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Nature’s Two Most Powerful Exercise Recovery Tools

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In part one of this series, Train Hard, Recover Harder, I explained that stress is a double-edged sword. To make adaptations, you need to impose stress, but too much stress will interfere with your recovery.

Stress can be both good and bad, but your body doesn’t differentiate between types of stress, and your body can only handle so much stress. Whilst training is good stress; your ability to benefit from it is somewhat dependant on your total stress load.

So, you must manage your overall life stress to free up as much capacity to deal with training stress. Stress management strategies can create a bigger window of opportunity to apply and recover from training stress.

In the second part, Great Recovery Starts With Great Programming, I discussed optimizing your training program as another effective tool to maximize recovery. By focusing on delivering efficient training stress, you make your recovery easier.

Intelligent Program Design = Fatigue Management

The four key factors to consider are:

  1. Volume landmarks

  2. SRA Curves

  3. Stimulus: Fatigue Ratio

  4. Relative intensity

At this stage, I am assuming your training is optimized and provides an appropriate stimulus.

From this point forward, the rest of your adaptations, such as gains in size and strength, are dependent on recovery and results in this simplified muscle-building equation:

Stimulus + Recovery = Adaptation

In this third installment of the series, I will explain your two most powerful recovery tools and how to maximize them.

The two most powerful recovery tools at your disposal are:

  1. Sleep

  2. Nutrition

If you focus on these consistently, you will be rewarded. When you have sleep, diet, and stress management dialed in, you are primed to make great progress in the gym.

Sleep’s Positive Impact on Performance

Sleep is your number one recovery tool. I have talked repeatedly about sleep’s positive impact on athletic performance and your ability to recover from hard training. The harder you can train without exceeding your capacity for recovery, the faster you can make progress.

Sleep is the most anabolic state for your body. A lack of sleep will limit your strength and muscle mass gains. It will also increase the chances of you losing muscle mass when cutting and gaining fat while bulking.

To maximize recovery and build more lean muscle, you must make sleep a priority.

Better sleep will also help you to:

Long story short, it will make you a fitter, happier, and more productive person.

Let’s be honest; you probably already know this. Yet, I bet you don’t give sleep the credit it deserves when it comes to your lifestyle choices. Most of us realize we should sleep more. We know sleep is important. Yet, we do not prioritize it.

I’m pretty confident you make this mistake because I do too. I have been guilty of it on many occasions in the past. Staying up late to watch the next episode of a TV show or scrolling aimlessly through Instagram is all too easily done. Whenever I do this, I always regret it the next day.

Lack of sleep can sneak up on you. You probably don’t realize you are sleep-deprived. The occasional late night has little impact. The problem is when those late nights become normal.

Staying up late on the laptop to meet work deadlines or relaxing in front of a good show both eat into your sleep and have a big impact on the quality of your recovery. In time, you’ll probably feel like a zombie without a hit of caffeine in the morning, your gym performance will start to plateau, and you’ll make worse dietary choices. These all happen gradually.

They sneak up on you. I have seen this time and again with clients that try to burn the candle at both ends. They fool themselves that they are getting away with it because the drop-off in performance is gradual. Be warned, lack of sleep adds up and can stop your progress dead in its tracks if left unresolved.

My experience with lack of sleep was less gradual and more like blunt force trauma. I had always slept well and made it a priority. Then I had kids. After our son was born, it was 18 months before I felt normal in the gym again. I vividly remember the session after my first full eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. I felt like Superman.

The sad thing is, I wasn’t Superman.

I wasn’t even close. I was just regular Tom after a good night’s sleep. My perception of what normal was had been warped so much by 18 months of sleep deprivation that feeling normal now felt amazing. You might have slept-walked into the same situation without realizing it. Make sleep a priority for a month, and I’m confident you’ll look, feel, and perform better.

The research on sleep deprivation is alarmingStudies show that 11 days in a row with less than six hours of sleep, your cognitive ability will be about the same as if you had stayed awake for 24 hours straight.

At 22 days of less than six hours of sleep per night, your brain function is at the same level as someone who has stayed up for 48 hours straight.​ To put things in perspective, that means your reactions are probably worse than someone who is over the legal limit for alcohol.

Are You More Zombie Than Human?

Do a sleep survey on yourself and assess whether you are more of a zombie than a human.

As a guide, you should aim for this when it comes to sleep:

  • Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep every night.

  • Go to bed at the same time every night.

  • Wake up at the same time each morning.

  • Wake up without an alarm clock.

  • Sleep the whole night through–multiple bathroom trips are a sure sign of low sleep quality (or drinking way too much just before bed).

  • Waking up in almost the same position you fell asleep in (not tossing and turning all night) is a good sign.

  • You should wake up refreshed.

How does your sleep stack up against that list? I’m guessing you don’t tick off all those points. In my experience, most people can’t even tick off a couple of them. Your goal is to work towards being able to check off each one of those bullet points.

Here are some practical tips to help you sleep better and for longer.

  • Set yourself up for success: Get a comfortable bed, mattress, and pillow. Bed quality can affect sleep. It can also reduce back and shoulder pain. Given you will be spending nearly a third of your life in bed, it makes sense to invest in a good one.
  • Establish a routine: Go to bed at roughly the same time and get up at the same time every day. Weekends count too. Being consistent with sleep and waking times has been found to improve long-term sleep quality.
  • Include relaxation: Relaxation techniques before bed has been found to improve sleep quality. Read a book, listen to a chill-out-playlist, take a hot bath or do some deep breathing and meditation. Do whatever it takes to help you relax and unwind.
  • Cut the coffee at 4 pm: Having coffee is cool. I love the stuff, but having it later in the day can disrupt or even prevent your sleep. On average, caffeine’s half-life is about five hours; however, this half-life can vary massively between individuals. If you are a slow metabolizer of caffeine, then you might have levels in your system keeping you alert and awake into the early hours if you drink it after 4 pm. In extreme cases, having it within 10 hours of bed can be disruptive for some people. So, cut yourself off at 4 pm and see if you can fall asleep easier. If you are still struggling, slide things forward to 3 pm and reassess.
  • Disconnect from the matrix: The blue light emitted by the screens on your devices can disrupt your sleep. The body’s internal clock or circadian rhythm is influenced mainly by daylight hours. Artificial light like streetlights and lightbulbs already disrupt it but staring at screens magnifies the issue. Your internal body clock is served by the ocular nerve, which is directly affected by blue light. The same light waves your phone, TV, laptop, and tablet give off. To improve sleep, I suggest you disconnect from screens like this for at least 60 minutes before bedtime.
  • Get natural sunlight exposure during the day: At these times, the body needs light. Studies found that two hours of bright light exposure during the day increases the amount of sleep by two hours and improves sleep quality by 80%.
  • Sleep in the Batcave: Make your bedroom pitch-black, quiet, and cool to maximize the quality of your sleep. Remove all electrical devices.
  • Room temperature: Set thermostats at about 20 C or 70 F. Room temperature has been found to affect sleep quality more than external noise.
  • Stay off the booze: Just a couple of drinks have been shown to reduce your sleep hormones. Alcohol alters melatonin production and decreases Human Growth Hormone (HGH) levels. Melatonin is a key sleep hormone that tells your brain when it’s time to unwind, relax and fall asleep. HGH helps regulate your body clock, is anti-aging, and vital to recovery.

There you have it, your comprehensive guide to better sleep. You have no excuse now. You know sleep is crucial. You can also rank your sleep against the standards listed above. If you come up short, you have nine tips to help improve your sleep.

If you do improve your sleep, then everything else will improve too. Aim to enhance your sleep before you worry about investing in any other recovery modalities.

None of them can hold a candle to sleep, and sleep is free.

Your Caloric Intake and Energy Balance

Your second most powerful recovery tool is your diet.

By fuelling your body appropriately, you can capitalize on the stimulus created by your training. Training creates the stimulus for muscle gain, fat loss, and strength increases. Your recovery dictates whether or not you reach that potential.

When it comes to diet, there are several variables you can manipulate. The most important variable when it comes to nutrition for recovery is your calorie intake and energy balance.

What is a calorie, and what is energy balance?

A calorie (Kcal) is a unit of energy. Our food contains calories and is what fuels us with energy to go about our daily lives. Everyone requires different amounts of energy per day depending on age, size, and activity levels.

Caloric balance refers to the number of calories you consume compared to the number of calories you burn.

If you eat a surplus of calories, you will gain weight. If you eat a deficit of calories, you will lose weight. While eating calorically at maintenance, it means you maintain weight. For physique changes, calories are king.

When consuming a calorie surplus, maximizing recovery is more manageable than when in a deficit. You have an abundance of calories available to hit your macro and micronutrient needs. When it comes to nutrition, if you’re in a surplus, keep things simple. Hit your macros, spread your protein intake relatively evenly between 3-6 meals a day, and eat various fruits and vegetables.

When in a calorie deficit, the details matter more with your diet when maximizing recovery because you have less energy coming in. The fundamental principles still apply but, you have to be more mindful of your food choices when calories are low to ensure you hit both your macro and micronutrient needs.

Meal timing, food quality, and micronutrition all matter more when in a deficit, but none of them trump hitting an appropriate calorie deficit.

An energy balance and macronutrients are the two most essential factors in your diet regarding physique development and strength gains.

How to Set Calories for Individual Results

When in a surplus, I suggest you eat enough to gain between 0.25-0.5% of your body weight per week.

A quick strategy to estimate your needs per day is to multiply your weight in pounds by 15.

This formula generally gives a good approximation of the calories needed to maintain your weight. A surplus of 500 calories per day will equate to about a pound of weight gain per week. If you weigh 200 lbs, this would be right at the upper end of your target weight gain. A surplus of 250 calories per day will result in you gaining about half a pound per week. So, picking a surplus between 250-500 kcal would be appropriate for a 200 lb lifter.

When in a deficit, I suggest losing between 0.5-1% of your body weight per week.

If you are sustaining a rate quicker than this for a significant period (e.g., more than four weeks), you risk negatively affecting your gym performance and muscle loss.

In much the same way as the surplus example, you can estimate maintenance calories by multiplying your weight in pounds by 15 calories.

From this point, you need to deduct calories to achieve a deficit. A 500-calorie deficit will net you about a pound loss per week. For our 200 lbs example, a loss rate of between 1-2 pounds per week is an ideal fat loss rate. Consequently, a deficit of 500-1,000 kcal per day is the range they should be looking at to achieve this.

Macronutrients

There are three types of macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. All of these supply energy and therefore contain calories. Here is how to establish and set your macronutrient needs and targets.

The calorie content per gram of each macronutrient is listed below:

  • Protein: Four calories per gram

  • Fat: Nine​ calories per gram

  • Carbohydrate: Four​ calories per gram

This information is beneficial for the practical step of constructing your diet with the appropriate ratios of each macronutrient.

Protein Is Essential For Survival

Protein comes from the Greek word proteios, meaning “Of primary importance.”

  • Protein is involved in nearly every process in your body.
  • Proteins are critical to survival and health.
  • They play an important role in athletic performance and body composition.
  • Muscle mass is predominantly constructed from protein.
  • Protein helps you recover from your training.
  • It preserves lean tissue when dieting.
  • It helps you grow more muscle when building.
  • It has the highest effect on satiety, or the feeling of comfortably feeling full, of all the macronutrients.

To build muscle, you should consume protein in the range of 1.6-2.2 g/kg of lean body mass is sufficient to stimulate MPS for the day.

Recent research supports the higher end of this range.

I generally recommend eating 2 g of protein per kg of body weight. This formula is easy to remember, easy to calculate, and comfortably covers your needs. From a practical standpoint, I have also found it is a quantity that satisfies most people’s appetites and eating preferences.

Key Takeaway–Eat 2 g of protein per KG (0.9 g per lbs) of body weight per day.

Never Eliminate Fat From Your Diet

Consumption of dietary fat is important for regular hormonal function, especially testosterone production.

You should never eliminate fat from a diet.

There is not so much an optimal amount of fat to consume, rather a minimum of

0.2-0.5 g/kg/day for normal hormonal function. Cogent arguments for fat intakes between 20 to 30% of calories have been made to optimize testosterone levels.

With that said, once 0.6 g/kg/BW is reached, then no significant benefit to hormones is apparent.

How Much Fat Should I Consume?

My preference is a minimum of 0.6 g/kg/BW per day.

  • When in a surplus, this will be sufficient to optimize hormonal function and generally equal about 20% of calories.
  • Given there is little benefit to hormonal function after 0.6 g/kg/BW when in a calorie surplus, there is no physiological need to increase from this figure as you progress through your mass phase.
  • Even when total calories are adjusted upwards to continue to gain weight, there is no need to exceed the 0.6 g/kg/BW of fat level from a physiological viewpoint. However, in my experience, many people find it easier to adhere to their diet plan if fat is scaled up a little higher when total calories climb.
  • I generally find that anything up to 1 g/kg/BW is effective.
  • When in a deficit, I suggest a range of 0.6-1 g/kg/BW.
  • The risk of hormonal disruption is higher when in a chronic calorie deficit.
  • Whilst many clients have performed well and had exceptional results at the lower end of this range, I tend to take the conservative approach and begin at the upper end when beginning a fat loss phase.

From this point, I take an outcome-based approach based on the rate of loss, client feedback, and gym performance.

Key Takeaway–Consume at least 0.6 g of fat per kg (0.3 g per pound) of body weight.

Carbohydrates Impact Hormones

Carbohydrates, like fats, have a positive impact on hormones. The carbohydrates you eat are converted to glucose and stored in the liver or sent out in the bloodstream. Most of this glucose is, however, actually taken in and stored by the muscles as glycogen. Despite this storage, glycogen is quite low down the list of the body’s priorities.

Glucose gets utilized in a hierarchical sequence.

Cells in need of energy are the priority for incoming glucose. Only once the majority of cells’ energy needs are satisfied will carbohydrate consumption increase blood glucose. When blood glucose reaches appropriate levels, liver glycogen synthesis is the next priority.

Only after this does muscle glycogen start to be synthesized to a significant amount. When muscles take up blood glucose, they can use it for activity or repair. This is vital for muscle repair, recovery, and growth.

Carbohydrates are the dominant source of energy for the Central Nervous System (CNS) and athletic activities.

They help to fuel grueling training and aid recovery by replenishing muscle glycogen. Stored muscle glycogen is the primary and preferred fuel source for intense exercise. Carbohydrates are a huge advantage to hard-training individuals.

During dieting phases dropping carbohydrate levels very low has become popular. This is not entirely without merit, as a reduction in carbohydrates can help create a calorie deficit. I suggest you resist the temptation to go zero carbs, though.

To get the most from your training, you need to push through overloading training sessions. Eating sufficient carbohydrates will help you to do this. They will also help you to retain muscle mass even while losing bodyweight.

If you are low on glycogen, then you risk muting the anabolic response to weight training. Eating sufficient carbohydrates allows for a higher intensity of training, higher volumes of training, quicker recovery between sets and between sessions, and anti-catabolic and anabolic effects.

“How many carbohydrates should you consume?” Short answer:

“The remainder of your available calories”

More Protein Preserves Muscle Mass and Satiety

While in a calorie surplus, hitting your macros will probably deliver 80% of your diet’s benefits from a recovery perspective.

While factors like nutrient timing, micronutrition, food variety, and quality all contribute to optimal results, they only make a marginal difference.

When in a deficit, you need to take care of these marginal gains because you don’t have the safety net of an abundance of calories to do the heavy lifting for you.

Here are some tips for squeezing everything you can out of your diet for maximum recovery when cutting:

  • When you are in a calorie deficit, it is an excellent idea to consume the upper end of the protein guidelines provided earlier (2.2 g/kg/BW).
  • High protein intake has been shown to preserve muscle mass.
  • Anecdotally, high protein intakes also appear to help regulate appetite as well. This regulation is useful when cutting calories.

Protein Timing

Multiple studies have shown that a serving of 25-40 g of protein is sufficient to maximize Muscle Protein Synthesis (MPS). To give you a more specific recommendation, I suggest you aim for 0.4 g/kg of body weight per meal. If you weigh 65 kg, that would be 26 g, while an 80 kg guy would have 32 g of protein per meal.

The current literature indicates that consuming a mixed whole food meal causes MPS to last roughly three hours and peaks for 45-90 minutes. While protein shakes/amino acid supplements tend to last only two hours and peak sooner. Then, MPS begins to tail off.

Research indicates that these peaks and troughs in MPS are beneficial to maximal muscle growth.

Based on the available scientific evidence, 4-6 servings of protein per day with 3-4 hours between each are your best bet to maximize MPS.

When in a calorie deficit, fine-tuning your eating schedule to maximize MPS is your best bet to avoid muscle loss.

The Holy Grail of Nutrient Timing?

We have all heard of the post-workout anabolic window. Post-workout nutrition has for a long time been perceived as the holy grail of nutrient timing. I think this is a mistake. Pre-workout nutrition is, in my opinion, just as, if not more, important than post-workout nutrition.

As previously discussed, the body takes several hours to digest a meal. So, suppose you consume a balanced meal before training. In that case, your body will continue to receive a steady supply of nutrients throughout the entire session and even into the post-workout window.

Many people miss the critical consideration that the important nutrient timing factor is when the nutrients are in your bloodstream, not when you eat them.

The nutrients from your pre-workout meal are in the bloodstream during and possibly after you train. This means you can deliver nutrients immediately to the working muscles. If you only focus on the post-workout meal, there will be a significant delay in nutrients arriving at the muscles where you need them.

With that in mind, here are few points to consider:

  • Inadequate carbohydrates can impair strength training.

  • Consuming carbohydrates in the pre-training meal can improve performance in the training session.

  • Consuming carbohydrates intra-workout in sessions lasting longer than an hour can improve performance at the end of the session and prevent muscle loss (especially when combined with a fast-digesting protein source).

  • Consuming carbohydrates post-workout replenishes muscle glycogen more effectively than eating them at other times. This post-workout window is a lot longer than the much-touted anabolic window of 20-30 mins. The 4-6 hours after training when eating carbohydrates replenishes optimal muscle glycogen.

When bulking, your carbohydrate intake is probably high enough that you don’t need to worry too much about skewing your eating to one time or another.

Spreading carbs evenly throughout the day will serve you well.

When dieting, calories and carbohydrates can be very low. In this situation, it is more important to consider your specific timing of carbohydrate intake to support high-quality training and recovery.

It is wise to ensure that you consume carbohydrates at least in the meal before and after training.

After that, you can simply space it relatively evenly throughout the other meals consumed during the day.

Eat the Rainbow

Picking nutrient-dense low-calorie foods is a wise decision. This choice will help you stay full, which means you are more likely to adhere to your diet.

It also means you get all the micronutrition you need to support good recovery from training. A wide variety of vegetables is a wise decision when cutting calories.

A simple way to achieve a broad spectrum of micronutrition is to eat fruits and vegetables of as many different colors as possible.

Avoid Pseudo-Science

While it’s tempting to reach for the expensive recovery tool, backed by pseudo-science, you are better served picking the low-hanging fruit of improving your sleep and diet to boost your recovery.

These two factors have vastly more influence over your recovery and results than other fancy recovery methods.

Use the guidelines I’ve provided to get a massive recovery advantage and save the silly recovery fads for less well-informed lifters.

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