Your workout routine should take into account recovery time. This is especially true as you age (since it takes more time to recover). Scroll to “Training for recovery” to see my current workout routine for maximizing recovery.
The Importance of Recovery
Some guys, myself included, go balls to the wall in their workouts. We go all out during the workout, and we try to cram in as many gains as possible during the week. When I was in college I was at the gym twice each day, six days a week (only because the gym was closed on Sunday). I made incredible gains during that time.
The problem with gains made through intense and frequent workouts, however, is that rarely can they be sustained. As muscle or endurance builds up, so does fatigue. Eventually physical and psychological burnout and / or injury show up, and your gains are actually reversed. Like the engine in your car, you can only rev at top speed for a while before the engine blows and you’re forced to pull over to the side of the road while everyone else passes you by. Slow and steady wins the race. Adequate recovery lets you make small incremental gains over time without burnout or injury. I’ve experienced it firsthand.
Three years ago I decided I wanted a starting position on my rugby team. Being 48 at the time, playing with guys less than half my age, this was a big goal. Throughout the summer off-season I trained as heavy as I could, as often as I could. On my off days I sprinted in the 100 degree Memphis heat. We began the fall season with fitness assessments and at the end of the beep test I was one of the last five guys (out of a field of about 25 guys). During the other fitness drills, I killed it. At the bar after practice the young guys were giving me high-fives for my performance.
Unknown to them, I had been experiencing a nagging pain in my crotch. During the fireman carry at practice that night, it had become almost unbearable but I pushed through anyway. Over the next couple of weeks, I started losing speed because the effort of pulling my knee to my pelvis was excruciatingly painful. The day of our first scrimmage I awoke in terrible pain. I finally got up, stretched a bit, took some ibuprofen, and headed to the field. I actually got a starting position (first time ever) and…declined. I didn’t feel I would be effective on the field and thought someone should take my place. My coach pushed me to take the position anyway, and I ended up playing about 60 minutes of the match.
The next morning, I literally could not get out of bed; I had no strength in my abdomen to pick my legs up. The diagnosis was a sports hernia. In my case, it was due to overuse. After several weeks of dry needling, chiropractic work, a stretching regimen, I wasn’t getting better. All the while, I was still going to the gym, still attempting to jog, trying to keep from getting out of starting shape.
It took a full year of recovery to get me back on the field. No gym work for two months. No running for close to six months. When I finally made it back to the gym, I had to start from scratch; nothing but bar. Also nothing targeting the core until close to eight months, and even then it was touch and go because of pain. All the gains I had made in the 3 summer months of training had been wiped out – and more – because I had over trained.
Training for Recovery
There’s a lot more to recovery besides your workout routine; sleep and nutrition play a huge role. But here’s how I’ve arranged my weekly workouts so that I get as much training time in as possible, but also as much recovery time as well. Notice that I try to alternate activities each day, along with alternating body parts and goals (gym vs. aerobic vs. HIIT, legs vs. upper body vs. total body lifts vs. complimentary lifts, etc.):
- Monday – Gym day with an emphasis on legs (mainly deadlift and squat) along with a small amount of chest work (to increase weekly volume).
- Tuesday – Aerobic running. Easy jog of 30-40 minutes.
- Wednesday – Gym day focusing on upper body (mainly chest/shoulders).
- Thursday – 20 minute sprint session. Notice that I’ve had two full days of recovery since my heavy leg day on Monday.
- Friday – Gym day focusing on back, with light legs as well (stiff-legged deadlifts or lunges).
- Saturday – Game day (during season) or general “fun day” staying active.
- Sunday – Rest. Full stop.
Notice that everything gets covered; lots of full-body lifts, aerobic work, also HIIT training. But everything gets adequately rested in between sessions.
Also, during gym sessions each set gets 2.5-3 minutes rest between sets. This is so that each muscle group gets adequate recovery to attack each set with maximum intensity. Most guys will rest a minute or so in between, but this causes you to lose form, increase your risk of injury, and keeps the muscle group from being able to express itself to its fullness.
Diet includes extra zinc and magnesium for recovery, along with extra protein intake, over and above what most non-athletic folks would generally take in. Then sleep. As much sleep as possible (for a glance at my nightly routine, check out this blog post)
Your workout needs will be different from mine. But let me encourage you to step back and examine your workout for built-in recovery. Think about how you feel from Monday to Friday. I’ve had routines where I’d start on Monday full of piss and vinegar, but by Friday dreaded going to the gym. That’s burnout. Or maybe you keep experiencing small injuries: a pulled groin, a painful shoulder, a tight calf-muscle. Often these are signs that your muscles are fatigued. Restructure your workouts so that recovery is built-in. It’ll help you make far more gains over the long-haul.