The Complete but Practical Guide to Recovery for Faster Fat Loss & More Muscle
“There is no such thing as overtraining, only under-recovery.”
It’s been said that overtraining is a myth. The idea is that when trainees find themselves overtrained they are actually making mistakes with recovery.
It’s these recovery mistakes that set the successful people apart from those who are constantly looking for the solution to help them finally lose fat, put on muscle, or get that extra performance edge.
This article will tell you how to accelerate recovery so that you can effectively change your body. We’ll focus on recovery for getting lean, touching on how your approach might differ if you’re a hard charging athlete or a recreational trainee.
#1: Train Hard & Smart
You need to earn your recovery. Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to kill yourself in the gym or spend hours training. It does mean that you have to apply the proper training stress in the most efficient way possible to produce the adaptation you want, whether it’s to lose body fat, increase your squat, or get leaner, stronger legs.
#2: Get a Grip on What Recovery Actually Means
A lot of people make the mistake of just focusing on one aspect of recovery. They ignore the fact that multiple systems get beaten down by training. The correct way to recover is to target the following mechanisms:
• Repair muscle and tissue.
• Remove waste products and reduce inflammation.
• Replenish energy stores and nutrients necessary for cellular activity.
• Restore the central nervous system (CNS), which, in simple terms, is repairing the connection between the brain and body
Fortunately, recovery doesn’t have to be complicated because you can use the same simple nutrition and therapeutic strategies to target all of these systems at the same time. For example, high-quality sleep will have a profound effect on central nervous system recovery, but it’s also key for fat loss and muscle building because when you’re sleeping is prime time for growth hormone release.
Or drinking caffeinated coffee can accelerate recovery by both reducing muscle soreness and restoring CNS function so you recuperate strength faster after an intense workout.
#3: Pick a Priority & Recover Accordingly
A basic principle of using exercise to change your body or boost performance is to set a goal and train using correct methods. You’re vertical jump height isn’t going to go up if you’re wasting time running 5Ks.
Once you’ve identified your goal, you need to make sure your recovery strategy doesn’t negate your efforts. Probably the most common way people mess this up is with nutrition. Their goal will be fat loss but they’ll consume carbs at the wrong times, such as using high-sugar carbs before and even during their workout. Or they’ll make the mistake of drinking Gatorade post-workout, often replenishing all the calories they just burned.
It’s true that post-workout is a good time to have carbs that are higher in sugar, but most people prefer to eat their carbs than to waste their carbs on a sports drink. On the other hand, athletes, especially those who are training multiple times a day, can benefit from liquid carbs to replenish glycogen stores, but no one interested in reducing body fat is going to need to take this approach.
#4: Eat the Most Satiating, Nutrient-Dense Proteins
Choosing the most satisfying, nutrient-rich food is one of the most practical and effective things you can do to recover.
You’ll get higher quality nutrition per calorie, reducing hunger and giving the body the necessary building blocks for repair at a lower energy intake. This is key because fat loss, energy-restricted diets create a catabolic environment in which the body loses both muscle and fat, leading to a plummeting metabolic rate.
Favor a variety of animal proteins because they are highest in the nine essential amino acids needed to repair tissue, while also providing creatine, carnitine, zinc, glutamine, and iron, all of which aid recovery and affect metabolism.
Protein pays off: A review found that trainees who took protein after training had a 38 percent greater increase in muscle and a 33 percent greater increase in strength than those who did not.
#5: Eat Colorful Plants at Every Meal
Dark-colored fruits such as blueberries and tart cherries are best known for being nutrient powerhouses that accelerate the elimination of waste products produced during training to reduce soreness and recover muscle strength faster.
Don’t stop with berries and cherries. Kiwis, pineapple and green leafy vegetables all provide compounds that improve metabolic processes. For instance, the cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts) help the body safely eliminate the hormone estrogen.
Though they might not be staple foods to eat at ever meal if the goal is fat loss, higher glycemic plants also contain nutrients that can aid in repair:
• Watermelon improves nitric oxide production, delivering nutrient-rich blood to damaged muscle tissue.
• Potatoes contain a little bit of almost every nutrient we need and along with other starches, such as squash and sweet potatoes, tend to be extremely satisfying.
#6: Eat a variety of fats at every meal.
Eating fats from whole sources like avocados, nuts, and fish has a protective effect by providing the correct ratios of the different forms of fat. For example, bone repair is improved when the omega-3 from fish and the omega-6 fats from nuts and seeds are balanced.
In addition, fat provides fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2 in a bioavailable form. It also has cholesterol, which is needed for hormone production, and will improve cellular signaling for better recovery.
Fish oil is one of the darlings of the recovery world because it improves cellular signaling and has anti-inflammatory effects. Researchers recommend it for trainees who are under intense physical and environmental stress, such as competing at high altitudes or in extreme heat or cold because it fights oxidative stress and reduces waste production during intense eccentric exercise.
Other fats are just as important. Eating avocados is associated with leanness in general, whereas nuts have been linked to better recovery from physical stress. For example, eating almonds daily for 4 weeks improved time trial performance in trained cyclists by improving energy use and antioxidant capacity.
#7: Hydrate With Cold Water
Water is the #1 supplement. There’s a strong link between dehydration and delayed recovery because water is necessary for both muscle and heart function.
Drinking cold water during training in the heat delays the rise in core temperature, which allows for better strength and endurance performance. Then, the temperature of your muscles after a workout influences how the body recovers.
If you’re too hot, metabolic processes are slowed because mitochondrial function is downregulated. Cooling the body sensibly by drinking icy cold water or getting into cooler temperatures helps offset this.
#8: Balance Your Cortisol by Reducing Stress
There is boatloads of evidence that mental and physical stress negatively influence both how you feel in the days after a workout and your long-term results from training.
For example, a 12-week study found that trained college students who reported low stress levels gained significantly more strength and more muscle than those who had high stress. The low stress group increased their maximal squat by 45 kg and bench press by 19 kg, whereas the high stress group increased max squat by 39 kg and bench press by 15 kg. There was a similar difference in thigh and arm muscle growth.
Why does stress lessen your ability to adapt to training?
It blunts immune function by lowering levels of natural killer cells. It also alters the HPA axis that produces hormones, leading to elevated cortisol, which acts directly at the level of the gene transcription within muscle cells, altering muscle building and interfering with recovery.
For instance, a study found that following a puncture wound to the skin, those with higher stress and higher cortisol levels had slower healing than those with low stress. In practical terms this means that if you have high stress you’ll always be trailing after your competitors who prioritize stress management.
Stress management is an elusive term. How can you nail it down?
Studies of Division 1 college teams found the following things to work:
1) Learn about the profound negative effects of stress on your body and abilities, and know that the only person with the power to reduce stress is you.
2) Learn and USE muscle and breathing relaxation techniques. Meditation is one of the most powerful tools because it’s been found to regulate the HPA axis for higher testosterone and growth hormone and lower cortisol.
3) Use music. Listening to music reduces cortisol and boosts immune function in anxious people but it’s also been linked to faster lactate clearance during recovery.
4) Do foam rolling or get a massage. Both have been found to decrease pain feedback from the spinal cord after training, and if you enjoy them they will lower your stress response.
5) Get good sleep. You’ll never reach your genetic potential if you’re not sleeping well. Because GH and melatonin are released at night, fat burning and metabolic processes are enhanced.
#9: Optimize Carb Intake, Eating them at the Best Times
Getting carb intake just right is tricky but it can make all the difference in what you get out of your training. Carbohydrates influence all of the following:
• They can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol after training, which can improve body composition over time.
• The insulin increase caused by carbs has a protective antioxidant effect on muscle because insulin helps suppress inflammatory products that you produce during training.
• They support function of the thyroid, which is involved in metabolic rate, and they are used to produce neurotransmitters that elevate mood and restore will power.
• They are the “easiest” source of energy for the body to use and they replenish glycogen, which is the energy source of your muscles.
• Hydration levels. Carbs require the body to store a lot of water, which can be good if intake is optimized but bad (bloating) if carb intake goes wrong.
Plan your carb intake based on activity levels, genetics and goals. General recommendations are as follows:
The best times to eat carbs to promote recovery are after an intense workout and in the evening.
The worst time is pre-workout because the increase in insulin will shift the body away from burning fat and reduces energy levels and motivation.
#10: Give Love to Your Gut
If there is something off with your gut or digestion, you won’t recover efficiently. Think about it. A poorly functioning gut plays a role in numerous actions:
It prevents the full absorption of nutrients needed for tissue repair and may allow other compounds and toxins that should be eliminated to enter the body.
Oxidative stress and inflammation develop, which reduces immune function and slows the repair of damaged muscle.
It reduces the body’s ability to metabolize waste products and produce enzymes that allow for energy use and fat burning.
It alters neurotransmitter production, which can lead to poor motivation, low mood, and lack of drive to train.
Solving a bad gut is out of the scope of this article but the simplest most practical things you can do that will make a difference for recovery are as follows:
1) Take a probiotic and eat plenty of fermented foods (sauerkraut, high-quality yogurt, pickled veggies) because they have been found to reduce inflammation post-workout.
2) Avoid ibuprofen and other NSAIDs. No, they don’t enhance recovery but they do cause leaky gut and may lead to impaired muscle repair.
3) Avoid any food that you’re intolerant of—gluten foods and wheat are big culprits.
#11: Do Recovery Workouts
Optimal recovery is a delicate balance of intense workouts, complete rest, and light activity. In some cases more frequent workouts promote recovery, whereas in others, they send you down a long road of under-recovery.
For example, if you’re training to put on muscle and find yourself getting very sore with DOMS, it’s possible you need to train more frequently.
Scientists have found that when people train multiple times a week soreness is reduced because the inflammatory response is lower. This is a secret of experienced, elite lifters—they do at least 3 squat workouts a week and may squat everyday, twice a day.
On the other hand, if you’re doing a lot of sprint work or a combination of high-intensity workouts (strong man, intervals) and lifting, you may need to back off. A few things rarely allow for optimal recovery:
• Doing sprints and lifting in the same session (cortisol gets overly elevated and training intensity is degraded).
• Doing two-a-day workouts every day, especially when one is high-intensity training and the other is intense, high volume lifting.
• Having a stressful life and training hard more than 4 days a week.
• Long workouts lasting over an hour.
Instead, depending on your situation, 2 to 5 hard workouts a week will usually allow for recovery. Try to be active on your days off, doing activity that improves blood flow and moderately elevates your heart rate, such as light load concentric-only workout, or easy conditioning.