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Recovery, How to Exercise Less to Gain More and Never Overtrain Again!

Updated: Sep 19, 2018

Do you ever wonder how some people you know go to the gym every day, for months on end, and still have belly fat? Sure they all have big arms, but for all the work they put in, they still look like a strong but otherwise normal guy. I’ve heard many of these same people conclude that truly fit-looking people all take steroids, or that there must be no way to look like The Rock without cheating. There are many factors to this problem, from nutrition to the type of workouts you do, but often times the missing link is recovery. In fact, the true benefit of steroids is not magically growing biceps, it’s recovery. Steroids allow athletes to recover faster so they can put in more work and get bigger and stronger. For most people, the issue is not how much they work out: It’s how little they recover. Muscle recovery takes approximately 24 to 36 hours, which is why most workout programs do not involve working the same muscle groups two days in a row. This is why in the beginning of a program, people see gains quickly, and often become “sold” on their workout program’s efficacy. However, 2 years later these people find themselves looking more-or-less the same as they did two months into their program. Why is this?


The missing link is nervous system recovery. You see, your nervous system is taxed by any style of workout you do, and usually more-so by higher intensity training. Furthermore, it takes a full 48 hour break for your nervous system to make a total recovery, and many athletes simply never let their body have it. Eventually, you hit a plateau: a point at which no matter how you train, you don’t see improvement. If you stay in a plateau long enough, you will even begin to decline and feel you are losing strength and ability. This is the first stage of overtraining.


Despite the fact that you need 48 hours to recover your nervous system, there is a way to “game” the system. Professional athletes often use a method known as over-reaching. Essentially, you train without full recovery (as most people do) for 4 to 6 weeks or until you begin to decline in skill or get sick. Many athletes experience colds or flu like symptoms as they begin to over-train and use this as their cue. At this point, they take at least 2 weeks off from intense exercise. When you return after your break, you will most likely see significant gains, and shoot past your old limits. For those of you who think of working out as more than just a hobby, this would be your ideal training form. For everyone else, and you may laugh at my next suggestion, it's simple: Workout less!


Basically, all you need to do is train hard 1 or 2 times a week, and do light running, yoga, or mobility work the rest of the time. The key is to go hard on the hard days, and easy on the easy days. No duh, right? Unfortunately, studies have found that most people slack off too much on their high intensity workouts and push too hard on their recovery workouts. Proper execution of this system requires that when a training day is a scheduled to be a hard day, you want to push as hard as you can! Treat it like your life is on the line, or like you're in a competition. You should be on the floor when it’s over.


Alternatively, on the easy, recovery days, you should stop before you feel like it. Heck, you should honestly feel like you're cheating, and that you quit too early. The point of a recovery day is not to strain your body, at all. It is to get the recovery benefits of activating your lymphatic system and slightly elevating your heart rate without further taxing your nervous system.

For me, an easy day would involve running at a slow, easy pace. It should almost feel a bit silly, but if I notice my breath begin to labor, or my legs begin to hurt, that's when I'll stop and call it a day.

Also, you should tailor your hard workouts based on your goals. A runner would do a hard, long run a couple times a week, with short, easy paced runs the rest of the time. A Crossfit athlete would do two hard Crossfit workouts a week, but stick to light yoga, swims, or runs the rest of the time, possibly throwing in a third but lax Crossfit workout on the weekend. A weightlifter would do his hard session once or twice a week, with another session of light drill or empty barbell work and light running, swimming, or rowing on the other days.


For the average athlete, I like mixing many styles of training into a program. One example would be to do six weeks of weightlifting and body building training. Mondays you might do barbell work, with squats, deadlifts, and cleans. Tuesday and Wednesday would be a light runs, or easy yoga. Then Thursday, you'd hit a total body workout using dumb-bells. Recover again on Friday, and if you’re feeling up to it, go play a high intensity game of ultimate frisbee, or do a free community Crossfit wod on Saturday. Remember, on your hard days, GO HARD. For everything else though, stop before you feel tired. If you feel a good challenge from running a mile in 7 minutes, run it in 12 to 14, or only run a half mile. Then go home.


With all the stressors of daily life, American athletes face an epidemic of hormone problems and injury from over-training. The reality is that pro-athletes who train all the time, don’t have to deal with a full time job, or families, and they get 10 to 12 hours of sleep nightly. Your genetics may allow you to work like they do for a time, but the reality is that you'll be healthier and probably perform better by choosing to train less.


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