What Exactly Is Recovery?
Training is addressed in many articles, but how often do you read about recovery? What exactly is recovery? How much does recovery impact the training effect? Consider the fact that muscles do not grow nor do they become stronger during training (I'm talking about the permanent, long-term strength gains that you are looking for, not the temporary jumps that can be experienced through specialized training methods). Therefore, it seems that recovery is a large piece of the "training effect" pie. In fact, I propose that most people fail to see significant gains because they do not recognize the full potential of recovery.
Ian King (http://www.kingsports.net) discussed recovery in a recent seminar titled "Bigger, Leaner, Stronger" along with John Berardi (http://www.johnberardi.com). One of my largest challenges is to convince my clients that more is not always better. I am often asked, "Is this going to be enough?" when I provide a program to someone. How much is enough? How much is not enough?
Unfortunately, perception of training often comes from the wrong source. People are constantly looking at programs designed for elite athletes to enhance their own physiques. Some athletes train 50 hours a week and have at their disposal a number of recovery aids that range from contrast baths, deep tissue massage, ART practioners (http://www.activerelease.com) to saunas, steam baths, and cutting edge nutritional supplements. To try and take one of their training programs and expect the same training effect without the same amount of recovery is to ask for disaster. Not only would this result in severe over-training, but it could also result in severe injury.
What Is The Solution?
Instead of pursuing the training effect by looking at training first, why not consider recovery? Too many people take a training program and then build their recovery around this. Sometimes that training is so demanding that recovery is next to impossible. By considering recovery first, you can ultimately tailor training to the amount of recovery available. This can produce tremendous results.
Let's consider the elite athlete for a moment. I have the same potential for recovery as an Olympic sprinter. If we draw a circle that represents total recovery potential, the Olympic sprinter and I start with the same, empty circle. Now we must ask ourselves, "What impacts recovery?" The Olympic sprinter probably has superior genetics, so we can increase their circle somewhat. I have a full-time job that can take from 40 to 60 hours of my time each week. When that is done, I have a part-time business to run. This can exhaust me mentally as well as add to my levels of stress, so in my circle we draw a large slice and label it "work".
I have a wonderful family that I try to spend as much time with as possible, which also places demands on recovery (try wrestling in a pool with a 16-year old or chasing a 4-year old through the airport!). So I draw another slice and label it "family". My work hours prevent me from sleeping as much as I'd like, so I draw another slice and label it "sleep". Already my circle is full of slices!
The Olympic athlete has at their disposal advanced recovery aids such as contrast baths, sauna, whirlpool, ART specialists, massage therapists, and elite nutrition to name a few. Their entire schedule is devoted to their sport, so there is no "work" to impose additional demands upon recovery. They may experience stress from the pressure of excelling at their sport, and they may have relationships off of the field that impose demands, but these are but two small slices.
As you can see, the Olympic athlete now has a huge portion of the recovery circle remaining for them. This explains why they can exercise for many more hours in a week and still reap the benefits of the training effect - they have plenty of recovery left for training. If you take the remainder of their circle and label it "training" you will see that the slice is big enough to allow volume and intensity in training.
What About My Circle?
If we take the remainder and label it "training" as well, how big is my "training" slice? Probably not that big - it might be a third of the circle, more or less. I obviously cannot afford to have training impact my recovery demands as much as the Olympic athlete, so my training must be less. In fact, sleep, family, and work place so many demands on my recovery that I train for maybe 5 - 7 hours per week - the rest of my time is spent in recovery!
Now let's take a hypothetical client who is extremely overweight, in their late forties, working as CFO for a Fortune 500 company. They have a family of their own but often work late hours and must travel often. They have trouble sticking with their nutrition program but are very faithful about getting to the gym. How should I design their training program?
There are still only 24 hours in a day, so their recovery circle starts out the same as mine. I put a huge slice for "work" because of the various demands of travel and the high stress environment. I have a slice for sleep because they are missing sleep from the long hours. I put in a slice for family. We're not done yet! Since they do not have adequate nutrition to assist with recovery, I put a slice for nutrition. They won't recover as well as I do because they don't get the same quality proteins, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and water that I do. I add another slice because of their age. By the late forties, hormone production has been drastically reduced. Hormones are a critical component of recovery, so with less natural hormone production, there is less potential for recovery.
By the time that I am through, there is only a tiny slice available for training. The impact of training on recovery must be much less than mine, or they will simply burn out, over train, and possibly injure themselves. Remember, we are looking for the optimal training effect. To expect this individual to have the same potential to lose fat and gain muscle as I do is ludicrous - there is simply too much going on in their life. So I must maximize their training without over-doing it, and that means taking a smaller slice out of the pie.
So how does this translate to an actual program? For me, a typical visit to the gym might involve:
Instead Of This...
- 10-minute cardiovascular warm-up
- Thorough stretching
- 2-3 warm-up sets for bench press
- 3 sets of bench press (10 reps)
- 2 sets of incline dumbbell press (10 reps)
- 1 set of dumbbell flies (15 reps)
- 2 - 3 warm-up sets for cable rows
- 3 sets of cable rows (10 reps)
- 2 sets of bent-over rows (10 reps)
- 1 set of one-armed dumbbell rows (15 reps)
- 2 sets of biceps curls (15 reps)
- 2 sets of triceps push-downs (15 reps)
- Thorough stretching
As you can see, volume is moderate to high. I perform up to 6 work sets per body part, have additional volume for my biceps, and perform a total of around 16 work sets.
When I design a program for my CFO, it will look more like this:
- 15 minute cardiovascular warm-up
- Thorough stretching (longer than my own!)
- 3 - 5 warm-up sets of bench press
- 2 sets of bench press (8 reps)
- 3 - 5 warm-up sets of bent-over rows
- 2 sets of bent-over rows (8 reps)
- Thorough stretching
This happens time and time again. The truth is simple: there is no potential to do more! This workout, albeit short, still stimulates muscle. The muscle is placed under tension and forced to resist weight, and this is what is needed to increase muscle size and strength. The longer cardiovascular warm-up ensures that the joints are warm and prepared for work. The extra warm-up sets help prepare the muscles and joints for the work sets both physically and neurologically - coordination is improved with each warm-up set so the potential for injury is significantly reduced.
The stretching helps lengthen the muscle through the joint and further prepare it for the work. The work sets are short, yet intense, with fewer reps and fewer sets because we have limited resources for recovery. Biceps are indirectly worked during the pulling movements, so there is no need during this cycle to add additional volume. This program will produce results - sure, they might be slow to come (my CFO might gain a pound of muscle over several months, while I may gain the same amount in half the time) but it is still progress. Considering the fact that most individuals lost muscle mass as they age, even maintaining body composition would be an improvement over the norm! Why would we expect this person to make the same gains as someone else, like myself, who has a superior hormone profile, gets more rest, and has higher overall potential for recovery?
How Can I Take This A Step Further?
What if I caved in to their request to "do more"? What then? With my volume of training superimposed on their potential for recovery, the training element suddenly becomes greater than the recovery potential. When this occurs, the training effect is stifled. In fact, it may be lost completely. Instead, overtraining will most likely result in loss of muscle mass, suppression of immune system function (increasing the CFO's chances of catching a cold or falling sick), and loss of strength. What is ironic is that, when faced with these symptoms, many people think, "I'm not gaining muscle ... I'm losing strength ... I have to train harder!"
One of my favorite quotes is that if you do the same thing, you should expect to get the same results. The people who complain about my programs being "too light" have always trained with more volume and higher intensity. They also order a program for a reason: they are hoping to see results. Whatever they've been doing isn't working out. So why the resistance to lighter training? Some of the response is psychological - we like to bust our butts in the gym to feel like we're doing something (I have the same problem - when I do an intentionally light workout, I feel unsatisfied, like I haven't done enough).
The media perpetuates some of it - we read the workout that some professional bodybuilder on "gear" (a slang term for illegal steroids) uses, and want to emulate their success without the other million factors that contribute to recovery (on "gear", their recovery circle actually becomes much larger than yours or mine!).
Again, if you do the same things, expect the same results. If you feel you might be training outside of your recovery circle, remember, the training effect is not training - it is training and recovery. Try doing a little less. Think about the factors that impact your recovery, and for each element decide if a reduction in volume is warranted. You might be surprised to find that doing less will result in more gains - expressed by an increase of muscle mass and a loss of fat!
Whether the goal is improved athletic performance, better health, higher energy levels, or a nicer figure, the training effect is incomplete without recovery. Training should stimulate, not annihilate, so that recovery can create. Think about your recovery potential and adjust your training accordingly. Only through the proper balance of training and recovery will you receive the full benefit of the training effect and move that much closer to your peak physique.
Ten Fat Mistakes!