Updated: May 19
Weight lifting, Bodybuilding, or CrossFit can be fantastic ways to improve your strength and fitness, but it's important to give your body the time it needs to recover properly. Underestimating recovery can happen to anyone, the novice, intermediate, or advanced. Usually, it happens when someone wants to speed up their progress or is close to hitting their set fitness goal, it can be very tempting to skip a rest day. However, the recovery process is crucial for muscle growth, injury prevention, and ensuring that you're ready to hit the weights again in your next session.
24-48 hours after your workout, you may experience muscle soreness, which is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). It happens due to microtears in your muscles and connective tissue, and lactic acid buildup, a normal physiological process. Microtrauma to the muscle is what encourages new muscle growth with stronger and larger muscle fibers. This soreness happens to novices and elite athletes alike. If you’re starting out, sometimes you may feel discouraged because you are not used to the feeling of soreness, as your body adjusts to your newly found passion for fitness; but there are ways to mitigate soreness. In this article, we'll explore some strategies you can use to speed up your recovery after a workout:
After a lifting session, sometimes we are just ready to hurry out of the gym and take on our next daily task, however, it's important to take some time to cool down and stretch your muscles. This will help to reduce muscle soreness and stiffness and improve your flexibility. Stretching before a lifting session can be beneficial also, as it prepares the muscle to be engaged in the activity. This also reduces your risk of injury during your workout. Focus on stretching the muscles you worked during your lifting session, doing 3-4 stretches and holding each stretch for 15-30 seconds.
There is actually a reason why you’ll stereotypically see the big bodybuilder at the gym with a jug of water. According to the National Institute of Health, our muscle mass is made up of 76% water, this is called intracellular water (ICW). ICW determines cell volume and affects cell metabolism and protein structure. Hydration is key to recovery after a lifting session. Your muscles need water to repair and grow, and being dehydrated can make your muscles more prone to injury. Aim to drink at least 8 glasses of water per day, and make sure you’re drinking plenty of water during and after your lifting session.
Eat a Balanced Diet
Are you actually eating enough? More importantly, are you meeting your macronutrient requirements to support recovery and muscle repair? Eating a balanced diet is essential for muscle recovery. Your body needs the right nutrients to repair and grow muscle tissue, and to replenish the energy you burned during your lifting session. Aim to eat meals that include protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Make sure you are reaching your daily caloric needs. Eating a balanced diet could entail cutting carbs, and increasing protein and fiber intake. One study showed that a high-protein, low-fat diet increases metabolic rate and postprandial thermogenesis by 100% (1). Adding more fiber to your diet or supplementary fiber can speed up weight loss and prevent weight gain (2)
Get Enough Sleep
I can’t stress this one enough. If you’re serious about the progression of your fitness goals, put the phone down and turn off the television. Sleep is essential for muscle recovery, as this is when your body repairs and rebuilds muscle tissue. Your body releases many hormones during sleep that are essential to muscular hypertrophy, and overall recovery and repair. One particular study observed that poor sleep leads to lower levels of leptin and elevated levels of ghrelin, two hormones directly related to appetite. This study showed that off-levels of the hormones suggest increased BMI in overweight and obese people (3). Aim to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night and try to establish a consistent sleep schedule. Tips that can aid in helping you achieve restful sleep are:
- Reduce your exposure to blue light leading up to your bedtime
- Relaxation techniques such as meditation, light yoga, or deep breathing
- Use of supplements such as melatonin or magnesium
- Avoid rigorous exercise at least 1-2 hours before bedtime
- Avoid caffeine 6-8 hours prior to sleep as it can disturb your sleep cycle
Use a Foam Roller, Massage Ball, or Theragun
Using a foam roller, massage ball, or theragun can help to reduce muscle soreness and tension. Spend some time rolling out any tight or sore areas, focusing on the muscles you worked during your lifting session. The theragun is a great tool to relieve muscle soreness and tension, it works through massaging vibrations that can stimulate blood flow and disturb pain pathways.
The sauna is a great recovery tool, it helps you recover quicker by stimulating blood flow in your body. This oxygen-rich and nutrient-rich blood will aid in recovering your depleted muscles, and the heat will help relieve any muscle tension. An ice bath, many degrees in the opposite direction, can also aid in recovery. Ice baths will help reduce any inflammation and symptoms associated with tissue breakdown, it will also help disturb any pain pathways.
Take a full Rest Day
Taking rest days is crucial for muscle recovery. Your muscles need time to repair and grow, and overtraining can lead to injury and decreased performance. Aim to take at least one or two rest days per week, and listen to your body. If you feel overly fatigued or sore, take an extra day off. If you’re feeling sluggish throughout the day and it is unusual for you it could mean that you are overtraining or in need of a rest day. During this day eat your normal maintenance calories, perhaps adjusting to eating slightly more protein and fewer carbohydrates or fats.
Take an active Rest Day
Active? Rest day? Sure. No, this does not mean going to the gym and doing a full workout session. An active rest day entails using very light exercise and movement to stimulate nutrient transport in your body. This could be several activities such as restorative yoga, light walking, light swimming, or fitness band work, to name a few. Make sure your heart rate stays in the range of about 50-65% of your max heart rate.
Take a day or two off depending on how you’re feeling, you deserve it and your body needs it. Recovery is just as important as lifting itself. By incorporating these strategies into your routine, you can help speed up your recovery time and get back to lifting at full strength, while mitigating the risks of injury or overtraining. Adequate recovery will help you see more progress quicker, regardless of what your fitness goals are. Remember to stay hydrated, eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, and take rest days when needed.
Before starting any fitness program or making dietary changes, including supplementation, please consult your physician for a thorough examination.
Johnston CS, Day CS, Swan PD. Postprandial thermogenesis is increased 100% on a high-protein, low-fat diet versus a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet in healthy, young women. J Am Coll Nutr. 2002 Feb;21(1):55-61. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2002.10719194. PMID: 11838888.
Anderson JW, Baird P, Davis RH Jr, Ferreri S, Knudtson M, Koraym A, Waters V, Williams CL. Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutr Rev. 2009 Apr;67(4):188-205. doi: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x. PMID: 19335713.
Taheri, S., Lin, L., Austin, D., Young, T., & Mignot, E. (2004). Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index. PLoS Medicine, 1(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0010062