There's an adage that strength gains aren't made in the gym; they're made during the recovery from workouts when muscles repair and rebuild (making you "better, stronger, faster..."). This has led (not "lead" ... words have meaning!) to the concept of the "off" day or "rest" day.
We can do better. "Recovery" day is a start. Or how about "muscle repair" day? That can change the way we approach our training schedule.
By prioritizing muscle repair, recovery time becomes more than just rest. In particular:
Increase Blood Flow
Muscles need blood to live, function, and grow. Increasing blood flow to recovering muscles aids in the removal of cellular waste products that can cause pain and inflammation. (Read more about it in an unfortunately-named article "Toxic Muscle Knots.") It also delivers raw materials needed for rebuilding.
How do we increase blood flow to muscles? One is the same way we came to need a "muscle repair" day in the first place: move! Nothing too strenuous, of course, since we don't want to make it another workout. But light lifting, walking, easy cycling, a round of golf, or any kind of light play can do the trick.
Doing movements that made you sore can also help reduce soreness. (Go figure.) For example, if you're sore from doing squats yesterday, you might feel like the last thing you want to do today is more squats. But once you get past the first few (keeping it light, of course), you'll feel better. It will also help stretch tight muscles.
Another way to promote blood flow is with massage. Ideally, this will be with a massage therapist who can do a deep tissue (ouch!) or relaxing (ahhh!) massage, or something in between depending on what you can handle. If you can't get a massage therapist, you can do some self-massage with a foam roller or massage stick. Again, you can go with painful or not-so-painful depending on your tolerance level.
The most passive way to increase blood flow is by using heat. This can be a hot bath or shower, a heating pad, a sauna, or some other way of getting your muscles heated up. This dilates blood vessels promoting blood flow. You could also try contrast baths (alternating cold and heat) if you're up for it.
After strenuous activity (like strength training), the body uses more oxygen in the process of recovery and adaptation (making you stronger). This is known as Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption or EPOC, commonly called "afterburn."
There are lots of stories about using deep breathing to increase blood oxygen levels. This is very controversial, however, as blood oxygen levels are generally near saturation. What's not-so-controversial is using controlled breathing to relax. Releasing tension gives the body more opportunity to get on with the repair and restoration of muscle tissue. Use simple controlled breathing to help you relax, preferably in conjunction with meditation. Or you can pursue more formal practices such as yoga (avoiding fad styles) or qi gong.
As always, a good night's sleep will help. A nap can be beneficial as well. Just don't let it last all day!
Since this is a day for rebuilding, we need to be sure we have enough raw material to do the work.
Firstly, that means getting enough calories. Caloric restriction and building muscle don't mix. That doesn't mean you should overeat; just that it's not the time for a "diet" day. This is known as an anabolic state (building and repairing) vs. a catabolic state (breaking down) with regard to muscle tissue. Getting enough calories is essential to build and repair muscle tissue. Strength training with insufficient calories can lead to muscle loss which is surely not the objective. If you're looking to shed fat, strength training is great for improving body composition (muscle vs. fat). Just don't be starving yourself while trying to build muscle; this is not the time to be cutting calories!
More than just calories, make sure you get plenty of protein which is necessary for muscle repair and rebuilding. A "repair" day is not a great time for a slice of cake, but is a great time for some cottage cheese. (Yes, that's right: I just recommended eating cheese.) Protein supplements may help but don't rely on them: real food is the way to go.
Also be sure to get enough fluids. Water is always a great choice. Muscles are mostly water and protein (in that order) and you need to be well-hydrated for the cells to repair and rebuild.
Some additional tips for your muscle repair days include:
- Mix up your training frequency. One workout a week can be enough to maintain your muscle mass. Twice a week can see gains whilst avoiding overtraining. Three workouts a week is the max for most folks over 40 except during more intense bouts (like 40-day Easy Strength).
- Meanwhile, leave body-part splits (training legs, back, chest, arms, shoulders separately) to bodybuilders. Train movements (e.g., push or pull), not muscle groups.
- If you're trying to add body weight (hey, it happens), take more rest on your muscle repair days. And more calories.
- Slow walking is good for both increasing blood flow and relaxing, especially if you can do it in natural surroundings.
- Listening to slow music might help. You could even combine this with slow walking if you're not in natural surroundings. (If you are, listen to nature's tunes.)
So next time you're taking a "rest" day from your strength training, remember what it's really all about and help your muscles repair. Get better, stronger, faster...
Be seeing you.