Remember when it was cool to get really sore after a workout? You know… the “I can barely walk up a flight of stairs without writhing in pain” feeling. Ok, maybe you don’t.
But a long while ago, when I was in my powerlifting prime, and baggy “crazy” pants and fanny packs were the norm, muscle soreness was considered a must-have for maximizing muscle growth. In fact many experts actually considered “no pain, no gain” gospel and it was the only way to ensure that your workout actually had any merit!
Fast forward to a just a few years ago when people decided to listen to scientists and test the research that suggested that not only is muscle soreness not necessary, it may actually be detrimental to your progress.
Around the same time, a group of researchers and practitioners were able to convey a revolutionary approach to nutrition and exercise – it was called “nutrient timing” and still considered a staple requirement of a good training program today. This was good news for the training industry and even better news for the supplement industry.
We all finally believe that you need enough, but not too much stimuli, to get your muscles to grow, and you need to feed them properly. But, we still cannot agree exactly what that stimuli should be and moreover, what, when and how much nutrition we need to provide for maximum growth.
However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. We definitively know that much of the success that will come from your training is due to proper recovery. A grueling workout can only be beneficial if the fruits of your labor are given enough time to ripen, mature, and be ready to go again.
A Little Science
Ok, so if you have ever read anything I have written, you know I cannot avoid a little look in to the “why” from a factual basis. So to keep with tradition, let’s explore what happens to muscle when it is stressed and set up the reasoning behind the importance of recovery. I should probably preface this little tutorial with the fact that we train to break down muscle and force it to build up stronger, thicker, and more able to handle the future stresses we place on it – but you already know that, right?
The analogy that seems to work without detailing the science that best describes how the body responds to stress, is the one that explains why we do not “bleed-out and die” when we get a paper cut across our finger. The moment you cut your finger, sensors send a signal to the “clean-up crew” to get to work. Within a few moments, clotting agents begin to rush to the cut site and start working on a plan to coagulate and prevent too much blood loss.
The clotting agents repair the damage with a temporary patch, while the rest of the workers get to the site and begin to completely repair the spot back to normal. If the clotting crew didn’t respond immediately, well, we would have to be very careful all the time, and likely, contact sports would not exist.
In the case of deep wounds, the process takes considerably longer, may need outside help, and often the repairs may not look so wonderful, but will make the damaged-site stronger. This analogy works well because the same kind of process albeit different mechanisms, is what happens in muscle tissue during stress.
A light workout is like a small paper cut, a heavy-duty one is like a deep wound. The duration of recovery is directly related to the extent of the damage. And too much damage can have ill-effects on your body in general and could affect the shape and strength of your muscle.
With that reasoning, we understand why this analogy works. Immediately upon exercise, muscle begins to break down. Proteins that maintain cell structure and strength begin to break apart. The repair system is dispatched and a temporary patch holds things together although the muscle is seriously weakened.
Along with the protein degradation comes many other by-products of rigorous exercise. As exercise continues, other muscle fibers follow suit, being worked until they no longer can produce. The body works hard to repair damage and drain off all of the excess build up, but the continued hard pace of the workout doesn’t allow it to get very far. Internal cellular-during-workout competition is brutal, but a necessary step for ultimate success.
When I was in my prime, muscle soreness was considered a must-have for maximizing muscle growth. In fact many experts actually considered “no pain, no gain” gospel.
And then finally, the workout is over, and internally, the body is paying its last respects to the gods of war. Later on, the “night crew” comes to the rescue and continues the process of rebuilding and repairing. Finally there is reprieve: the repair process can get the edge, as there is no competition. It works tirelessly. Sometimes up to several days, to repair the effects of the hard-fought battle.
An immediate supply of building material was necessary for the short term patch, and a more complete supply, along with a better tool set, is needed for the full repair. But not only are the correct tools and materials necessary, we need to make sure we respect the time it takes and prevent additional stress on the damaged site.
The Hidden Meaning
If you were paying attention, and are reasonably savvy at putting the pieces together, you realize that I was talking about making sure that you develop a good training program that reasonably challenges your body, but not so much that you cannot recover. And you know that you need to provide proper fuel to make sure that your body can rebuild successfully.
There are hundreds of complex events that occur thousands of times every second during exercise. The end result is that muscle tissue, in order to grow, get faster, stronger, or provide greater endurance, needs for this to occur on a regular basis. The specific stress that you place on your muscles will cause specific adaptations.
And while strength training gets all the attention as the true “muscle crusher”, endurance exercise can be just, if not more vicious, to the body, which means that recovery is important for all exercise. The harder you work, the longer it takes to repair.
So training has two questions that need to be considered before you can even determine the exercises you should perform. How much stress do you need to push your body to its capable limit, and what is going to take to make it recover by the next session?
Well, if I had that, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. In fact, you wouldn’t be reading this or anything else related to exercise. And you certainly wouldn’t have any issues about what to take and when to take it. Nope, it would simply be the perfect world – the one we all wished we lived in, right?
It is these issues that keep me and other experts working hard to determine what will truly help, what may help, and what won’t help. I can tell you what won’t help. Poor choices. Too much too soon. Bad technique. Inconsistency. And lack of passion.
Furthermore, confusion of goals by trying too many things and not letting anything stick could lead to failure. I could go on and on, especially if I got in to the whole muscle confusion thing – why would you ever want your muscles to be confused – I want mine to grow, but alas, I digress.
Simply put, you need to set a goal or a few goals. You need to realize that everything cannot happen at once. And you need to understand that nothing happens over night; you need time for all those perfect repetitions to do its thing – make you stronger, faster, bigger, and better.
Oh and there is one other super important thing to remember: You need to feed your muscles and provide them the materials and the tools to get the repairs done faster. Simple enough right?
When nutrient timing first hit the scene, it was all about post-workout recovery. Then some really cool research suggested that pre-workout potions could prepare the body for the onslaught of battle. Since then, things have gotten, well, let’s just say; they have gotten a little out of hand.
Pre workouts have become “canned stimulants” and post workouts have become almost lost in the milieu of rhetorical claims of efficacy. Here is the deal. Prime your body by giving it a boost and some focus. The so-called window depends largely on when you will actually exercise.
Research indicates that 30 minutes or less prior to your workout is the best time to consume a supplement. Work as hard as you can during your workout, even bang out a few forced reps here and there, but remember, at some point, enough is enough. And then either during your workout or sometime shortly after, hit your body up with some Essential Aminos to rebuild, electrolytes to hydrate and a few other key enzyme activators to help with overall recovery.
That solid combination, timed appropriately, will give the patch crew what they need to keep things working and the “night crew” the distinct advantage. Later on, providing a continual stream of some key aminos will allow the body to have a constant supply of material, giving the process of recovery, rebuilding, and strengthening a decidedly uneven advantage.
What about workout timing? No, not whether or not you are going to workout, but what you are going to do as far as sets, reps and rest. For your exercise selection, well, let’s face it, nothing beats good hard reps of some of the basic exercises –especially if you are like me: wanting to look good.
Yeah, I know what you are saying. Stop there. Take a look in the mirror, and then reread my last sentence. Enough said. Much of the crazy stuff you see out there is really not needed unless you have a specific desire to try out for the “Cat in The Hat” and re-enact the standing-on-a-ball-holding-an-umbrella-a-fish-bowl-and-juggling.
Take a moment to think about what you want. Do you want a challenge, or do you want something that will yield results?
Ok, so I think you get the point.
Recovery starts before the workout, not after. I remember an old saying, and I wish I can give props to the person who said it first, but it is called the 6 Ps and goes like this: Prior Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance. Enough Said. Go out and hit your workouts with renewed vigor, and make sure to give them some fuel so they don’t waste their time.