I’m going to repeat some things that I’ve already said in previous articles, but I think it’s important to expand on this topic specifically. Day in and day out, strength athletes and enthusiasts alike train as hard as they possibly can. Between the brutal workout sessions that they put themselves through and the normal stresses that come with being alive, gym goers have a habit of tearing themselves apart, literally. Throw in a couple of competitions or gym meets every year, the physical demand inevitably takes its toll. An active lifestyle is one thing, but to be someone who pushes their physical limitations to extremes is all together different. So, how does a strength athlete maintain that lifestyle? The answer to that question is just as important as the training itself. Strength athletes must be able to recover.
Recovery is something that I feel a lot of people tend to forget about, or they don’t understand just how proactive one needs to be in their recovery. During training, athletes are literally tearing their muscle fibers apart. No one leaves the gym stronger. Unless absolutely nothing is done, everyone leaves the gym weaker, tired and sore. Every time a rep is performed, tiny micro tears are done to the muscles. Over time the tears are repaired, the muscles grow and an adaptation occurs, thus making the muscles stronger. Actual trauma is being forced on the body to create a stimulus. Those adaptations do not occur on their own. What an athlete does before, during and after their training is vital in regards to their performance and recovery in both the short term and long term.
Constant High Intensity is Regressive
Anyone who loves to be in the gym probably loves to lift heavy weights. What’s more satisfying than pulling a super heavy deadlift? Doing it twice. However, constantly maintaining a high intensity will eventually lead to some form of regression. Either progress will stall or an injury can occur. Every individual is different. Some people can sustain high intensity training longer than others, but eventually the inevitable happens. The key to training is to be able to train for an extended period of time, generally decades, and be as injury free as possible. Sticking to a high intensity protocol is not going to allow that to happen. The best solution is to periodize the high intensity cycles in the training program. For example, a block training program will gradually increase the intensity to a peaking phase over the course of weeks before coming back down to build up again. A conjugate style of programming will wave the intensity every session. Linear programs will have resets within the program to bring trainees back down. Whatever method works for you, find a way to lighten the load from time to time. This will be especially true as you progress with your training. Beginners can recover quickly and can handle a higher volume of high intensity training. As someone becomes a more advanced lifter and is capable of producing more force to lift heavier loads, more time will be needed to recover. Advanced strength athletes like professional strongmen or elite powerlifters may only have to approach maximal intensity once per month at most. With advancement, recovery becomes increasingly important. Lifting increasingly heavier weight increases the energy demand and physical toll on the body. Not allowing enough time to recover will likely inhibit a trainee’s ability to progress with training.
It is also vital to remember that the same principles must be applied during the training itself. Performing heavy lifts is very taxing on the body. If your program calls for five sets of squats at a 90% intensity, you’re going to need some time between sets to allow your body to recuperate and be prepared for the next set. The length of time might vary from person to person, but giving yourself a few minutes to allow your body to breathe is vital. Your body needs that break to pump blood into the muscles that were just stimulated in order to be able to work again. Get back under the barbell too soon, and performance might suffer.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re probably rolling your eyes at that word and making a sourpuss expression on your face. Well, suck it up because you need to do them. Take it from someone who has learned the hard way. It is necessary to take a break from the program from time to time. Most programs will have some sort of deloading phase built into the program. They are generally built in after a training block or spread out within the week. A deload does not mean that you have to do nothing. In fact, it’s optimal to continue to train at a greatly reduced intensity. With a less than 50% intensity, it is good to perform the lifts with the same attention to technique as if they performed with 95% intensity. This allows trainees to practice technique, allow the blood to flow in the body and take a break from high intensity lifting. Some people, myself included, like to completely get away from what they were doing during the training block. Instead, I like to use this opportunity to train with dumbbells and perform unilateral exercises to workout any imbalances. I also like to perform extra mobility exercise to make sure that I don’t have stiffness or impingements that might interfere with my training. This approach allows me to have a mental break from the demands of being under a barbell.
What you do between your sessions is very important. Whether you are at home for the evening or enjoying a day off, it is important to continue to move your body. At the end of the day, you’re tired. You spent the day training, working, taking care of the kids, doing house chores and the rest of the endless to-do list. The only thing you want to do is prop your feet up and binge watch television. Instead, go outside for a walk. Something as easy as walking for thirty minutes can do wonders for recovery. Turn on your favorite podcast or playlist and walk around the block for a while. If that doesn’t interest you, break out your lacrosse ball and work the soft tissue. Whatever you decide to do doesn’t need to be strenuous or time consuming, but it needs to help you get oxygenated blood moving in your body. On days off, doing something active. Play basketball, run around with the kids, do yard work, do something. It’s not necessary or healthy to sit around and wait for the next training session. Get outside and be active. Being a normal, active person will not take away from your training; it will benefit it. Besides, what’s the point of all the training if you can’t enjoy doing things? If you’re really someone who wants to be in the gym, then try getting in a nice pump. Without anything heavy, do some vanity exercises like curls, tricep pushdowns and chest flys to give yourself a nice pump. This is an easy way to get the blood pumping in your body without doing something that will affect your training performance. These exercises should never be taken to any level of notable intensity. Do just enough to flood the muscles with blood and leave the gym. You’ll feel good and maybe even look good, too.
Eat and Sleep like they Matter
The food you put in your mouth will dictate how your body responds to training. Every athlete will need to properly fuel themselves before and after their training sessions. Stuffing your face with junk food won’t do you any favors. Nutrition plays a vital role in physical development; this is where keeping track of macro and micro nutrients matter. Depending on a person’s goals, everyone will have their dietary needs and restrictions, but a good nutrition plan will give the body the nutrients it needs to build and adapt to hard stimulation. Eating a diet of protein, carbs, fats, vegetables and fruits is what most people need to keep their body healthy and develop athletically. Ideally it’s best to eat as much fresh food as possible. Stay away from processed items that are found in boxes and bags, and buy raw, fresh food. They are better for the body and usually taste better.
Quality sleep is probably the hardest for most people to have. It seems that most people either have too much responsibility or they don’t understand the basics of good sleep hygiene. It may be difficult to get the recommended eight hours of sleep every night, but it’s important to adopt a regular sleep schedule. If it’s possible, naps during the day can help catch up with sleep. Even a twenty minute nap can help recover. The things that happen before bedtime have a direct affect on the quality of sleep. For example, if you are someone who likes to stare at their phone for an hour before trying to sleep, it is going to be more difficult to sleep well. The bright phone screen keeps the brain operating at an elevated state and makes it harder to fall asleep. Turn off all electronics and devices, drop the temperature on the thermostat, read a book and get some sleep. Making sleep a priority will drastically improve performance in the gym.
Know When to Back Off
Not every training session is going to feel great. Soreness, fatigue, stress or a nagging injury all affect training. However, it’s imperative to know when it’s okay to push through and when to pull back. If you’re going into your training feeling a little tired or a little tight in your body, a good warmup can be a sufficient remedy. If you’re going into your training with a minor nagging injury that needs to be worked through, do so with care. If you’re going into your training with something that is actively causing a noticeable amount of pain and limiting your mobility, know that you have to back off. Pushing through a legitimate injury is a surefire way to find yourself in an orthopedic surgeon’s office. I know it’s frustrating to slow down and allow an injury to heal, but if you don’t, what could have been a couple of weeks could turn into six months. I’m not saying you have to completely stop training, but at the very least, make sure that you’re going to train in a way that will not worsen the injury. Find ways to either train around the injury or limit the range of motion to stay out of the range that triggers pain. Don’t be a meathead and train with your brain. Give your body the time it needs to heal and correct any flaws and weaknesses that caused that injury.
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Quote for the article: “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.” -Jim Rohn