From the early day, I used to push myself in the gym. High intensity routines. And, who can forget my, my high school days, when I benched 5 times per week.
I've trained and pushed myself a lot over the years, and I've put many people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities through training sessions, as well. And the main thing I have learned, it's that: It's not how hard you can exercise but how well you can recover from that matters.
What Is Recovery and How Do You Monitor It?
One definition of recovery is the ability to meet or exceed performance in an activity. While that's a fine definition, recovery is not just about performance in the moment, but also your body's ability to overcome and adapt to stress after exercise or competition.
If you get a chance to learning about training theory and writing exercise programs, you will find out that the experts were focused on the concept of homeostasis: The tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes. In simple terms, homeostasis is your body's way of keeping itself in a state of balance. How does that apply to exercise? Let's talk about the role of stress in upsetting that balance.
Training Is Stress, But It's Stress You Control
When you go in the gym and burst out arms for an hour, you're stressing your system. It responds via various mechanisms to restore the body to its preferred "balanced" state. It increases protein synthesis among other mechanisms to build up the body bigger and stronger than before.
Even so, you can't just think about muscle recovery at the muscular level, you must consider what it does for the body on a grander scale, as well.
If you look at a bodybuilding-style body-part splits as an example. The big issue when laying out a split is finding ways to avoid training the same muscle group too frequently. That puts the focus on local muscular fatigue and recovery. So, if you hit chest on Tuesday, you may not want to do arms or shoulders on Wednesday because you would be taxing some of the same muscle groups on consecutive days.
That's good as far as it goes, but to get a true picture of the body's response to exercise stress, you need to look at it from a global perspective.
What Drives Muscle Contraction?
Muscles don't fire themselves. They need electrical impulses to drive that contraction, which means they need the nervous system.
The nervous system namely, the autonomic nervous system, or ANS consists of two branches:
1. The sympathetic nervous system, or SNS, is the fight-or-flight branch. If you want to run fast, jump high, or lift heavy things, you activate your SNS to help you do it.
2. The parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS, is the rest-and-digest branch. If you want to chill out, relax, and recover, you need to activate the PNS.
The goal is to have balance in your nervous system. When you want to train hard, you need to be able to crank up your SNS and push weight. But when it's time to relax and get some deep, restful sleep, you need your PNS working at a high level.
Now come the big question becomes, how do you keep track of your nervous system balance?
Heart Rate Variability Monitoring
One of the best ways to keep an eye on your ANS is to track and monitor your heart rate variability, or HRV, with one of the various apps and monitors that are on the market. HRV systems measure the tiny differences in time that occur between your individual heart beats. They look at the balance between the SNS and PNS and give you a score. If you're balanced and operating at a high level, you'll typically get a green score, which indicates you're recovered and ready to go. On the other hand, if you're not recovering well, typically marked by an increase in sympathetic activity, you'll get a yellow or red score.
How Does Training Affect Recovery?
When Tranquillity 360 Fitness personal trainers are designing workouts for new clients, there are three major factors I consider:
1. Their age and recovery ability.
2. Their primary training goal (i.e., strength focused vs. physique focused).
3. Other stressors they are dealing with in their lives.
The Age Factor
Someone who is 20 years old, whose only stress in life consists of getting up to go to class, getting to the gym five times per week, and recovering from extracurricular activities on the weekends, can take a lot of stress and recover from it. On the flip side, if someone is 50 and has teenage children at home, a full-time job, and money issues, their stress levels and their ability to recover from exercise are going to be vastly different.
When we write that first program, we normally start by considering how many sessions we want the client to complete in a given week, and from there I break down how much stress I can impose on any given exercise day. For most of my clients, 2-4 sessions per week works well. Younger clients typically trend toward the higher side, while our older client’s trend toward the lower side. As we age, recovery between exercise sessions becomes even more critical, and we don't recover as fast as we once did.
The Stress Per Workout
To consider how stressful a given exercise session is, you need to have some gauge as to how hard you trained. Many trainees track the workout volume (sets x reps), but a critical piece of the puzzle is the intensity.
So, instead of sets x reps, the new formula is:
· sets x reps x load
Using this equation, here's how two different workouts done with the 5x5 scheme would look:
· 5 sets x 5 reps x 200 pounds = 5,000 pounds total workload
· 5 sets x 5 reps x 400 pounds = 10,000 pounds total workload
While each workout contains 25 reps (5x5), adding in the load gives you a much better measure of how challenging it is.
Don't Overlook How the Workout Feels
Another way you can track intensity is to consider the rating of perceived exertion, or RPE. While it's not perfect, a subjective score brings an added element of individuality into the mix.
For example, say you're in the gym warming up on the squat. On some days, that weight is flying up and you feel amazing; you know it's going to be a great day. At other times, you can't seem to make it happen, and just having the loaded bar on your back feels like it's going to crush you.
The RPE can give insight into not only how you're feeling that day but also how you're recovering from your sessions. We typically use a 1-10 scale to rate how difficult a session was, with 10 being a gruelling workout, 9 being a tough workout, 8 being a challenging workout, and so on.
Tracking RPE over the course of months (or even years) can tell you a lot about how your workouts are going and give your ideas for what you can do to squeeze even more gains out of every lift.
Building A Better Training Template
Once you have an idea of how hard a given training session was (or will be), you can plan the rest of your training week around it. When you're young, it's easier to go back-to-back days, simply because your recovery ability is so great. As you age, you will typically need to find a better balance, with time off between sessions.
As lifters get mature, they usually find that they need more volume or intensity to disrupt homeostasis and force the body to adapt. The combination of increased age, plus the increase in exercise stress forces you to take more time off between sessions to create an adaptation.
Yes, there are exceptions. Some people can train every day and get away with it. And yes, there are ways to enhance your performance via pharmaceutical means. By and large, however, most people who are really pushing their body are going to train 3-4 times per week, taking a day off between workouts to rest, recover, and prep for the next session.
A training week would look like this:
· Monday: Maximum Effort, Lower Body
· Tuesday: Off
· Wednesday: Maximum Effort, Upper Body
· Thursday: Off
· Friday: Moderate Effort, Lower Body
· Saturday: Moderate Effort, Upper Body
· Sunday: Off
Here are a couple of key points about this program:
1. If you're really pushing the intensity, you can probably only do a max effort twice per week, and you're going to need 48-72 hours between sessions. Even if the muscles feel ready, the nervous system takes more time to recover.
2. Just because you have two high-intensity days doesn't mean you take the rest of the week off. Whether it's less intense, volume-focused workouts, recovery workouts, or some other plan, there are still options to keep you in the gym on the regular.
The Bottom Line On Recovery
Your goal is to find a training approach that lets you train hard each time you're in the gym. If your goal is to lift heavy things and look good for as long as possible, make recovery a key part of your training when you lay out your workout schedule.
This blog is updated by Tranquillity 360 fitness personal trainers, as well as other guest bloggers.