You’ve just finished a tough resistance workout, and your muscles are tired. You did some sets to failure to build and strengthen your upper and lower body. Now it’s time to give your muscles a much-deserved rest. You have to challenge your muscles to build strength and definition, but rest and recovery are no less important. It’s during the recovery period that your muscles undergo the growth and repair process that’ll make you look more defined.
If you’ve worked your muscles in a new way, you may experience soreness a day or two after your workout as microscopic muscle tears cause muscles to swell and become inflamed. Fortunately, that will subside in a few days. There are some things you should do to help your muscles recover more quickly after a workout.
Feed Your Muscles Quickly After a Workout
After a workout, it’s important to drink fluids to rehydrate. At the same time, you need to replenish glycogen stores and send protein to the muscles you just worked so they can build and repair. That’s why a snack that contains a combination of protein and carbs is best. The carbs help to replace muscle glycogen stores, while your muscles will use the protein to build new muscle fibers. There’s a window period immediately after exercise when your body is primed to use carbs to replace glycogen. The same is true for protein. Start sending nutrition to your muscles as soon as possible after exercising. Don’t wait for hours.
Take a Post-Workout Nap
Not everyone has the luxury of napping after a workout, but if you can fit in a 20-minute nap, your muscles will thank you. During sleep your body releases growth hormone, so sleep is an anabolic state that aids muscle growth. Taking a power nap also helps to lower levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone” that breaks down muscle, shifts fat to your belly and makes you more susceptible to catching a cold or the flu. Naps are particularly beneficial if you aren’t getting at least 7 hours of sleep a night. Log too many hours in the gym without enough sleep, and you’ll thwart your efforts to get lean. Lack of sleep increases levels of appetite hormones like ghrelin that cause you to crave carby foods.
What about Stretching?
Many fitness trainers recommend stretching after a workout, but there’s not a lot of evidence that it helps muscles recover. The Cochrane database analyzed multiple studies and concluded that stretching before or after a workout helps muscle recovery, at least from the standpoint of muscle soreness. At one time, experts believed that exercise caused temporary muscle spasms in people who weren’t conditioned and stretching helped to decrease spasm and improve blood flow to muscles. That theory has since been disproved.
Muscle massage after a workout is a better technique for boosting muscle recovery and reducing soreness and fatigue. According to a study published in the Journal of Athletic Training, massage helps to increase blood flow to muscles and reduces muscles soreness and swelling after exercising.
The Bottom Line?
The two most important things you can do after a workout to help your muscles recover is to feed and hydrate them. Then give them a chance to rest. Exercise is only part of the equation for building muscle definition, but don’t forget about good nutrition and rest. Muscles that are over-trained and undernourished won’t grow.
PLOS Medicine. “Short Sleep Duration Is Associated with Reduced Leptin, Elevated Ghrelin, and Increased Body Mass Index”
Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews
2007, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD004577. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004577.pub2.
J Athl Train. 2005 Jul-Sep; 40(3): 174-180.