How to Manage your Return to Training: Optimal training and recovery practises to avoid being a sore boi
In a few weeks (hopefully!) many of us will be returning to regular gym training, after what will be for most the longest break away from strength training, they have had and probably will ever have. It’s important to make sure we make the transition as smooth as possible back to the gym. This blog will follow on from previous blogs and podcasts and cover how we can get back to full strength as quickly as possible. We will delve into managing your training loads, alongside modalities you can use to help improve your recovery from training.
Muscle Soreness: An Overview
Muscle soreness can be categorised as muscle damage (it isn’t always, but for the purpose of this blog this is what we’ll be looking at). Soreness/damage is mainly caused by a novel stimulus, this could be a new exercise or rep scheme, or a sharp increase in training volume, either increasing reps or sets of an exercise. I think we have come along way from the days of muscle annihilation for the sake of it, whilst this is definitely still a thing, it isn’t as prominent in performance based or reputable gyms with good level coaches. While muscle soreness will be a part of training (not just strength training, runners get sore too) it should not be the primary goal of the training programme, but a potential by-product of a well thought through training programme.
Training should be viewed on a global scale; similar to nutrition, where one day of bad food won’t be detrimental to your goals, one workout won’t make or break your training programme. Success in training comes from stringing together several successful micro and meso-cycles. This is where the problem of doing too much too soon – or increasing volume excessively too early – comes in. If we do too much training in one session, or if we train to get intentionally sore, what does that mean for the next training sessions? If you are training the same muscle groups, you will see a drop in performance, even training a different set of muscle groups may result in a drop in performance. Motivation to train could drop and rather than being excited to get back into training, you may dread the thought of the next couple of days after training.
Unfortunately, after a hiatus from training, you will be sore even with the tips and methods I’m going to list, but what we’re looking for is a manageable amount of soreness that allows you to train 24-48 hours later without a drop in performance. This will help you return to pre-lock-down strength levels faster than going in all guns blazing. While it may seem counter-intuitive to take training slow for the first few weeks back, when we look at training globally, these lighter weeks will set us up for long term success and reduce chances of injury. Four productive sessions trump one all out session followed by two lacklustre pish sessions.
How to Manage Your Training Load
These are key after a break from training and at the start of a new training block with a new stimulus! With most programmes, you will see the use of introduction weeks, with the primary goal to introduce the new stimuli and exercises. They are also useful if transitioning from a high rep training block to a lower rep, higher intensity block. They can help you get accustomed to higher intensities/volumes and reduce your soreness from the novel stimulus whilst getting accustom to the specific adaption of imposed demands (SAID Principle). From here you can start your block with intensities/volumes that wont result in as much detrimental muscle soreness, setting you up for more success. The nature of these introduction weeks allow you to get used to the new stimulus at lower intensities/volumes, resulting in reduced soreness.
If you want to start your training block off with a 4×5 at 80% squat, an intro week could look like 3×5 at 75%. This week is used to bridge the gap from the previous training blocks. Introduction weeks will typically be 20-35% less volume, with intensity close enough to abide the acute:chronic work:rest ratios. If you are coming back into training after a break, work out where you want to be by the end of the block and work backwards. If you want to be doing 3×8 at 70% squats by the end of the training block, your introduction block may go:
Week 1: 2×8 @ 50%
Week 2: 2×8 @ 60%
Week 3: 3×8 @ 65%
These stepping stone weeks will help you get your strength back to pre-break levels whilst minimising chances of injuries and severe soreness.
In a previous podcast (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5vUTEPBHQg&t=26s) Mark and I discussed introduction blocks and training mistakes people may make when they return to training after a hiatus from lifting weights. If you haven’t already, check it out to learn more about the use of introduction cycles!
While we can do things to manage training soreness, it will be a part of training especially after a prolonged break. This is where the use of high and low sessions can be helpful. We know that soreness can last 96 hours, meaning performance may drop in that time too. What we can do to programme around this is utilise high and low training stress sessions.
Example Training Week Utilising High and Low Stress Training Sessions:
Monday: High tress training session
Wednesday: Low stress training session
Friday: High stress training session
Saturday/Sunday: Low stress training session
Even if performance drops, incorporating an easier session will allow you to still train. It can be a good chance to get some skill work in, continue to move which may help speed up recovery! A study by Bartolomei (2019) showed performing a lighter session 30 hours post volume training session increased indicators of recovery better than just rest.
Acute:Chronic – Work:Rest Ratios
Once we have found the baseline of amount of work we can tolerate, we need to obey the acute:chronic work:rest ratios. This is the ratio of work completed in the last week (acute load) verses the last meso cycle/4 weeks of training (chronic load). To avoid stressing tissues more than they can be tolerated, we should not increase training load (intensity and or volume) by more than 20% weekly. This is the absolute max increase that we should use, but for most, 10% may be more optimal. Increasing your training by following this rule will reduce your chance of exceeding your training tolerance, will keep injury rate low, keep muscle soreness to manageable levels and will help maximise training progression.
Increasing your Recovery Time from Training
We can manage training effectively taking into account the above steps, but can still feel sore and under recovered between sessions, especially after a break from the gym. So what can we do to manage muscle soreness and improve our recovery? If we are managing training loads properly and obeying the training rules above, we can then look at other modalities that can improve recovery. These are proven recovery methods, that have zero risk to them. You can utilise these between sessions to help reduce symptoms of muscle soreness and maximise your return to training!
Improve your Sleep Quality:
There are numerous studies that show that good quality sleep helps improve athletic performance. When we return to training, if we can optimise our sleep, we can improve our recovery from our gym sessions. The literature indicates 9-10 hours sleep for athletes is probably most beneficial. While this may not be possible for everyone, trying to aim for a minimum 7-8 hours of good quality sleep will be. To improve the sleep quality we can look at several factors of sleep hygiene. This includes creating good routines pre bed-time, such as reducing our screen time, trying to de-stress before going to sleep and making sure the room we sleep in is cool and dark. This is potentially the biggest benefit to recovery and if you want to improve your training, this should be one of your top priorities.
Dial in your Nutrition:
Dialling in your nutrition in is the second big key. Trying to get in sufficient protein daily is a must, the literature states highly active individuals should aim for a minimum of 1.6g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. If you can, upping this to 1.9g per kilogram of your bodyweight daily is a fail safe number to maximise muscle protein synthesis. If you want to optimise this further, per meal the literature recommends aiming for 0.4-0.55g times your bodyweight per meal to maximise protein synthesis. Ideally, you should be getting one of those servings post workout. To put these numbers into play, if you weigh 100kg, eat between 160-190g of protein daily, with ideally four sittings of a minimum of 40g protein.
If you wanted to take this further to maximise recovery, I would avoid being in a calorie deficit for the first few weeks. Obviously you would have to take into account your goals, but all being equal, if you wanted to maximise your training and recovery, being in a small calorie surplus would be better than a calorie deficit.
Low level recovery/aerobic sessions are always shown to improve markers of recovery as well as more expensive, less accessible recovery protocols, whilst offering no risk. The goal of these aerobic sessions is recovery, not to improve your aerobic performance, so keep the intensity low, think about your posture and breathing and if you can, enjoy some time outside. In terms of your breathing, try to take deep slow breaths and aim to keep your ribs over your pelvis (ribs down Jackie-boy). Taking into account posture and breathing, I recommend walking, but any form of off-feet cardio would work too, such as a bike or rower.
Using recovery sessions in between your main sessions can be a viable option. Adding in some soft tissue work (ie foam rolling) can decrease muscle soreness. Adding some soft tissue work in, followed by a circuit of low intensity exercises can help aid recovery similarly to the aerobic sessions. Choose 6-8 exercises that compliment your main training, trying to move in multiple directions or challenge the body in different ways to your gym work is probably a good idea. As the training stress stays low and we add in some full range of motion exercises that subsequently increase the heart rate, you may leave these sessions feeling fresh, better recovered and with greater range of motion.
Recovery Methods to AVOID
Taking Ibuprofen to Reduce Muscle Soreness:
Taking ibuprofen as a one off will have very minimal effect on long term training, but several studies show that taking ibuprofen long term can harm gains in muscle size and strength. Because of this, it should be used sparingly. If you manage training accordingly, taking ibuprofen to manage muscle soreness shouldn’t be necessary. If you can’t avoid two back to back hard sessions due to a scheduling issue, then it can be used, but long term use of ibuprofen to help reduce muscle soreness should be avoided.
Similar to ibuprofen, ice baths should be used sparingly for acute recovery session to session, but shouldn’t be used as a long term solution for managing muscle soreness. They have been shown to decrease muscle hypertrophy and, as a result, may decrease long term strength gains. Use ice baths to recover if you have back to back sessions, but avoid using as a tool for daily recovery.
If you follow the guidelines above, you should find yourself feeling back to full strength in no time at all. Set your training up smartly, keep on top of your nutrition and sleep, utilise other recovery modalities as needed, avoiding short term methods that can be detrimental long term.
2020 isn’t over, we’re still in x
Studies cited/Further reading
Upper-Body Resistance Exercise Reduces Time to Recover After a High-Volume Bench Press Protocol in Resistance-Trained Men (Bartolomei, 2019)
Sleep Interventions Designed to Improve Athletic Performance and Recovery: A Systematic Review of Current Approaches (Bonnar, 2018)
Effects of Postexercise Protein Intake on Muscle Mass and Strength During Resistance Training: Is There an Optimal Ratio Between Fast and Slow Proteins? (Faber,2019)
Recovery From Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage: Cold-Water Immersion Versus Whole-Body Cryotherapy (Abaïdia,2017)
Influence of Foam Rolling on Recovery From Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage (D’Amico, 2019)
High‐doses of anti‐inflammatory drugs compromise muscle strength and hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training in young adults (Lilja, 2017)
Cold Water Immersion Attenuates Anabolic Signaling and Skeletal Muscle Fiber Hypertrophy, but Not Strength Gain, Following Whole-Body Resistance Training (Fyfe,2019)