Exercising is a fantastic and important key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But that's just it, it's basically maintenance. If you go into the gym, day in and day out, doing the same exact thing, don't wonder why you're not making any progress. If you have a goal in sight, you need to train

Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking on exercise. Thirty minutes a day, they say, is all you need to have a healthy life. But if you head into the gym with a goal in mind -- weight loss, get stronger, get faster, get more flexible, etc. -- you must continually work towards changing and improving your workouts. You change your body by forcing it to adapt, by creating new challenges for it and, when you complete these challenges, moving on towards another set.
That's why you see so many trainers online talk about the importance of having goals. When you decide to bench 315, or squat your bodyweight, or have the splits, you have something in sight to work towards. With a goal you'll find yourself trying better and harder each and every workout.

The flip side to this is that if you are set on training, you need to be critical of your training. I've stressed the importance of having a log before; here's another reason why. If you've been training the same way for months and months and years on end and not seeing progress, why are you continuing to do that program? If you always do the same thing, you'll always get the same thing.

I mean, that's the whole point of getting fit, right? Everyone's body is different. Fitness is a process of self-examination, experimentation, and realization.
Just like any muscle, we can exercise and train recovery.  It's true, you could do nothing and recover just fine. For some of us this, a day off is all that's needed. In my experience there are several aspects to recovery, and each is worth examining to see what best fits our lives.

  • Sleep
  • Diet
  • Stress
  • Active Recovery Methods


From now on I will try to put pictures of baby elephants in every posting. 

Possibly the most obvious, but we grow when we sleep. A good night's sleep is essential to getting stronger. It will affect all aspects of our lives. I would highly recommend getting at least six, if not eight hours of sleep a night if you are serious about training. Your mileage will vary, of course, but I guarantee it will become harder and harder to train and make gains if you are lacking in the sleep department. 

As far as such things go, I can recommend two supplementations and one computer program to help with sleep. ZMA is a vitamin supplement: zinc, magnesium, and B6. Next to vitamin D, Magnesium is often cited as the most deficient vitamin in our diets. In addition to correcting a magnesium deficit, some studies show that users of ZMA attain deeper levels of REM sleep. 

The other supplement I would recommend is occasional use of Melatonin. Melatonin a hormone that helps to regulate our sleep cycles. Light supresses our bodies natural synthesis of melatonin; some suggest supplementing to help regulate abnormal sleep cycles. Anecdotally, I try to only use it occasionally when I need an extra-restful night's sleep. While I haven't seen any evidence that the body can become dependent on external sources of melatonin, (In fact, to quote, "Taking melatonin is not associated with negative feedback (when taking supplementation causes your body to produce less of a hormone). It is also not addictive, and is not toxic."). Still, I'd rather not rely on it if I can adjust my environment instead.

Finally, I suggest everyone check out f.lux. The program will adjust the color temperature of your monitor to match your surroundings. The AMA's council on science and public health made this recommendation:
"Recognizes that exposure to excessive light at night, including extended use of various electronic media, can disrupt sleep or exacerbate sleep disorders, especially in children and adolescents. This effect can be minimized by using dim red lighting in the nighttime bedroom environment."
By default, your screen is really quite cool. As the daylight fades, f.lux will cause the colors to become warmer, easing strain on eyes on and helping to minimize disruption to your sleep cycle. It's really quite neat, and available for almost every platform, including phones.


Not much to be said here that isn't common sense. How are you going to grow and get stronger without fueling your body properly? There's all sorts of diet advice out there, but what it really boils down to is, to paraphrase Michael Pollan, "eat real food, not too much, mostly plants". Cook your own food. Don't gorge on processed stuff (though it's OK to have a treat). Eat a variety of food. Somewhere a long time ago I read a bit about nutrition regarding processed foods that I absolutely loved: "would your grandmother, or great grandmother, recognize it at the grocery store? If not, you might want to reconsider your purchase". 

Of course, it will affect your recovery if you are eating at a deficit to lose weight.. It's not impossible to gain strength when cutting weight, just harder for most people. It's way easier to not eat 100 calories than to burn it off. The best programs, in my experience, don't try to substitute exercise for poor nutrition. That's just a road that leads to rationalizing "cheat meals" left and right.

Look, I'm not saying eat a strict, "clean" diet 100% of the time. Because what is a clean diet? It really doesn't matter what you eat, so long as you are hitting your caloric goals, and getting your nutrients through a variety of food sources. I'm a strong believer that snack food is OK in moderation... when you care to be moderate about it. Decide what your priorities are and change your program to suit them. If it's too much stress to train hard, work hard,and eat 100% then don't worry about one of those. Maybe it's more important to train 100% and eat 85%. But, then again, this may all be a way for me to rationalize my chocolate addiction. 

Muscle is made out of protein; it just makes sense that protein is important to building muscle. I often see two urban legends when it comes to protein: either it's that your body can't digest more than 30g at a time (what? I guess the Inuit are not human then.) or you need to eat massive amounts of protein to build muscle. The reality, like most things, is somewhere in between. You probably need to eat more than the average person would think, but less than a body builder will tell you. Paul Carter at Lift-Run-Bang has a fantastic article about how much protein you really need. (tl;dr: ~1g protein per lbs of bodyweight is fine). 

To optimize diet for recovery, eat plenty of food (but not too much if you're trying to loose weight). Make sure it's real food, has a lot of plants, and a good portion of protein. 


Training and exercise are, by definition, a stress upon your body. You can have physical stress, and you can have mental/emotional stress. The mental side, while much less tangible, will still affect your body in a measurable and appreciable manner. All forms of stress cause your body to release stress hormones. While these systems have a purpose in our body, prolonged forms of stress will affect us negatively. Checkout the wikipedia page, it has waaaaay more on the subject than I ever could write.

Suffice to say, we want to minimize the stresses (internal and external) upon ourselves so that our bodies can use their natural recovery systems to rebuild our muscles instead of dealing with stress. It's pretty straight forward. Which means get good sleep, eat good food, and work towards living a happy life. In the end, all recovery techniques come down to managing stress. 

Active Recovery

We don't have to sit around doing nothing. There are many things we can do to optimize our recovery. Getting the blood flowing and cycling through our body helps to flush our systems. Active Recovery helps manage both the mental and physical sides of recovery. Some techniques might include
  • Walking
  • Yoga
  • Light Exercise in a similar manner
  • Massage. 
  • Bathing
  • Meditation
  • Sports/physical play
As I understand it, here's the basics of how this works. When you exercise, your are tearing apart your muscles, building up lactic acid, and any number of other things that cause your body to need to clean itself up before/as it rebuilds. Getting your blood a-flowin' causes this "scrubbing" process to speed up. Makes sense; you're pumping much more stuff through the system. Additionally, it means more oxygen and more nutrients to the muscles you just broke, which'll help repair them. 

Some things, like your spine and other joints, need movement to get their nutrients. Somewhere in the mid 20's, for example, our inter vertebral discs stop replenishing themselves with nutrients, instead acting more like sponges. Movement in many directions "wring" them out, causing them to reabsorb with fresh fluid, and fresh nutrients. Plus it feels good man. 

Too long, didn't read; what does all this mean for our training?

  • Low intensity exercise will help scrub our systems of the stuff we broke down in training
  • Exercises in a similar manner can help us to hone in on technique
  • Low intensity exercise can also help keep things interesting so we don't get bored with our program.
  • Movement in all directions of all kinds helps keep our bodies healthy and "young"
  • Destressing our heads is equally as important as destressing our bodies
Cool-downs can be a great place to implement recovery. Add in a walk or yoga to stretch things out and get your systems circulating. If you can afford it, I highly recommend devoting at least one day a week strictly to recovery. If, like me, you spend 15-30 min at the end of a workout with a light yoga session, implement an hour+ of yoga one day a week. Throw in a massage or foam-rolling while you're at it. 

Try some light movements from whatever your prior day's exercises were. I.e. if you squatted on Monday, on Tuesday or Wednesday do some sets of goblet squats or body weight squats. The idea here is that it's both low technique and low intensity. I believe I mentioned "patterning" exercises in a previous article. Movements that you don't have to think about, you can just do. Those are great here. Machine exercises are also fantastic. Throw in a few light-weight high-rep sets of leg extensions or what have you. Get the blood flowing through specific joints as well as your whole body. 

This, by way of pre-hab, is why I love 50-100 rep sets, and why you'll see me doing a lot of this kind of rep/sets with curls. It gets the blood flowing through the muscles and across the joints. Try picking up an empty ez-bar and doing one ultra-high rep set of curls. You'll feel an insane pump in your biceps. That's all the blood you're moving into your muscles. Nutrients and oxygen. That's the name of the game. 

Be sure to play. Destress your head too. Whether it's yoga, or meditation, or sports, or running around with your dog. Some days I'll spend time in the stretching area doing what I call "movement play". It's like dancing, but you're making even more of a fool of yourself. Take all the yoga poses you've ever seen, the capoeira, the ninja movies, the parkour youtube vids and mess with it. Do a pushup, spin over into a reverse-table. Kick your leg behind you into a lunge. Twist and turn into a cossack squat. Looks silly, but somehow it's quite satisfying. Remember that it's all meaningless unless we stop enjoy it. Enjoy the benefits of your hard work, the increased strength, balance, and power. Go out to a playground and swing across the monkey bars. Have fun with your training as well as your recovery. Balance things out!

Dan John says it better than I ever could: balance the work, rest, play and pray.

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