Friday, January 25, 2008


When you lift weights, you're making yourself weaker. The act of lifting weights results in tiny tears in the muscle and a good deal of systematic fatigue, meaning that you're weaker immediately after a workout than you were immediately before. You know the feeling -- you walk into the gym feeling like you could lift an elephant, and you're barely able to hold yourself upright when you walk out.

So how, then, do you get stronger? The damage done to your muscles while working out is repaired by your body's recovery systems. And since your body is smart, it knows that it needs to repair the damage and also add a little extra muscle, since you, being dumber than your body, are going to just go back to the gym and try to tear your muscles up again in a day or two.

It follows, then, that proper recovery is as important to strength training as working hard in the gym. Yet, for some reason, it's completely overlooked by many lifters. So here's what everyone should know about recovery:


The most basic tenet of recovery is that you need enough time between workouts for your body to recover. For most folks, this means taking at least 36 hours between every session.

Think of working out as giving your body homework. After the workout, your body starts doing the homework you've assigned to it by repairing and building muscle. If you only let your body get halfway done with the homework you've already given it before assigning more, then the homework piles up and your body can't keep up. Assignments are forgotten and never turned in, and you don't get stronger or maybe even get weaker because your body can't keep up with your break-neck pace. But if you give your body ample time to complete the homework before assigning more, you get stronger.


The rebuilding "homework" you give your body by working out is best done while sleeping. Ideally, you'd get 8-9 hours of sleep every night. This isn't possible for many people, but you should try to get as much sleep as you can.

You can also improve the quality of your sleep, and therefore the quality of your recovery, by making a few changes in your bedroom. Keep the room as dark as possible at night by covering windows and removing any devices that give off light. Unplug electronics and keep battery-powered devices out of the room. The radiation given off by TV's, cell phones, radios, and all electronic devices can negatively impact your sleep. Try to establish a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Turn off the TV and dim or turn off as many lights as possible half an hour before bedtime. Don't eat foods with a high glycemic index before bed, as the blood sugar spike will keep you up.


Your body uses the building blocks in food to build muscle, bone and connective tissue. So if you don't eat (and eat well), your body doesn't have the materials necessary to make itself stronger.

There are lots of different theories on the best foods to eat. You might need to do some research on your own to find the plan or theory that works best for you. As a starting point, here are the basic rules I eat by:

- Get at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. Protein is the basic building block of muscle, so if you want to get stronger, you have to make sure your body has enough protein. Some protein sources are better than others, because they are more similar to the proteins found and used in the human body. In general, protein from meat is better than protein from dairy products, which is in turn better than protein from vegetables.

- Drink milk. Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength, says that beginners should drink 1 gallon of milk a day to gain size and muscle. I don't drink a gallon a day, but I drink milk with every meal. Milk has a good balance of carbohydrates, fat and protein. It also contains something called Insulin-like growth factor, which has been linked to strength gains.

- Eat enough. Throw that silly old 2000 calories a day rule out the window. A better rule of thumb for active people (such as those undertaking a strength training program) would be to aim for a caloric intake somewhere between your bodyweight times 15 and your bodyweight times 18. For example, I weigh 198 pounds and I aim to eat between 3000 and 3500 calories a day to fuel my body while maintaining my weight. Track your eating habits with a tool like fitday. If you find that your weight is moving in a direction you don't like, modify your caloric intake in small steps until you get to where you want to be.

- Avoid processed foods. Processed foods have much lower nutritional value than the whole foods from which they are derived. My personal rule is based on the paleo diet: if I couldn't, in theory, walk outside, pick it up and eat it, then I shouldn't eat it at all. If you don't want to go to that extreme, just do what you can to replace processed foods with whole foods in your everyday diet. Instead of chicken nuggets, eat chicken breast. Instead of V8, eat veggies. Instead of applesauce, eat apples. Instead of twinkies, eat more apples. You get the drift.


You might have heard the term "active recovery." The idea is that you move around enough to get blood pumping through your muscles and loosen up your joints, but not enough to assign further recovery "homework" to your body's recovery systems. Getting your heart rate up and moving your muscles through a full range of motion on your "off" days helps your body recover more efficiently.

Your active recovery could be anything from taking a walk to an easy 20 minutes on the exercise bike or a heavily scaled-down Crossfit workout. The point is not to let yourself be a couch potato on your off days -- get up and do something!

Proper recovery is essential to gaining strength. You can overcome a couple of days of insufficient sleep and poor nutrition by just gritting your teeth and forcing yourself through a workout, but you need to establish good recovery habits if you want to have long-term success.

Training 1-25-08

5 x 5 x 245

5 x 5 x 140

Power Clean
5 x 3 x 150

3 x 5 x 50

3 x 5 x 90

Comments: Squats were only decent, form-wise. Today's convenient excuse is that it's hard to focus first thing in the morning. Press was much better, because I had more recovery time between sets and because Token Asian Roommate was finally back in the gym and I had the "oh crap, my friend's watching so I have to do well" thing going on. Need to go into a deeper squat for the rack on Power Cleans. Chinups were easy. Dips were long overdue and felt great as a finisher.

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

You have perfect timing! I so needed to hear this today. I kinda overdid it this week & just feel... spent. Thanks for the reminder and intelligent explanation!