There is a common saying among fitness enthusiasts that says, “You’re only as good as your recovery”. And, frankly, I couldn’t agree more! You may have the best training program in the world, but if you are not recovering properly from your workouts, you can kiss your gains goodbye! Or, you may make some gains, but your results will be sub-par. On the flip side of the coin, the faster you recover from your workouts, the harder you can push, and the faster your results will be.
Thanks to our modern lifestyles, we constantly live in a state of stress. Stress from work, relationships, kids, not having enough time, family…etc. And since we have incredibly fast-paced lifestyles compared to our grandparents, there is barely enough time to do anything. Because of that stressful environment as well as other factors, most of us find it difficult to even get 8 hours of sleep! The end result is the same: we are under-recovered! Fortunately, there are some things we can do to fix that and fast-track our recovery.
Putting sleep at the head of this list won’t come as a surprise to most of you, and rightfully so. The importance of sleep cannot be overstated. Not only is sleep important for general health, getting inadequate amounts of sleep will hamper the recovery process significantly. For instance, these two studies (1,2) observed significant decreases in testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 levels when subjects were sleep deprived.
Sleep deprivation can also cause muscle atrophy, less fat loss when in a caloric deficit, a decrease in athletic performance, and creates an overall catabolic environment. Oh, and losing sleep won’t make you gain muscle but could make you gain fat!
To maximize your anabolic hormonal output and create an overall healthy and anabolic environment for optimum muscle growth, aim for 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night! If you tend to lose sleep because of mild insomnia, work, kids or whatever reason, taking naps during the day can be beneficial.
Cardio (Low intensity)
I hate cardio, but I cannot deny its health benefits. Plus, there is no point of looking good and not being able to run for two minutes. However, traditional cardio routines can impact our results. This is because cardio activates different energy systems (AMPK) from weightlifting (mTOR). Also, recovering from a cardio session requires the body to shift its focus from the muscle repairing pathways, to cardiac recovery pathways. The human body isn’t a binary system that functions in an either-or fashion, but according to many studies, this seems to be the case when it comes to different recovery mechanisms.
Performing a very intense cardio session will induce a significant amount of fatigue. Another complication would be burning calories that could’ve been used to repair and build our muscles, but this is easily mitigated by eating back the burnt calories. Does this mean you should stop performing all types of cardio activities? Absolutely not! Besides its health benefits, cardio can in fact accelerate the muscle recovery process when performed properly. This is called active recovery, something I discussed in this article. For instance, taking a 30-minute walk will not induce enough fatigue that our bodies will have problems recovering from. In fact, that 30-minute walk will accelerate the muscle recovery process by improving blood circulation, enhancing nutrient uptake into the muscle, allows you to eat a bit more, helps keep you lean by ensuring some fat burning pathways remain active, and improves insulin sensitivity. As a general recommendation, I suggest doing 30 minutes per low to medium cardio session 2-3 times a week.
We cannot talk about anything recovery or nutrition related without mentioning calories. You could have the best training program in the world – doesn’t exist! -, but if you’re not consuming adequate high-quality calories, your recovery will be impaired. According to these studies (1, 2) subjects who performed resistance training and restricted their calories were able to lose weight, mostly fat, but were not able to increase their lean body mass by much. An exception to that would be novices who can lose a lot of fat and put on significant amounts of lean body mass simultaneously. Once your past that stage, you can still recomp, but the results won’t be as dramatic.
So, why does caloric intake affect recovery? Because when you are not consuming adequate calories, your body doesn’t function as optimal as it usually does in when you consume a hypercaloric diet. The massive influx of energy and nutrients supplies the organs with everything they need to function well. This goes for muscle recovery mechanisms as well. For example, the protein synthesis signal is still there when you restrict your calories, but it won’t be as strong as if you were consuming a hypercaloric diet.
Another problem with being in a caloric deficit when your sole goal is to maximize muscle hypertrophy is that your hormones will decrease. As with everything in our body, hormones regulate the muscle recovery process. The main hormones that affect muscle recovery directly are testosterone, insulin, and cortisol. You obviously want to maximize your testosterone output and keep cortisol levels at bay. This creates a nice T:C ratio in favor of muscle growth. However, being in a caloric deficit does the complete opposite; it reverses the T:C ratio in favor of catabolism. So, to maximize anabolic hormones output and keep catabolic hormones are at a low level, make sure you consume a caloric surplus.
Diet quality includes both macronutrients and micronutrients. It is common sense that consuming 1000 calories from whole foods is healthier than consuming 1000 calories from junk, which is about 1 sandwich and a milkshake from McDonald’s! Th former is packed with tons vitamins, Phyto-nutrients, macronutrients, minerals, and fiber that will all aid your muscle repair process. Moreover, a good diet will help curb your appetite and prevent overeating, two valuable things when you are losing fat.
As you can see in the diagram above, calories are still the most important factor in the equation. This is true when you’re trying to either build muscle, lose fat, or both (recomp). After calories, comes macronutrients such as protein, carbs, and fats. The third most important element in your nutrition plan is micronutrients. Yes, protein, carbs and fats are more important. However, micronutrients form the mini building blocks cells need to repair themselves at the most optimal rate possible. Besides muscle growth, to be as healthy as possible, your body needs those micronutrients as well. This is because our cells and organs need those valuable nutrients to function optimally. For instance, vitamin A deficiency could result in ocular issues, liver disorders, and skin problems.
It’s worth mentioning that on the other side of the spectrum, some people tend to be health freaks. Those kinds of individuals think that they must consume every calorie from whole foods. Otherwise, the health and muscle fairies will conspire against them and make them skinny, weak, and sick overnight. It is safe to say that if 80% of your diet is composed of whole foods, the remaining 20% will not affect your health or recovery process at all. In fact, I’d argue that consuming a bit of whatever-foods-you-want is beneficial to your social, mental, and physical health. Eat “clean”, but not too clean.
Nutrient timing is important, but not to a significant degree. Using the nutrition pyramid diagram above, you can see that meal frequency and nutrient timing do affect the recovery process, but not that much. I don’t even think that meal frequency or nutrient timing would be an issue for most people. For example, most people consume the traditional 3 meals a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. By default, squeezing your training session in between two of those meals is perfectly fine. If you’ve always consumed 3 meals and that fits your lifestyle and preferences, no need to increase your meal frequency to 4 meals just because the research suggests so. Increasing your eating frequency to 4 meals may be slightly beneficial, but not to any tangible extent that would manifest itself in a physical form. Well, unless you observe your results on a cellular level.
Another thing to consider is how large your meals are. For example, changing your meal frequency from 3 meals a day to 2 meals a day will inherently result in your two meals being larger. Granted you are consuming the same number of calories. 2400 calories divided over 3 meals will result in 800 kcal per meal. Dividing that same number of calories over 2 meals will result in 1200 kcal per meal. You might be wondering why this matters. Well, this matters because of the absorptive and post absorptive states.
The absorptive state occurs after you consume a meal. The post absorptive state occurs when you are in a fasted state or your body finished digesting the food and you haven’t consumed anything for some time. As you can guess, consuming a 1200-kcal meal will put you in the absorptive state for longer than if you consumed a 700-kcal meal. So, in the 2-meal-a-day example, you may spend more hours not eating between meals, but your body will be in a “fed” state for longer. So, once again, the difference in result will be very small. Eat however many meals fits your lifestyle and preference while paying attention to your diet quality and macros. You’ll be okay.
It is no secret that we’re all different. Training and recovery is no different. You could have everything in order, but even then, if you’re doing more than your body could recover from, you will be taking a step back. Many factors affect recovery in general and training volume in specific. Those factors include age, training age, sleep quality, nutrition, genetics, and sex. For instance, a young healthy male who eats mainly whole foods will be able to recover from a ton more volume than an old male who eats processed foods. Another example would be females’ ability to recover from much more volume than males due to higher levels of estrogen!
Although more volume stimulates more hypertrophy, there is a point of diminishing results. Otherwise, we would all do an infinite amount of volume to induce indefinite hypertrophy. Obviously, our bodies don’t work that way, and once you reach the point where your body cannot adequately recover from the trauma and super-compensate, you’ll stop growing. Moreover, your health and nervous system will probably take a hit if you continue doing that for a prolonged period of time. That said, you should try to find the sweet spot where you do enough volume to stimulate the most hypertrophy your body can do. According to scientific literature, the general recommendation of volume tends to be between 14 and 24 sets per body part per week. However, those are general recommendations, and individual variances can be slightly below or above those numbers. Find what works for you, and stick with that.
I cannot stress this enough (you see what I did there?)! I emphasize this even more for those who are naturally more prone to stress like myself. However, the good news is that as with any stress, there a cause (stressor) and eliminating that stressor is enough. You might be stressed because of work, family, relationship issues, kids, financial problems…etc. but do your best to de-stress as much as possible. We all have things to do outside the gym and we are all stressed for a variety of reasons. So, do your best and know that stress is inevitable, but could be minimized.
Stress leads to the elevation of the usually catabolic hormone, Cortisol. Now, if you’ve heard of cortisol, chances are you have some negative thoughts about this hormone. That said, cortisol is not all bad. We couldn’t live without it. Although cortisol is a catabolic hormone, I said that it usually is because it’s also lipolytic, which means it breaks down fat tissue to be utilized as energy. So, don’t assume that cortisol always targets your precious lean tissue. In small quantities, cortisol is very beneficial, especially for athletes. Cortisol, the fight or flight hormone, can boost athletic performance and burn fat. However, when cortisol is chronically elevated, problems start to arise. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol could result in impaired recovery, elevated inflammation levels, lean tissue breakdown, and impaired performance. So, the key here is to allow a little bit of stress in your life, but not to let it consume you.
Some methods that help many people de-stress are meditation, yoga, taking a walk in green spaces, and going on vacation. In fact, something as simple as tuning out the noise in your house and putting up scenic painting/pictures can help tremendously! Life is too short, don’t stress it.
If all of the above factors are optimized, I highly doubt you’ll need any supplement. Supplements help as much as 5% at best. However, that 5% could mean a lot to you and your progress. If you want to invest into some supplements to aid your progress and accelerate your recovery, I’d personally invest in:
Creatine – Creatine is awesome. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t say much here. Feel free to check out this post solely dedicated to creatine.
Protein – Mainly for those who can’t get enough protein through their diet. This could be due to demanding long days at work, not having enough time, or simply traveling a lot. Food is better, though.
Test booster – Only for men 40+ who have low normal levels of testosterone
Sleep aid – Reserved for those who have insomnia or sleep problems in general. However, I’d suggest going to a doctor and trying to solve the root problem first. For those of you who are naturally insomniac due to their bodies’ inability to produce adequate amounts of melatonin, taking a melatonin supplement will help tremendously.