The journey is the destination. The chase is better than the catch. Anticipation is greater than realization.
All these quotes can be applied to training. And while training is an enjoyable process, it’s the result of training that we’re after: better health, stronger lifts, bigger muscles, etc. Given that training is a means to an end, it’s ultimately our ability to recover from training that determines how quickly we reach our goals.
I’ve got hundreds of articles and videos about training, but today it’s time to discuss recovery – specifically muscle recovery – so you can train harder and more frequently to reach your goals faster.
THE BASICS OF RECOVERY
Quite simply, the purpose of training is to provide the body with a stimulus from which it can recover and adapt. This stimulus can be lifting weights, running sprints, stretching or countless other activities, all of which aim to force an adaptation.
If the stimulus is too small (i.e. the weights you lift are too light, the stretch you hold is too short in duration), your body won’t change. If the stimulus is too big and/or too frequent, however, you’ll be unable to recover and you won’t get the results you want either.
The way in which the body responds to stress is known as general adaptation syndrome and is nicely illustrated by this graph:
The “resistance to stress” line shows that some stress (in appropriate doses) makes us stronger, but a stress that’s too strong or too prolonged will lead to exhaustion.
So what if we trained with the perfect amount of frequency and intensity that our body could handle? What if we could recover faster so we could train harder and more frequently? Then our chart would look something like this:
Constantly getting better? Give me more of that.
Let’s be clear: sleep and nutrition will always be the ultimate one-two punch of recovery. They’re the Jordan and Pippen of getting better. Without those, none of these following methods matter much.
But with quality sleep and food in check, these three methods can improve recovery so you can bounce back for better and more frequent training sessions.
What you’ll notice is that all these techniques are forms of ACTIVE recovery. As I just wrote, we need to impose some sort of stimulus to force change, and sitting around doing nothing doesn’t force change. To recover faster, we must give the body a good reason to recover faster. Here’s how:
1. SOFT TISSUE WORK
Soft tissue work (which includes most forms of manual therapy and foam rolling, performed by yourself or someone else) has been shown to reduce muscle soreness and improve range of motion, which can lead to more quality training sessions.
We’re not sure exactly WHY soft tissue work helps the body heal. Some hypotheses include:
- Enhanced blood flow and hydration to the target site
- Reduction in neural tone (i.e. getting chronically “on” muscles to shut “off”)
- Creates low-level inflammatory response, which jumpstarts the healing process (as seen in the rare topless photo of myself below)
A review of the literature shows that myofascial release (a common form of hands-on soft tissue work) performed by a qualified therapist leads to pretty good outcomes when used to treat orthopedic conditions.
It’s tough to say if foam rolling by yourself can have the same effect, but anecdotally, we see people feel and move better every day by spending quality time on the roller. They can train harder because of it, which is a win in my book.
To be clear, some soft tissue techniques may actually be causing muscular damage, but in turn promote recovery because of the response to that damage. Semantics aside, intense massage might make you temporarily worse (i.e. less recovered), only to make you better a few hours or days down the road, so don’t try this right before your workout:
If you’re fortunate enough to have a physical therapist or massage therapist who can provide soft tissue work on a regular basis, it can go a long way toward keeping you healthy and speeding up muscle recovery.
2. AEROBIC CONDITIONING
Not only will cardio NOT destroy your gains, but it may actually INCREASE your gains in the long run by allowing you to recover faster between strength training workouts.
Assuming your aerobic training isn’t too taxing (i.e. going too fast/far, training to the point of soreness), you can enhance your ability to recover without sabotaging your strength or muscle.
Exercise may be either aerobic or anaerobic, but ALL recovery is aerobic. That means that oxygen is necessary to perform the physiological tasks that help you recover. This includes restoring your phosphocreatine stores (the energy substrate used for intense exercise like lifting weights and sprinting), replenishing muscle glycogen (the carbs stored in your muscles) and buffering lactate (i.e. clearing out the nasty “burning” sensation you get during/after intense exercise).
Performing regular aerobic conditioning can enhance muscle recovery in the long run because your body as a whole becomes more efficient at the metabolic processes necessary for recovery. That’s between workouts and even between sets. This leads to more quality workouts more frequently.
You don’t HAVE to go for a run either. Activities like biking, step-ups to a low box, or med ball circuits are less taxing and can have the same effect if you keep moving and keep the effort low enough.
3. ELECTRIC MUSCLE STIMULATION
Active recovery may be the best method of speeding up muscle recovery, but the effort and time investment of doing so isn’t always an option.
Imagine you work 12 hours a day, have a spouse and kids and can’t commit to extra recovery workouts outside your main strength training workouts. Or imagine you’re a professional athlete who plays several games per week, often in different cities every night. You may not have the chance to jump on a bike and pedal your way to recovery.
Luckily, electric muscle stimulation can create a similar effect without the need for equipment or, you know, having to actually move around.
Stim units have grown quite popular among all types of athletes and can be seen in professional locker rooms, powerlifting and weightlifting meets, CrossFit competitions and beyond. The Marc Pro is my personal favorite and is a vital part of my recovery routine. I use it between every strength training workout to reduce soreness and speed up recovery.
Electric muscle stimulation uses small electrical impulses to cause muscles to contract. This muscle pump mechanism takes waste products left over from damaged tissue and moves them through the lymph vessels to eventually be dispelled in urine. The lymphatic system is a PASSIVE system, which means you need to MOVE your muscles to bring in oxygenated blood and healing nutrients.
Wearing an ice pack or simply resting won’t speed up healing because there’s no muscle contraction involved. The Marc Pro, however, stimulates the muscle pump mechanism without the need for you to actively do so. This speeds recovery and avoids the potential for additional muscle damage that may occur if you pushed too hard during an active recovery workout.
I was first introduced to the Marc Pro by Gary Reinl, author of Iced! The Illusionary Treatment Option. Gary and I collaborated on an anti-icing article after we found each other on a mutual dislike for using ice for muscle recovery. I was actively seeking another option to enhance recovery, and Gary turned me on to the Marc Pro. The reduction in soreness and fatigue was immediately noticeable and I haven’t looked back since.
Physical therapists and athletic trainers often use stim to activate an athlete’s injured or fatigued muscles, helping the muscle recover more quickly or stave off atrophy if the joint is immobilized (i.e. in a cast, brace or sling). The Marc Pro allows YOU, the athlete, to facilitate your own faster recovery.
***NOTE: The Marco Pro doesn’t treat pain, so if you’re hurt, don’t use it and go see a doctor. But if you’re tired and sore, the Marc Pro is a game changer.***
To see the Marc Pro in action, check out this video featuring Gary Reinl, Kelly Starrett of MobilityWOD and Mark Bell of Super Training Gym:
I’ve never sold a third-party product on my site – until now. The Marc Pro has made such a dramatic difference in the quality of my workouts that I want to share those benefits with my readers.
Head over to the Marc Pro store and use the discount code BONVEC to save 5% at checkout. To get your own Marc Pro and improve your muscle recovery today, CLICK HERE.