Creating a Great Workout Program: The Recovery Principle

Adequate rest and recovery is vital to any fitness/exercise program. Overtraining is just as harmful as (and perhaps more dangerous than) undertraining, and you don’t actually make any strength/size/fat loss improvements while working out. They come while you are resting and recovering.

Read on for some more information on how to maximize your time away from the gym by taking advantage of the recovery principle.

Other Fitness Principles:

The recovery principle – why?

You can eat healthy and still make gains on a sub-par workout program, but you can’t out-train a bad diet. Period. Getting into the gym for three or four hours a week isn’t too hard for most people. And some even enjoy pushing themselves to get bigger, stronger, and/or faster. However, it is the other 23 hours of the day where the improvements are made. And you can’t “do an extra hour of cardio” to work off the crappy dinner you ate last night. Things just don’t work that way, unfortunately.

Diet, rest, and recovery are all important pieces of health and wellness, but they are often considered as secondary in terms of importance compared to training.

You need to rest and recover in order for adaptation to take place. Assuming your workout program is specific to your goals and you are applying the principle of progressive overload to challenge your body, you will see positive changes with proper rest and recovery.

From Eric Cressey:

Ignoring rest in a chronic manner is a surefire recipe for disaster. Athletes have lifting and conditioning sessions, practices and actual contests, so it should come as no surprise that given poor program design, they can become legitimately overtrained more “easily” than the ordinary weekend warrior.

Coaches need to understand not only how to manipulate volume and loading, but also how to appropriately integrate back-off weeks and recovery methods.

The recovery principle - how?

How long should you rest? Between sets and reps? Between workouts? There are a lot of different answers, as it depends on how hard you are training, how much time you have available to train, as well as several other variables.

Here are some very basic/general rules to follow (again, none of this is set in stone, and you will probably read different answers from different sources – but this is a pretty good set of guidelines to follow). 

Sets and reps

  • If you are training for strength or power (five or less reps with a heavy load), rest at least 2-3 minutes between sets
  • If you are training for hypertrophy/muscle gain (six to 12 reps with a medium-to-heavy load), rest for 30-60 seconds between sets
  • If you are training at anything above 12 reps, you don’t need to rest very long between sets (it is essentially aerobic/cardio work with weights).
  • And make sure to warm up and cool down properly

Rest Period

Training Goal

0-30 seconds

~50% metabolic recovery

30 seconds to 2 minutes

~90% metabolic recovery

2-3 minutes

Near complete metabolic recovery

3-5 minutes

Near complete neural recovery

5-10 minutes

Complete neural recovery

As for time off between workouts…

It really depends on how hard you are training and how much time you have available. You can make significant gains in the gym with three sessions per week (40-45 minutes in duration, provided you work both smart and hard)

If you are doing bodyweight training or are new to fitness, you don’t need to take more than 24 hours off between workouts.

But as your fitness level increases and the weights and difficulty of your workouts increases, you will notice your body is slower to make improvements/changes. More (and proper) rest and recovery will be very beneficial. Alternating workout days and days off is a simple and easy protocol to follow.

Again, there are so many ways to structure your workouts. You could go with three full body workouts per week. You could do upper and lower body splits. You could do bodybuilding splits, focusing on a certain muscle group or two each workout. Again, figure out what your goal(s) are before doing anything else.

And you need to find a way to have a recovery/deload week every 4-6 weeks (again, depending on how frequent and intense your training schedule is).

This is characterized by a decrease in training volume (generally 60% of your highest training week), and a slightly reduction in intensity, or weight used, as well.  For example if you’re doing 3×10 in your highest volume week, you could perform 2×10 in your deload, or 3×6.

 More on recovery weeks from T Nation:

 There are two main reasons why you need planned recovery weeks in your training:

1) Your body needs time to adapt to the prior training stimulus.

2) Your training incurs long-term fatigue, so by giving a recovery week you’re allowing your body to realize the gains it’s made but isn’t showing yet.

There are also mental benefits to a rest/recovery week. You simply can’t make gains in the gym every single workout or week, and at some point you are going to suffer from mental fatigue and/or burnout. Rest weeks are a great way to recharge the batteries and get yourself excited to work out again.

Importance of sleep

Here are some useful tips from trainer Mike Robertson on how to improve your sleep. The evil cousin of sleep is a lack of sleep, and that leads to a lot of bad things. Some of them include:

I’d also highly recommend reading this study of sleep by the creators of Examine.com. Really fascinating stuff.

Dialing in your nutrition

I won’t get into too much detail with nutrition, but I’d recommend reading my nutrition tips from the past year or so.

Nutrition guru Dr. John Berardi:

THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS ONE, UNIVERSAL “BEST” DIET.
There’s no one absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt best diet for everyone. Humans have evolved to do well under all sorts of dietary conditions.
That’s why I’m happy to help people find the best one for them, no matter their dietary preferences.
Of course, this is a big win for my clients: They get in shape doing more of the things they actually like. And a win for me: I get to help more people.

Just as with training, the best diet is the one that you will actually follow. Having an incredibly complex and regimented diet may look great and work in theory, but is it real world applicable? You still want to actually enjoy food (and life).

Some other great nutrition sources:

A good diet is 80-90% of the fitness puzzle (combined with adequate sleep). Training is only 10-20% of it.

Recovery tools 

Learn how to myofascially release yourself (not as fun as it sounds). For five bucks, you can pick up a lacrosse ball and go to down. Foam rollers and softballs are great, too. You will feel better, move better, and save a ton of money on massages and doctor visits. Kelly Starrett from the MobilityWOD is the go-to resource for learning how to take care of your body, and I can’t recommend his book “Becoming a Supple Leopard” enough. The guy is a genius, and he makes things really simple and easy to follow.

Kelly’s website is now one that requires a subscription, but he still has hundreds of free (and incredibly insightful) videos in his archives.

I’d recommend picking up a “grid” foam roller (pictured above). They are hollow (easy to travel with) and very durable. Learning how to foam roll is pretty easy – it’s essentially the same principle of a deep tissue massage – you put a lot of pressure on muscle “knots” and break up crappy tissue in order to improve how your body feels and moves.

Starrett’s videos have helped me get over a few injuries (back, ankle), and the key with recovery is to use it as both a rehabilitative as well as prehabilitative mechanism. Even if you “feel good,” it is important to take care of your body and make sure you are moving properly (especially if you lead a sedentary lifestyle).

This video, more than anything else, healed my disgustingly swollen ankle:

In conclusion…

I didn’t go into great detail on nutrition, as the links I shared do a good job of that. But it is important that you understand the recovery principle, why it is beneficial, and how to implement it properly. Watch the MobilityWOD videos if you have any aches and pains (seriously – low back, hip, knee, ankle, shoulder, all of the above… Kelly has a number of great videos on every single injury known to man. Take care of your issues before you need to get surgery or before it prevents you from exercising and enjoying fitness).

And you need to understand that your body actually makes gains and improvements when you aren’t in the gym. Your body adapts to the demands/stresses you place on it. Fuel it properly, give it rest, stretch, foam roll, and you will be good to go!

Important Recovery/Rest Topics: