Fact: muscles are built outside the gym. All the effort you put into training hard can easily be made useless if you are not recovering properly. Nutrition, stress and sleep are some of the factors that will dictate how quickly your strength and size gains progress throughout your muscle-building program.
Having these aspects in check will also give you a better idea of when your body needs a break and is time to deload.
Like every other aspect of bodybuilding, recovery is also individual. You can't compare your recovery capabilities with those of someone else. Actually, you can't even compare your own recovery capabilities between two different moments in time. Some individuals will be able to achieve great gains in strength and size while on minimal sleep while others will struggle on a 10 hours night sleep.
Listening to your body in this instance is extremely important and you should experiment with the various aspects of recovery to find out the best set up for you at that moment in time. Tracking, previously discussed here The Top 5 Reasons Why You Are Not Making Gains, is fundamental to help you understand how your body is responding. I suggest adding to your training journal a section dedicated to registering energy levels and muscle soreness.
Aspects of Recovery
As mentioned above, the 3 major aspects of recovery are nutrition, stress and sleep. Training volume has a part in this as well but it should always be considered in relation to the other aspects rather than a standalone variable.
Let's review all of the mentioned aspects in more detail and discuss how training volume should be adjusted.
Some researchers have dedicated their lives to the study of sleep. The literature on this subject is abundant and very specific. It has been proven that sleep deprivation affects important regulatory body function such as glucose regulation, blood pressure, cognitive hormones and hormonal axes. It also causes an increase in cortisol (cortisol is catabolic – breaks down molecules – it can inhibit protein synthesis, which means your body will find it harder to build muscle, says McCarthy. “Cortisol can also accelerate the breakdown of protein into amino acids and sugar, which means that you start to use muscle as an energy source) and reduction in testosterone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1 is a hormone found naturally in your blood. Its main job is to manage the effects of growth hormone (GH) in your body. Normal IGF-1 and GH functions include tissue and bone growth. IGF-1 is formed in different tissues as a result of GH in the blood). All these findings lead the experts to believe that sleep deprivation decreases protein synthesis and increases degradation pathways. If you have read Understanding the fundamentals of NUTRITION, you have probably already figured out that muscles damaged during the workout will not recover (or anyone recover to a lesser degree) if protein synthesis is hinder.
Guidelines for adult recommend 7-9 hours of sleep a night. If you are not meeting that requirement you should definitely sit down and re-organise your day so that you can add hours of sleep. If you are already getting a recommended dose of sleep, why not trying to add an extra hour and see how that makes you feel? I guarantee you will see the benefits right away.
Note: Sedation does not allow the body to go into a deep sleep, which is the most important phase were we truly rest. For example, Marijuana is a sedative therefore it will help sleep but it won't help you rest and recover. If you are having trouble sleeping search for supplements that are from natural ingredients and aid sleep without sedation.
By far the hardest one to control and of course the most impacting aspect of recovery.
Stress is omnipresent in our life. It can be due to your financial situation, that very annoying boss of yours, your pain in the ass partner or your unsupportive parents.
To manage stress effectively you need to be in control of who you let into your life and be ruthless in cutting out toxic people. I know, it's easier said than done, but being aware of it will at least make you realise when you are in a situation that causes you stress.
For example, if your best friend doesn't understand your newly found self-love and insists you order a burger with fries during a Saturday night out when all you want is a salad cause you are trying to lose weight, talk to them about how stressful that situation is for you. Make them understand that either they support you or are no longer your best friend.
Being successful at anything in life ultimately comes down to who you surround yourself with!
If situations are out of your control (for example, a subsupplier of your main supplier being late with deliveries) learn to let go. Getting stress about what you can't control is not going to help anyone.
A lot of people finds meditation very helpful against stress too. If you are new to meditation start small (5 minutes or so) and follow guided meditations available for free on youtube and Spotify.
I don't think we need to spend a lot of time on this. If you are putting your body through gruelling workouts but are not feeding it with the right amount of nutrients your progress will be hindered. Don't skip your meals and also don't replace your meals with nutrient empty food! Whether you are in a caloric surplus or deficit, stick religiously to your meal plan and your body will thank you for it!
We briefly mentioned at the beginning of the article how training volume can impact your recovery. Assuming that all the other aspects discussed in this article are followed precisely you can start playing around with your training volume.
I think the easier way to express this concept is by giving an example:
Say you are on a Push/Pull/Leg split. You are training with heavy loads and high intensity for 3 sets per 5 exercise for a total of 15 working sets. By the time your next leg session comes around your legs are still sore and you are not capable of matching the training intensity or load of the previous session (for example you are failing 1 rep sooner). The next week comes around and you face the same struggles.
You can see how this is indering your progress as you are not capable of maintaining a progressive overload. It would be beneficial to start reducing your working sets from 15 to 12 (you could cut 1 set from every compound exercise) and test it for a couple of weeks. Continue cutting volume (i.e. reduce sets) until you feel absolutely fine on your next session.
I'm going to leave here links to study that I find very interesting on this subject. If you are interested in deep diving into this subject and find out more about recovery give it a read.
Ensuring proper recovery is just as important as training at high intensity and frequently.
Focus on your sleep, managing your stress and following your nutrition protocol.
Listen to your body and adjust your recovery accordingly. Yes, pushing through the pain is part of the process of changing your body but you need to learn how to differentiate progress pain from degression pain.
Get after it!