3 Recovery Basics For Hard Lifters

recovery and gains

There are some easy ways to recover after a hard workout!

We all want to look like epic Greek statues. The kind of physique that can hold it’s own in a colosseum. Interestingly though, the best physiques aren’t made solely from lifting hard and pushing your limits. You also need a recovery component.

In fact, all the training you do means nothing if you can’t recover from it. There’s something to be said about working hard, but don’t forget about resting hard.

Ultimately, when you train, you have to provide a strong enough stimulus or signal for your body to change and adapt. To provide that signal, your training has to be hard and with hard training comes fatigue. Fatigue prevents you from training hard again, so the quicker you can get fatigue to disappear, the sooner and more productive your next training session will be allowing you perform better and thus, continue sending that sweet stimulus that enhances your physique.

Without this emphasis on recovery, you’re training hard for the sake of training hard without providing further growth. It’s like when you read a book when you’re tired. You might get through pages of pages of words, but not actually attain anything from the text.

But anyways, here’s how you recover like a champ.


Sleep Your Face Off

Sleep is responsible for hormonal production and exercise recovery. Sleep also keeps your brain sharp especially if you have to work a high-stress job on top of doing complex exercises at the gym. Sleep also predicts how cranky you are as human. It doesn’t even take any studies to know that.

Poor sleep hygiene is also linked with more illness. Inflammatory markers and stress hormones skyrocket making you sick and preventing proper repair of muscle tissue. With less sleep, you’re also immediately at a greater risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and cognitive decline. So, it be a shame to work so hard in the gym for many of those benefits to be negated or worse, an early death. Just being real.

So if it’s not blunt enough for you yet, your biology is designed to rest within a certain cycle, not stay up scrolling on Instagram for hours.

The general recommendations for athletes is 7-9 hours of high quality rest. This allows you to get plenty of REM and Non-REM sleep.

Non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is deep sleep where your brain has low activity. Relaxation is high and body structures are repaired. This is where lots of muscle and bone repair takes place.

REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is where your brain has higher levels of activities. Vivid dreams tend to happen as the brain is providing energy to restore your brain.

Both stages are important and your body will switch back and forth between them, so it’s essential to get as much sleep as you can especially if you’re somebody who lifts hard.

If you’re struggling with sleep deprivation, here are some simple yet highly effective tips for you:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule
  • Create a good sleep environment with silence, darkness, and comfortable bedding
  • Exercise daily and get a little sunlight during the day
  • Have a relaxing ritual before bed especially if you workout late at night or are prone to excessive device usage
  • Minimize caffeine or alcohol consumption especially near bedtime


Eat Like a Champ

Food serves many purposes in your life, but one of the most important is that it’s fuel. It’s quite literally the nutrients and building blocks for your entire system, not just your muscle. You can’t produce strength or even get up in the morning to go pee without endless enzymes, nutrients, and transmitters doing their job.

This all requires food, so feed your body well. Most meatheads already know to consume lots of protein. This is the bare basic that will skyrocket your recovery game if you’re more of a novice. Be sure to consume at least 0.8 grams per pound of bodyweight each day of protein. Going for gram 1 gram per pound of bodyweight is a safe and simple target for many people.

Protein will build muscle, repair tissues, and improve sleep which we discussed is great for your recovery.

Beyond protein intake, you’ll need a high enough caloric intake. Protein alone is only one macronutrient. You’ll need carbs for serotonin production and fat for testosterone production. More importantly, all three of these nutrients provide calories which is the basic unit of energy. You need calories to maintain tissue and provide literal energy for all the processes in your body.

Many lifters especially females tend to live year-round in a state of chronic dieting, chasing abs, and being overly restrictive. Your best training recovery comes from more calories not less. Gladiators don’t look and perform the way they do because they eat like rabbits.

So be sure to eat a sufficient amount of calories year-round. Bulking is great to have extra calories. Dieting down is fine too, but make sure you do it slowly to prevent crash dieting with insufficiently low calories.

Beyond the basics of macros, nearly every micronutrient plays some direct or indirect role in exercise recovery. So foods like pizza and churros are great for brining calories up, but they’re piss poor at providing appreciable vitamins and minerals.

I’m not saying pizza and churros are bad for you. Heck, I can kill a whole pizza and all the churros you give me, but the majority of your diet during the week should consist of whole nutritious foods. Excessive processing especially when nutrients aren’t refortified causes food to lose nutrients.

A multi-vitamin can be a decent insurance policy, but many are quite poor in design and they don’t provide key compounds only found in whole foods. So be sure each meal has a lean protein and a vegetable if you can. Also, eat plenty of fruits, legumes, nuts, and grains. You feed your body well and it will recover well. It’s not rocket science, but the simplicity of this message is often lost in our world where people adore overcomplicating things.


Monitor Your Training Program Meticulously

Recovery is by definition, a return to baseline. This means your performance needs to come back. Let me explain. If you did 3 sets of 12 with 155 lbs while training close to failure, you will accumulate fatigue.

That fatigue needs to dissipate before you’re able to hit 3 sets of 12 with 155 lbs again. This is why tracking your performance is so important. It allows you to objectively understand how much training you can handle before that exercise is repeated.

One of the most underrated ways to recover better is to train better. If your training is excessive, no recovery tactic can help with that. Thus, you need your training program to have a good balance of volume, frequency, and proximity to failure.

The closer you train to failure and the more sets you do, the more fatigue you’ll accumulate. So, if performance is dropping too often especially even after deloads, you need to do fewer sets to failure or do fewer sets period.

Beyond adjusting your training, you can also incorporate deloads to recovery better. Deloads can be pre-emptive or auto regulated. This means, you can deload once you’re starting to feel drained from training despite no drop in performance or you can deload at the first evidence of performance decline.

Either is fine, but what’s important is the deload is a temporary drop in training volume to allow for fatigue to dissipate. Usually advanced lifters will have to deload every few months.

Lastly, the low hanging fruit I see in recovering better with your training is to optimize exercise selection.

You’re essentially trying to recover from the fatigue imposed on your body. Without this fatigue, you could train forever and grow to Hulk status by next week. Unfortunately fatigue is inevitable, so the best we can do is minimize it with good exercise selection.

This means choosing exercises that stress muscle tissue to trigger hypertrophy that minimally fatigue us.

Believe it or not, this usually means cutting out barbell exercises for db, cables, or machine variations. The latter builds comparable or more muscle, but at a fraction of the fatigue. Think about how you feel just after 2 sets of barbell back squats or conventional deadlifts. Your low back is torched and your joints are more inflamed than a shin getting hit with a scooter.

So in the words of Lee Haney, “stimulate, not annihilate.”

Recovery is The Way

Training only has meaning if you can recover from it. If you can’t recover properly, you’re collecting fatigue, skyrocketing muscle loss, and getting tired with no results to show. So lame right?

So sleep hard, eat like a champ, and meticulously monitor your training. More isn’t always better. Being perpetually tired isn’t always better. And busting your balls trying to power through clear performance declines is stupid.

Learn to rest and recover, so you can make gains.

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Calvin Huynh
Calvin Huynh is a trainer, online coach, writer, and joyful ruler behind AwesomeFitnessScience.com. His content has reached various top sites and he has worked with a variety of clients ranging from top CEOs, hardcore lifters, everyday desk workers, and stay at home moms. When he’s not working, he spends his time going to church, dreaming of unicorns, and eating whole pints of ice cream on a comfortable couch somewhere in Southern California.