How to Improve Strength Gains by Managing Recovery
There are two parts to muscle growth:
- Creating the stress that disrupts “the comfort zone”
- Allowing our body to recover from it and improve
In the quest for gains, most people only focus on the first part of the equation: training. But optimizing recovery can make a massive difference for the rate of muscle and strength gains.
In this article we’ll discuss how recovery affects your rate of progress and what you can do to improve it. Let’s get started.
How Recovery Affects Strength and Muscle Gains
I absolutely hated math in highschool but this is best explained with a graph:
The horizontal line represents the amount of training you do (stress). The vertical line represents marginal gains or loses (the effect of that stress). The area above the line represents gains and the area under represents loses. The point where the lines intersect represents maintenance: either not working out at all or doing a training routine you are adapted to.
If you add in a small amount of training (one unit) you get a small amount of gains as a return. But we know that strength and muscle gains go up linearly with the amount of training we do and can recover from. So why stop there?
If you did two units of training you’d get even better progress. Add one more and again you see an increase. Add one more and again you see in increase in gains. But this time smaller than the previous increase. You can see that the increase in gains you get from the 4th unit of training is much smaller than the previous 3. It’s like with everything in life – the first few inputs bring the largest benefit and as you become more advanced you have to work harder and harder for less.
But at some point if you add another unit of training you actually start going backwards. Why? Because that point is where your recovery can no longer cover the stress of training. Some people call that point “maximum recoverable volume”. That is the most work you can recover from and that will give you the maximum amount of gains.
However, after that point each unit increase of stress starts negating a unit of gains. More is better but only up to a point.
For example a study done by Gonzales-Badillo looked at young, healthy, well-trained competitive male weightlifters performing three levels of volume on the back squat, snatch, clean and jerk and accessory lifts for 10 weeks. One group performed 1923 reps, another 2481 reps and the last group 3030 reps.
All groups progressed in strength but the moderate volume group progressed the most. This suggests that progress has a linear relationship with volume up to a point. If you can handle more training you will benefit from more training. But when you overshoot your recovery capacity, doing more training actually has negative effects.
Alright, but why is recovery important?
Because recovery determines where the maximum recoverable volume point sits on the graph.
If you get little sleep and are stressed all the time, you can handle less training and as a result make less gains. If you have great recovery you can handle more work or have better quality workouts which means you get better gains.
So how to you improve recovery?
Step 1 – Eliminate as much Stress as you can from your Life
An important factor to keep in mind is that your body reacts to all types of stress very similarly. Although lifting weights, the death of a loved one, or tight deadlines at work are different, your body copes with them using the same reservoir of resources. In other words mental stress can actually make you physically weaker.
This was shown in a 2014 study in which participants did 6 sets of leg press to failure. The group with low life stress was recovered and back to full strength two days later. On the other hand, the group with high stress took four days to recover to baseline. They also reported more soreness and fatigue following the same workout.
For maximum gains, you’d live like a monk, completely free of stress. But you probably still need your job to feed your kids. So to minimize stress while not changing your life too much, follow these tips:
Become more tolerant
Avoid arguments of any kind. A waitress spilled some coffee on you? Oh well, it happens. Someone cut you off in traffic? Some people are jerks. Your TV stopped working? Stay calm, you probably have warranty anyway.
Feeling overwhelmed by tasks is one of the biggest causes of stress. To minimize this, use to-do lists. Get your thoughts out of your mind and put them on paper.
Related to the previous point, procrastination creates lots of anxiety. A great way to beat procrastination is the Ivy Lee method. You basically create a to-do list where you list the most important 6 task you have to do in the order of importance. Start your day with the first task and don’t move to the next one until it’s finished. This takes away the anxiety of a fixed schedule while still maintaining productivity.
Minimize your time on social media
Constantly worrying about what other people are doing or what they think of you is very stressful. Use social media to keep up with your friends but don’t spend a lot of time there.
The point is, recognize that you create most of the anger in your life and choose to be tolerant instead.
Step 2 – Use Deloads in your Training
Deloads are planned decreases in training volume and intensity with the purpose of improving recovery. The most common form of deloading is having a week of very easy training once every 3-6 weeks of heavy training.
Now I’m sorry but to understand how deloads work we need to use a chart again:
This is the fitness-fatigue model – it’s a great way to visually represent the effect of an individual training session.
Any workout creates an increase in both fitness and fatigue. And our performance is equal to fitness minus fatigue.
After a training session fatigue increases faster than fitness. For example you do a workout. At the end of that workout your fitness has increased but you’re also very tired. Because fatigue masks that increase in fitness, your performance is worse than it was at the beginning of the workout.
Fatigue also decreases faster than fitness. If you rest a few days, fatigue goes down but fitness stays elevated. Now fatigue no longer masks fitness so your performance will be better than it was the previous workout.
If you’re doing things right, this is the evolution you’d see in your training:
Now as you get more advanced, the increase in fitness you see after a training session gets smaller and smaller. Also, you have to do more training to get those improvements. Because of this it becomes necessary to train when you still have residual fatigue from the previous workouts. If you waited until fatigue went down completely fitness would decrease too much and your performance would increase very slowly.
So while you’re increasing fitness over many workouts you accumulate fatigue as well.
By taking a week of light training you allow that residual fatigue to go down while maintaining most of your fitness. Because of this, your performance will be increased once you resume heavy training:
Here’s how I recommend you deload:
For a week of training
– reduce the number of sets for each exercise by 1 or 2
– use the same weights but do only half the reps you usually do
3 x 6 with 200 lbs becomes 2 x 3 with 200 lbs
3 x 5 with 185 lbs becomes 2 x 3 with 185 lbs
Step 3 – Improve your Sleep
Sleep more to improve recovery.
Wow you don’t say Sherlock. Everybody knows that.
But something you probably don’t know is just how much sleep matters.
In a study from 2011, 10 subjects were put in a 700 calorie deficit and split between two groups. One group slept an average of 5 and a half hours per night and the other group 8 and a half hours per night for 14 days. As you’d expect, both groups lost the same amount of weight because the calorie deficit was the same.
But there was a HUGE difference in terms of body composition. The high sleep group lost about 80% fat and 20% lean mass. And the low sleep group lost 40% fat and 60% lean mass. The low sleep group lost MORE lean mass than fat. Wow.
Now, a limitation of this study is that the subjects did not lift weights. If they trained they would have definitely maintained muscle better. But the low sleep group would have lost more lean mass anyway. Lack of sleep creates a catabolic environment because it decreases testosterone and IGF-1.
So you know…sleep more.
There are also a two simple things you can do to improve sleep quality:
Avoid blue light exposure before bed
Our TVs, computers and smartphones emit blue light which tricks out brain into thinking it’s still day time. Because of this the brain doesn’t produce enough melatonin, the hormone that’s supposed to induces sleepiness. This is one of the reasons we can be very tired but not sleepy.
To fix this, you have two options. Either don’t use electronics one hour before bed or stop your screens from producing blue light.
For computers install a program called f.lux. This will make your screen yellowish. On iPhones you have this option built in the display settings. On Android install an app called Twilight.
Go to bed with a clear mind
If you’re anxious about something your have to do tomorrow you won’t sleep well. When that happens, journal before sleep. Take your thoughts out of your head and put them on paper. This will eliminate confusion and help you relax.
Step 4 – Supplements
You’ll see a lot of supplements claimed to improve muscle recovery. Most of them are pretty worthless. One of the few that’s actually worth your money is creatine. This is the most studied molecule in sports-nutrition and it has been shown to improve both muscle recovery and growth. 5 grams of creatine monohydrate will help you recover slightly better.
So in conclusion to improve recovery do these 5 points:
- Train close or below your maximum recoverable volume
- Use deloads periodically
- Eliminate as much stress as you can from your life
- Get plenty of good sleep
- Take creatine
The ShredSmart Program lays out exactly how you need to set up your nutrition and training to get down to single digit body fat.
All the training routines include a periodization model where you take a deload every 3 weeks. This way you can keep volume high and from time to time allow residual fatigue to go down.
Check out the program to learn more.
Hey Radu, I was wondering if there are exercises I can do to make my shoulders strong enough to bench more. I can bench press, but I end up with shoulder pain later, so this tells me my shoulders are my weak link.
Thanks for any help! Greetings from California.
I suggest you fix your form while benching. If your form is correct there shouldn’t be any shoulder pain.
Nevertheless, google rotator cuffs exercise. that should make your shoulders feel better and remember all pushing volume must be matched by a pulling one.. Dont neglect back workouts and rear delts.
Hey Radu! I’m a 16 year old teenager and around 22% bodyfat.I weigh 66 kg and since august 14 2016 i’ve been cutting(eating 1300 calories a day)I was 72 kg before i started my cut,so i have lost 6 kg so far.I lift 3 times per week(full body workouts)I get my calories mostly from whole foods.How long do you think it will take me to get from 22% bodyfat to around 15%?
Thanks in advance,keep up the awesome work!
How you know what is you’re “maximum recoverable volume”?
Great article bro. So many people are in love with the process rather than the result and forget when you rest and recover you’ll actually grow. Need to get better with my sleep game though that’s one big thing that holds me back from optimal recovery and testosterone and probably the most important. Hard with two kids under three haha. Either way I enjoyed the article, keep it up!
I completely agree. I’m glad you enjoyed the article!
I had trouble getting enough sleep living alone. I can only imagine how that’s like with two kids haha
I have been lean bulking and I’m wondering, if you are lean bulking if your on your cutting phase, will your body consume body fat if it needs energy to build muscle?
Hey radu I’m just curious if you are breaking old plateaus now that you deload? When you were training RPT balls to the wall vs your new periodized training….have you ever tried to go back to test your true 5 rep max and see if you are stronger?