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7 Best Post-Workout Recovery Tips

Rob Rinaldi, MS

A tough training session means very sore muscles. Here are 7 smart strategies to speed up the recovery process so you’re ready to do it all over again.

While most of us rightly focus on ways to improve our workouts, it’s a mistake to think the work is done once you exit through the gym’s doors. After all, training is only the stimulusthat breaks down the target muscle fibres, which occurs at the beginningof the muscle-building process. What you do over the course of the next 24 hours or so determines whether you optimizegrowth. That’s unfortunately where many of us unknowingly sabotage all that hard work. So let’s more closely examine the role of recovery and which variables can help further enhance—or likewise negate—your ultimate success.

Inside the Body

Several biochemical processes occur inside the body as you work out. Notably, the muscle fibres are structurally damaged and depleted of muscle glycogen (which is stored carbohydrates). Inflammation sets in, which may be seen in next-day muscle soreness (referred to as delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS).

Your goal during training is to damage as many muscle fibres as possible, and then you have to optimize conditions so they build back stronger and larger than before. This requires not only time but also smart nutrition and supplementation, as well as optimizing recovery protocols. The tools explained below have all been shown to speed up recovery, so it doesn’t make sense not to use them. Your goal is to be 100 percent ready to go again in as few days as possible, reducing the severity and length of DOMS.

Research published in Sports Medicine by Anthony Barnett reinforces this. “A lack of appropriate recovery may result in the athlete being unable to train at the required intensity or complete the required load at the next training session,” he writes. “Higher levels of fatigue may also predispose the athlete to injury. Furthermore, full recovery is necessary for optimal competition performance.”1

Mind you, recovery is clearly important for performance and growth of every lifter, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition. For example, you wouldn’t expect the recuperative abilities of a seasoned 30-year-old male lifter to be identical with that of a trainee in his mid-50s who follows a whole-body workout. Besides age and experience, other factors that affect recovery include volume and intensity of training, genetics, and muscle groups trained (larger ones such as legs typically take longer).

Optimizing Recovery

Let’s take a closer look at some of the more significant recovery strategies that have shown to be most effective.

1. You’re Not Done Without a Cooldown Strategy

You may be inclined to head for the showers after an exhaustive workout, but incorporating a 15 to 20 minute cooldown session has been shown to improve recovery. Light, continuous aerobic activity in which you continue to perspire but reduce your workout intensity helps to remove metabolic by-products (lactate, ammonia, and hydrogen ions) associated with anaerobic exercise, which means you’ll be ready for your next workout faster.2

2. Use a Foam Roller

Many athletes today target their working muscles with foam rollers, and here’s why. A 2015 Canadian study found that foam rolling effectively reduced DOMS as well as physical performance decrements.2The study involved a 20-minute foam-rolling session immediately after their workout, as well as 24 and 48 hours afterward.

Notably, researchers have found that static stretching, which can help increase a joint’s range of motion, is ineffective in reducing DOMS, and it hasn’t been shown to aid performance.3,4What’s more, done 60 minutes before your training session, static stretching can even adversely affect your ability to generate explosive power.1

3. Make the Right Moves in the Kitchen

Providing your body with the raw materials to fuel growth is the single most-important strategy in your toolbox. That’s not limited to just your post-workout meal but all day long. That requires plenty of protein consumed in smaller meals throughout the day, as well as carbs to replace spent glucose and muscle glycogen. You don’t want to leave out fats, either; saturated fats are necessary for maintaining optimal levels of testosterone in your body. Your overall daily caloric intake also needs to be greater than what you expend to support new gains in muscle.

In general, a post-workout meal of about 30 grams of fast-digesting protein (think whey isolates) and 30 to 60 grams of simple sugars (which digest faster and provide a greater insulin spike, thus pushing those raw materials more effectively into muscle cells) is a smart strategy.

4. Take the Right Supplements for Recovery

Supplements can help boost your performance and recovery, so overlooking them is like leaving money on the table. Here are four you should consider first:

Essential Amino Acids (EAAs): There are nine amino acids that your body cannot make that are essential to building muscle and recovering from your workout. If you can’t get your hands on EAAs, BCAAs are also useful as they contain three of the nine essential aminos.

Creatine Monohydrate: Creatine phosphate (CP) is a high-energy molecule stored in your muscle and your brain tissues that regenerates ATP (from AMP and ADP). ATP is the end fuel source for all muscle contractions. Creatine supplementation increases CP levels in the muscle helping you recover faster between sets and workouts.

Complex Carb Powders: Since you’ve depleted muscle glycogen over the course of a hard workout, ingesting carbs is critical. But rather than consuming traditional carb sources, you can do better with scientifically engineered carb supplements such as Carbion by Allmax and Karbolyn by EFX Sports, which help replenish glycogen levels faster. Drink these mixed with ample water to rehydrate while optimizing the drink’s osmolality (concentration of carbs in water).

Whey Protein: Considered to be the fastest digesting protein source known to sports scientists, whey protein is rapidly digested and delivers amino acids to your muscles for growth and repair. Hydrolyzed whey protein isolate is the fastest digesting whey protein source.

5. Prioritize Your Sleep

With advances in technology, it’s easy to get distracted by your phone at any time during the night, whether it’s connecting with friends on social media, playing video games, or checking how many likes you got on your gym selfie. Such engagement can keep you awake well past bedtime, and the electronic stimulus can make it harder to fall asleep. All that can crowd out quality sleep time. And a good night’s rest and its effect on nocturnal hormone release are highly important considerations in your overall approach to boost recovery. Turn the phone and TV off at least 30 minutes before bedtime and begin slowing down for the night, guarding against overstimulation.

6. Limit External Activities

Building serious mass is difficult if not impossible to achieve if your physical energies are being drained by outside activities, whether they’re related to work or sport. While a limited amount of physically demanding work unrelated to your bodybuilding is fine, constant exhaustive activity can sap your strength and leave you fatigued even before your workout. For sure, some activity may be required for work, but cutting back on optional recreational activities or sports can set a more optimal environment for gains.

7. Get a Massage

If you follow competitive bodybuilders on social media, you’ll see them rave about the benefits of regular massage, especially the deep-tissue kind. That’s because their workouts are incredibly intense in nature, resulting in sore muscles, tightness, swelling from inflammation, and increased muscle adhesions and “knots.” While anecdotal evidence suggests massage can greatly reduce these symptoms and help speed recovery, the evidence is thin from a scientific perspective.5So give it a try and make your own determination. I find a professional massage to be fairly expensive, so I favour the convince-your-partner-to-do-it approach. You can also get a massage semi-regularly from a pro.

Other Protocols

Many other recovery strategies have been tested, none of which have passed scientific muster. Those include active recovery, cryotherapy (ice), contrast temperature water immersion, hyperbaric oxygen therapy, the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, compression garments, and even electromyostimulation (deliverance of electrical impulses). Your smartest bet is to focus on the strategies that have been proven to work, and to provide a muscle what it needs most: time, good nutrition, and ample care.

1 Bompa T & Buzzichelli C. Periodization Training for Sports. 3rd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2015.
2 Pearcey GE, Bradbury-Squires DJ, Kawamoto JE, et al. Foam rolling for delayed-onset muscle soreness and recovery of dynamic performance measures. J Athl Train. 2015 Jan;50(1):5-13.
3 Tiidus PM. Alternative treatments for muscle injury: massage, cryotherapy, and hyperbaric oxygen. Curr Rev Musculoskelet Med. 2015 Jun;8(2):162-7.
4 Herbert RD, de Noronha M, Kamper SJ. Stretching to prevent or reduce muscle soreness after exercise. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2011 Jul 6;(7):CD004577.
5 Barnett A. Using recovery modalities between training sessions in elite athletes: does it help? Sports Med. 2006;36(9):781-96.