Max your workout results with our five easy tricks that will turn an ordinary training program into a killer regimen that forces your body to grow – day in, day out.
By Matt Fitzgerald
Riddle me this: what’s harmful when you do it once, but beneficial when you do it often? The answer is simple: work out. Any single, intense training session will deplete your body of precious energy stores and break down muscle tissue, which is why you feel tired and sore after a weights session or a long run.
But the body is an amazing mechanism. Just as it can fight back against infections and mend injuries, it can also recover quickly from the depletion and breakdown it incurs from working out. What’s more, when workouts become habitual and progressive, yet not too frequent or intense (which can lead to overtraining), the body is actually able to overdo the recovery process and come back better, stronger and faster than before (without the aid of a utility belt). It’s called “super-compensation”, and it’s the reason they say the perfect training program is nothing more than an optimal blend of work and recovery.
Traditionally, athletes and fitness enthusiasts have paid more attention to the exertion end of the training equation, but this is now changing, from the top down. “Having found that they can’t possibly work any harder, world-class athletes are turning their attention increasingly toward recovering better,” says exercise physiologist Dr Edmund Burke.
Following is a five-step recovery program to help you improve your body without having to train more or harder.
1| MIX UP YOUR TRAINING
“When people think of recovery, they think of rest,” says Dr William Kraemer, a professor of exercise physiology at the University of Connecticut in the US and the author of Designing Resistance Training Programs. “But in reality, resting is just one way to promote recovery. Variation is another. Through variation of workout intensity, volume and modality, muscle tissue is allowed to recover even while you’re working out.”
The art of sequencing various types of workouts to promote the right balance of stress and recovery is known as periodisation. According to Kraemer, there are two basic ways to periodise. In traditional or linear periodisation, the training program is broken into phases lasting two to four weeks, and each phase is dominated by a particular type of training.
A newer and simpler way to periodise is called non-linear periodisation. With this method, you create a one- or two-week cycle containing three or four types of workouts, and you simply repeat the cycle indefinitely.
“You can order the workouts any way you want, and if you miss a day, you just pick it up the next time around so you’re not out of sequence,” explains Kraemer. “We’ve found this non-traditional sequencing has an effect that’s comparable to traditional periodisation, and it also allows workouts to be more fun.”
The four types of resistance workouts Kraemer recommends for recreational weightlifters are Light, Moderate, Heavy and Power. For example, a four-workout weekly cycle might look like this:
> Monday: Light (two sets of 12 to 15 reps per exercise)
> Wednesday: Heavy (four sets of three to five reps per exercise)
> Friday: Moderate (three sets of eight to 10 reps per exercise)
> Saturday: Power (pulley exercises, plyometrics, etc.) When training this way, Kraemer advises, make every 12th week an active-recovery week, in which you perform only light workouts of low volume. For a sample program, see “Cycling Your Workouts” on p.69.
2| WARM UP, COOL DOWN
“By gradually easing the body into intense activity, you can spare yourself a lot of the tissue breakdown and muscle soreness you’ll need to recover from after the workout,” says Burke. Starting out with several minutes of light aerobic activity, he explains, gradually warms and increases blood flow to the working muscles and increases the elasticity of connective tissues, allowing the muscles to contract more fluidly. This process not only improves performance in the high-intensity portion of the workout, but also results in faster recovery.
Cooling down works hand in hand with warming up to enhance recovery. A proper cool-down consists of five to 10 minutes of light aerobic activity followed by stretching. These activities serve to flush metabolic waste from the muscles and release tight spots that have developed due to repeated, forceful contractions.
Many athletes and others who train frequently perform entire workouts that consist of nothing but a long warm-up and equally long cool-down as a means of bouncing back more quickly between intense training sessions.
“For example, in the Tour de France, which lasts three weeks, the riders are given three days off,” says Burke. “But rather than just sit around and wait for the next stage, they actually go out and ride easy, because it helps them perform better the next morning.”
3| CRACK OPEN A SPORTS DRINK
According to Burke, author of Optimal Muscle Recovery, there are four acute effects of working out that your recovery strategy needs to address:
> depletion of water and electrolytes
> depletion of stored muscle glycogen (an important energy fuel)
> muscle soreness
> muscle-protein breakdown
“The faster you respond to these effects, the more quickly your body will return to homeostasis following the workout, and the more prepared it will be for your next workout,” says Burke.
Sensible post-exercise nutrition will help address all four of these issues. To rehydrate and replenish electrolytes (such as sodium and potassium, which are essential for a host of bodily processes), ingest a sports drink such as Gatorade immediately after your workout, says Burke. You can restock muscle glycogen by consuming drinks or foods that are rich in high-glycaemic (i.e. fast-acting) carbohydrates such as orange juice, a banana or a bowl of breakfast cereal.
Muscle-protein breakdown is caused primarily by microscopic tears to muscle fibres and protein filaments and by oxidative stress. Treat the former by taking in some protein after training, and the latter by getting antioxidants such as vitamins C and E in your system.
According to Burke, the simplest way to get all these nutrients, especially if you aren’t hungry right after working out, is to swig one of the sports drinks that are formulated specifically for recovery, like Accelerade Advanced Sports Drink (advantage1.com.au).
“Choose one that has everything you need, but avoid drinks that are clogged with protein,” says Burke. “Some solid research has shown that eating more than one gram of protein for every four grams of carbohydrate will inhibit gastric emptying and actually delay recovery. Look for about a 4-to-1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein.” Fat also slows the flow of nutrients into the bloodstream, so give up the notion of sausage pizza as a recovery food.
4| GET A MASSAGE
You can’t beat a one-hour sports massage for accelerated recovery that you can feel.You can’t beat a one-hour sports massage for accelerated recovery that you can feel. While not as pleasurable as your typical spa massage, a good sports massage certainly has its moments and will leave you feeling like a new man. Numerous world-class athletes in sports ranging from football to distance running swear by them.
According to Paul Chek, a massage and neuromuscular therapist who teaches clinics around the world, sports massage enhances recovery in several ways. “The most important effect of massage, with respect to recovery, is that it substantially increases blood circulation to the muscles and keeps it elevated for as long as an hour afterward,” he explains. “This extra blood flow flushes metabolic wastes from the muscles, hurries in nutrients that repair muscle damage and also controls inflammation and the pain associated with it.”
Massage also alleviates trigger points (areas of sensitivity), mobilises adhesions and breaks up scar tissue in the muscles, restoring normal function. Moreover, says Chek, massage even improves the electrical flow of signals between the brain and muscle nerves, which also improves the functioning of motor units. The bad news is that you can expect to pay around $100 for a professional hour-long massage.
If your wallet’s feeling fat and you’re serious about performance, schedule one session a week. Otherwise, you can compromise by getting half-body sessions or by spacing them out (say, by having one once a month).
There are also various self-massage techniques that you can and should practise which can be learned from a number of available books and DVDs on the subject (such as The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook: Your Self-Treatment Guide for Pain Relief by Clair Davies; available at amazon.com).
5| HIT THE SACK
Sleep is recovery. Just being awake for one day is a kind of total-body workout from which the body must recover by means of not being awake for several hours.
The list of individual physical processes that are known to require sleep for normal functioning is long — and getting longer as scientists dig deeper into this shadowy realm of human biology.
Of particular interest to athletes and other active men is sleep’s effect on glucose metabolism and production of the hormones cortisol and human growth hormone (HGH). In research performed at the University of Chicago, subjects exhibited a drastically reduced the ability to process glucose after six nights of partial sleep deprivation, which translated into a greatly diminished ability to produce energy when awake. The subjects also showed heightened levels of cortisol, a stress hormone that attacks tissue and must be suppressed for proper post-workout tissue repair to occur. What’s more, HGH, the anabolic hormone that plays the biggest role in rebuilding tissue after exercise, requires sleep for full activation, so the less sleep you get, the less usable muscle you wake up with.
This is bad news for many active Australians, because chronic sleep deprivation is a bona fide epidemic in our society. The average adult sleeps 90 minutes less today than he or she did a century ago. A majority of Australians now sleep less than eight hours a night – the very minimum that most people need, according to sleep experts.
Whatever you’re staying awake for, it can’t be worth more than your health. Go to bed. Get those extra 30 or 60 minutes of shut-eye and watch your workout performance and all-around vitality take off.