I know you’ve been hitting the gym hard and busting it in your training at home or ever since the lockdowns were lifted and gyms started opening up! You went to depth on every squat rep and pushed your reverse lunges to failure. Your quads are beat and your hamstrings burn. Your workout was tough. But let me tell you this, IT DID NOT BUILD AND OUNCE OF MUSCLE!!!
What if I tell you spending hours lifting, day in and day out, might actually stall your progress?
The answer to this lies in your post-gym regime. The opportunity for muscle growth begins the moment you STOP lifting, and that growth can’t happen without proper recovery protocol. Recovery and rest are essential parts of any strength and conditioning program—and most coaches and trainers would argue it’s just as or more important than the lifting itself.
Recovery must occur before progress can be made.
It is important for staying injury free, long-term consistent training and hitting new highs from time to time. Muscles don’t grow in the gym; they grow after. When you lift heavy, your muscles suffer micro-tears and are actually broken down via a process called Catabolism. Immediately after you lift, your body begins repairs, but it needs your help.
If you want to get the most from each and every workout, you need to prioritise post-workout recovery. Heed these tips to maximise recovery, stay on top of your game and ensure maximum gains.
1. Push The Barrier, Don’t Annihilate It
“No pain, no gain!” has probably been spat in your face as you struggled to rack a one-rep max bench press. Pushing beyond your limits is a good thing, but just how far should you push? It is important to hit the muscle just enough to create that needed stimulus for muscle growth, but not in completely destroying it to the point where your muscle hurts for days.
If you obliterate your body with every workout, your body will revert its energy to repairing the downstream effects of the damage rather than building muscle.
“The focus shouldn’t be on how fast you recover, but instead on how productive your recovery is”. If you constantly obliterate your body to complete and utter exhaustion with every workout, this damage accumulates over time and your body will revert its energy to repairing the downstream effects of the damage rather than building new muscle.
The trick is to “work out hard enough to push yourself past your comfort zones—trying to do more than you did the workout before, for example. Just don’t destroy yourself entirely.” By following this sage advice, you’ll make solid and steady progress rather than taking one step forward and two steps back.
2. Get Serious About Pre-Workout Nutrition
By now, most people understand that the foods they eat after their workout and throughout the day factor into the quality of their recovery. The foods you eat before a workout can also play an important role in pre-empting the tissue-rebuilding process once the workout is over.
Digestion is a lengthy process; proteins and carbs that you ingest prior to the workout will still be circulating in the body afterward. For this reason, choose your foods wisely. Make sure you get high-quality, lean protein along with some complex carbohydrates, especially if you plan on an intense workout. I personally have a small 200 calorie meal with some carbs and proteins, 45 minutes prior to heading to the gym. It may include a banana, or a couple slices of bread with cheese or peanut butter, or some almonds and an apple.
In addition to eating near your workouts, there have been substantial reported benefits of taking BCAAs before and during a workout, as well. BCAAs have been designed to encourage efficient absorption by the muscle cells. Having said that, I would like to add that I am not an advocate of supplements, and it is always down to your personal preferences. However, I do consume 1 serving of BCAA during my workout.
3. Don’t Skip The Stretching
Stretching probably doesn’t sound sexy (or even necessary) when all you want is size, but it might be the most underrated player in muscle growth. By not having the necessary flexibility and muscle pliability, you might short yourself on muscular gains in many compound lifts. For example, if your ankles are too tight, you can’t go deep enough in a squat to reap maximum benefits.
Barbara Bolotte, IFBB pro, stresses, “Make sure you allot at least 20 minutes after a workout to cool down and stretch. If you don’t plan for it, you are more likely to skip it.”
Stretching is a great way to relieve muscular tension and potentially downplay the soreness you experience later. “Prolonged stretching with moderate exercise and diet control will reduce cholesterol and significantly reverse hardening of the arteries,” notes Barbara. Knowing these things, more people should be taking stretching more seriously!
4. Perfect Your Post-Workout Protein
Go ahead and giggle at the burly types chugging their post-workout shake. While you chortle ’til you choke, they’re feeding their muscles the necessary fuel to grow and improve. Post-workout protein is vital, especially if you haven’t eaten anything for hours. Aim for 20-50 grams of protein after each workout depending on your bodyweight.
Whey protein is the most popular protein supplement, and for good reason: It is convenient, easy to mix, and it offers a rapid absorption rate that’s perfect after a tough training session. Don’t merely go for taste or cost. Invest in quality whey isolate to see a difference. Casein can also be on your route to the top. If your goal is to build size, you can prefer this type of protein, since it takes a significantly longer amount of time to absorb. There are many bodybuilders I have come across, who consume Whey proteins right after a workout, and Casein right before they go to bed.
One trick that I use to optimize my recovery is to drink about 30 grams of whey protein followed by lots of water and some carbs. “You need immediate, fast-acting carbohydrates during your post-workout window to replenish glycogen levels, restore energy, and bump up insulin levels”. “Insulin can be extremely anabolic at the right time, helping the restoration of muscle proteins by inhibiting protein breakdown and stimulating protein synthesis.”
5. Eat Potassium-Rich Foods
While we’re on the subject of post-workout nutrition, you should consider including a source of potassium in your post-workout cocktail. Your potassium reserves will inevitably be sapped from an intense workout session. Potassium, among other nutrients like sodium and calcium, is a key mineral which plays a role in muscular energy. Bananas or potatoes are good potassium sources. Bananas go with nearly everything, but mashed potatoes in your first meal following the workout are also winners.
6. Focus On Quality Sleep
Catching quality Zs seems like a no-brainer, but it’s still all to common to hear how many people get less than six hours of sleep.
“Sleep is not just for relaxing. This is the necessary downtime that your body needs to restore itself”. Sacrificing hours of sleep over a long period of time can even make you mentally weaker and negatively impact your drive in training sessions.
At least seven hours is the ideal target to hit, although many people, including athletes, may need up to nine hours. Find ways to make changes in your day that will allow you to get to bed earlier.
It has been shown that lack of adequate sleep can decrease and reduce tolerance to training, alter mood, increase perception of fatigue and negatively affect the physiological mechanisms responsible for adaptation from the stresses of training. Hormonal secretion during sleep is one of the most important factors influencing recovery; after all, the purpose of sleep is to induce a state of recovery in the body. Anabolic (muscle-building) hormone concentrations and activity increase during sleep while catabolic (muscle-wasting) hormone concentrations and activity decrease. Disrupted or shortened sleep will negatively influence the effects of these anabolic hormones.
Try to develop a regular sleeping routine where you go to bed at a similar time each night of the week. Remove distractions like light, smartphones, and TVs. If possible, try for 8 hours of sleep per night and/or fit in an afternoon power nap for 30 minutes to rejuvenate the body.