Iron Evolution #3: Recovery 101

In our daily struggle to get bigger and stronger, most of us have tried numerous training programs that all promised unbelievable gains. Put 100 pounds on your squat or 50 pounds on your bench press in 6 weeks; the emphasis always seems to be on the training program rather than what you do OUTSIDE OF the training program. Even if you train 2 hours a day, 4 times a week that’s only 8 hours of your week in the gym. What are you doing for the other 160 hours when you aren’t in the gym to improve yourself?

It’s been well documented that in the 70’s and 80’s when the U.S. started getting a lot of the Russian training programs, coaches immediately implemented and followed the programs to a ‘T’. However, they also found a lot of their athletes sustaining injuries. The problem wasn’t in the programs, but that the athletes weren’t RECOVERING properly to follow the program as it was outlined. This article is dedicated to helping you understand what types of recovery modalities are out there, and how you can implement them into your daily life to improve your training and take your strength or physique to the next level.

I’m going to break this article into three sections:

  • Self-administered modalities (things you can do on your own)
  • Practitioner administered modalities (things you need a professional or someone else to do for you), and
  • Supplementation and its role in recovery

Self-Administered Modalities

The beauty of self-administered modalities is that they are usually cheap and convenient (e.g. you can do them whenever you have time!)

Myofascial Release

When we discuss the myofascia, we are discussing not only the fasical or muscular systems, but how they are connected and intertwined with each other. When we discuss the length-tension relationship and how it relates to sports/training performance, myofascial release is interested in improving tension profiles. Myofascial release has received quite a bit of attention recently, especially with practitioners who take a global approach to training and healing the body.

The fascial system is like a web that covers every bone, muscle, artery, vein, etc. in the body. Think of someone pulling off your skin and shrink wrapping a continuous piece of dense Saran Wrap over your entire body; this is the fascia. The problem herein lies when areas of the myofascia are restricted or injured, it pulls on surrounding areas. Think about your Saran Wrap again; if someone pinches an area in the middle of your thigh, the surrounding areas between your knee and hip would get short and tight. Therefore your restriction in the middle of your thigh is the cause of the problem, but it manifests itself in your upper thigh or around your knee; in fact, it could even damage areas that are very far away from your leg! This is why simply focusing on the injured area is not enough; you need to fix the true problem by taking a global approach to your body and its ability to function properly.

Joseph Feldenkrais is usually regarded as one of the first to use foam rollers to release myofascial tissues and restore the body to its optimal state. Foam rollers can be used virtually anywhere on the body, and they lend themselves to the curious trainee. If you find a spot that is tight or tender, use the following protocol to work it out:

  • Sit on the injured or painful area for 15 seconds or until the pain is reduced 50-75%
  • Roll back and forth over the area
  • Sit on the injured or painful area again, this time for 20 seconds
  • Roll back and forth over the area again
  • Sit on the injured or painful area again, this time for 25 seconds
  • Roll back and forth over the area again
  • Proceed to find the next adhesion/restriction

Generally, trainees will use these both before training to help them loosen up and improve performance, and then again 4 or 5 hours after training to release any adhesions or restrictions that may have developed throughout the course of training.

Contrast Showers/Baths

Contrast showers and baths are one of the easiest methods for speeding recovery after an intense workout. The hot water stimulates dilation of the blood vessels, while the cold water produces constriction. This contrast effect aids in the mobilization and removal of metabolic wastes, and brings fresh blood and nutrients to the damaged area to speed recovery.

The premise here is simple: Treat the area trained most intensely (e.g. low back following heavy deadlifts) with 1 minute of hot water, followed by 30 seconds of cold water; this is considered one circuit. A few simple rules should be adhered to when taking contrast showers and baths:

  • Hot and cold water should be as hot/cold as tolerable
  • Perform for 3-5 circuits
  • Always end with COLD

Static Stretching

Ah yes, tried and true static stretching makes the list because of its role in promoting recovery. With regards to the length-tension relationship, stretching works to improve the length portion of the equation. Static stretching has been around since all of us were mere children; however, the strength training community’s views have changed drastically over the course of time. According to the late Mel Siff, here are a few of the benefits of stretching:

  • Increase in the range of useful movement
  • Reduction in the incidence of injury
  • Decrease in the severity of injury
  • Delay in the onset of muscular fatigue
  • Prevention and alleviation of muscle soreness after exercise
  • Increase in the level of skill and muscular efficiency
  • Prolongation of sporting life

(From Supertraining, Siff, 2000)

Stretching will never get the glory of a 500-pound squat or 300-pound bench, but its role in your training should not be undervalued. If you are too lazy to go through a thorough stretching routine, at least try to hit these 5 major stretches:

Low Body ‘Magic 3’

  • Hip flexors – Forward lunge stretch
  • Hamstrings – Waiters bow/Good morning stretch
  • Hips/Buttocks/External Rotators – 90/90 stretch

Upper Body ‘Double Threat’

  • Pecs/anterior delts
  • Lats

I would like for you to do more than just these five, but we’ve got to start somewhere!

Relaxation/Meditation/Visualization

While I may not have a degree in sports psychology (I do have a minor in counseling psychology!), I can attest to the benefits of implementing these 3 items to your ‘mental training’ regimen. I have lumped these 3 together because they are similar in nature.

Relaxation – removes excess tension from the body. This is extremely important for those of us who live a high-stress lifestyle, whether it’s due to kids, finances, work, or just having a Type A personality!

Meditation – clears the mind and allows better focus. Meditation is not reserved solely for improving training, but anything that may have taken a back seat in your life. Often if other parts of your life are not up to par (work, kids, finances, school, etc.), then your training will not be up to par either. Meditation allows you time to sort your thoughts and take care of your ‘inner’ business.

Visualization – perhaps the most important tool you can use that is not directly related to training or nutrition. Hitting the heavy iron is just not something you can do intensely on a daily basis and survive. Visualization is something you can do daily to improve your training.

Obviously with all of these time is of the essence; anytime you can score 15 to 20 minutes for yourself is great. Examine your current lifestyle to determine which aspect of mental training can be of most benefit to you.

Sleep

RJ Elsing has put together two excellent articles regarding sleep here on T-mag and I definitely suggest reading them. Just in case you don’t, here’s a little snippet: If you aren’t sleeping well enough or long enough, you won’t make the progress you expect, and that’s the bottom line!

GPP

For those of you totally out of the loop, GPP stands for General Physical Preparation. While many perform GPP solely for its benefits on the cardiovascular system, GPP is also an excellent tool for speeding recovery. The goal is to perform some lower intensity work that promotes blood flow to the most heavily trained areas. Both weighted and non-weighted forms of GPP can be used here.

One note on GPP: Don’t fall victim to the idea that only certain exercises are considered GPP. Basically any exercise can be used as GPP, but the key is to decrease the intensity and work to slowly increase the duration. Basically, you want to perform exercises that will stimulate blood flow to the trained area, but in a less-intense fashion. Be creative and keep it fresh!

Practitioner Administered Modalities

Practitioner administered modalities are usually less cost-effective, but can often produce superior results depending on your condition. Below are just a few of the practitioner administered modalities you can utilize to speed recovery.

Massage & Myofascial Release

Massage is an excellent modality to improve your performance and speed your recovery. Many of today’s elite athletes are receiving massage both before and after practices or games. Keep in mind here we aren’t talking about a foo-foo Swedish massage; we are talking about some deep-tissue work that is directed towards improving sport or lifting performance. Below are just a few of the benefits of receiving massage:

  • Maintain your entire body in better physical condition
  • Prevent injuries and loss of mobility in potential trouble spots
  • Boost athletic performance and endurance
  • Cure and restore mobility to injured muscle tissue
  • Extend both the good health and overall life of your athletic career

(From Sportsmassage, Meagher and Boughton, 1990)

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, huh? So not only will you perform better in and out of the weight room, but you’ll also decrease your chance of injury. A great quote from the Sportsmassage book is that Muscle is never neutral; it either works for you, or it works against you. Keep that in mind next time you slack off on your stretching, massage, self-myofascial release, etc…it will probably come back to bite you in the ass!

Being realistic, most of us probably can’t afford a massage every week, let alone every day. A better goal would be to try and fit in at least one deep tissue massage per month. If that’s still not doable, shoot for one every other month. If money is really tight, try to align yourself with a good massage therapist and offer to help promote them in exchange for massage. Massage therapy is a rapidly growing field and one where there is quite a bit of competition, so many massage therapists are more than happy to give you a free massage if you help get them referrals and improve their network. Another option is to go to a massage school and get a student massage; quite often these are at least 50% cheaper than the same massage by a certified massage therapist. The only difference is that the student is usually in their last semester of massage school and needs internship/practical hours to graduate.

Myofascial release by a certified practitioner is very similar to a massage, but the emphasis is slightly different. One of the benefits of seeing someone certified is that it takes the guesswork out of it on your part: Someone certified in myofascial release should be able to examine your posture and movement and have a pretty good idea of what areas need to be worked on/released. There is also something to be said for the healing power of the hands versus a piece of dense foam, but that’s another story!

In between massages/myofascial release sessions, use the foam roller to keep your soft tissue loose and pliable.

Active Release Technique (ART)

ART is a highly effective method for breaking up scar tissue and adhesions that are formed in soft tissue. When soft tissue is injured, the body’s natural response is to lay scar tissue and prevent the area from being injured any further. Scar tissue, however, is not pliable and contractile like muscle tissue so it’s virtually useless and is only built up by the body to try and prevent further injury or trauma. The goal of ART is to rid the body of the scar tissue and promote the natural healing of the soft tissue.

ART can be of great benefit to trainees with acute injuries to the soft tissue, as well as anyone who suffers from tendonitis or repetitive motion/overuse trauma. One of the drawbacks regarding ART is that it can often be quite painful, so improvement of your condition is often dependent upon how much pressure/pain you can take (think masochism here people!). If you are interested in locating an ART practitioner near you, check out the website at www.activerelease.com.

Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

Muscle stimulation is another practioner administered modality that you can use to speed your recovery between workouts. Below are just a few of the benefits of using muscle stimulation:

  • Local restoration after exercise or injury
  • General nervous system and endocrine restoration after exercise or injury
  • Neuromuscular stimulation for pain control

(From Supertraining, Siff, 2000)

Muscle stimulation works in a fashion similar to contrast showers; the basic premise here is bringing fresh blood flow to the affected area. This quote from Supertraining is very descriptive of how muscle stim works: Electrical stimulation stimulates muscles to contract rhythmically, producing dilation of the blood vessels, facilitating transport of nutrients to the tissues, and possibly accelerating healing in tissues which are not extensively injured. This may not sound too spectacular, but it’s extremely important (especially in the case of injuries) when you have damage to areas that tend to have lesser amounts of blood-flow. Muscles like the adductors come to mind here, as do most ligaments and tendons in the body. By using low-levels of muscle stim, increases in local blood flow can increase anywhere from 20-200% (Supertraining, 2000).

Ultrasound

Ultrasound uses sound waves to penetrate and heat the affected tissue. The combination of heat and vibration gets deep into the muscle and fascia to break up scar tissue and muscle adhesions. If you are looking for a less-invasive form of treatment for breaking up scar tissue, ultrasound may be the answer you’ve been looking for. One drawback is that you will often need a referral from your physical therapist or general practitioner to have it covered by insurance, but this is something you will have to find out.

Supplementation

Post-workout shake

Your post-workout supplement is arguably the most important meal of the training day. After training, your body is in a catabolic and wasting state; you have just torn down your muscles, used up a good portion of your muscle (and possibly liver) glycogen, and in general you are a physiological mess. At this point in time, the body is in need of some high performance nutrition. The current standard set is a shake consisting of .8 g/kg of a fast acting carbohydrate such as maltodextrin or dextrose, combined with .4 g/kg of a fast acting protein, usually whey. You can try to build your own shake, or you can make it really easy and order some SURGE from Biotest’s online store.

If you want more info on post-workout recovery, check out any of John Berardi’s excellent articles regarding supplementation after training. Basically, everyone who trains intensely can benefit from taking in a post-workout supplement.

Multi-Vitamin/Multi-Mineral

Not a whole lot needs to be said about this, but a multi-vitamin/multi-mineral is a good choice if you think you are deficient in a certain vitamin/mineral or if you dietary habits aren’t up-to-snuff. A well-balanced diet is the best way to get all your vitamins and minerals, but a good multi is an excellent way to fool-proof your plan.

Creatine

Creatine has been studied in over 700 research articles to date, so I’m not going to give you a long, drawn out review of how it works. All you need to know is this: By supplementing with creatine after our workout, we can improve our uptake and storage of creatine (if it’s included in our postworkout supplement) and have it on tap for our next heavy training session. This extra creatine in our system helps us train harder and longer, and the cycle continues until you are as large as Lou Ferrigno when he appeared in The Incredible Hulk.

EPA/DHA

John Berardi and Lonnie Lowery both possess an immense amount of knowledge when it comes to the benefits of fish oils, so if you want a thorough synopsis I would check out the Fat Roundtable articles. One of the little known benefits regarding EPA/DHA is its role as a natural anti-inflammatory and joint lubricator. Instead of popping ibuprofen every time you tweak a muscle, instead strive to take about 6 grams of EPA/DHA per day. Not only will it help with your insulin sensitivity, but it will also help keep some of those little injuries at bay and your joints healthy.

Conclusion

Let’s face it: Even if your training and diet are on 100%, you’re still only taking into account two-thirds of the training/recovery equation. Review and apply some of the tips in this article and watch your training, strength and physique achieve all new levels of performance!

About the Author:

Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the Director of the Athletic Performance Center (APC) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The APC offers sport performance training, injury rehabilitation, and personal training services to its clients. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, has been a competitive powerlifter, and is the USA Powerlifting State Chair in Indiana. To contact Mike, please send an e-mail to [email protected]

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