INTRODUCTION: RECOVER WHAT FROM WHAT
In part three of our series examining the principles of programming we will be discussing appropriate rest and recovery. The principle of appropriate rest and recovery states that a stressor must be recovered from to the point of invoking an optimal amount of performance gain. This does not mean that complete recovery must be achieved or that it is even desired. Overreaching illustrates the benefit of increasing load to the point of not recovering, whereas a taper illustrates the opposite, nearly complete dissipation of accumulated fatigue from reduced training loads. Although, when discussing recovery it is important to understand the systems needing to be recovered and the importance of bringing each back to baseline (i.e. energy stores, tissue damage, nervous system alterations). All of these concepts will be discussed at length in the proceeding sections.
UNDERSTANDING THE BASICS
Before we start diving into energy systems, types of overreaching, or other complex topics we should develop a foundation formed around the basics. The basics of recovery state that we rest enough from session to session to optimize performance in the gym. The amount of rest needed between sessions varies on the intensities of the exercises, training volume, body mass of the lifter, skill level, dominant muscle action of the movement, the ability of the movement to be loaded, etc. The reason this varies is because of the differing degrees of fatigue accumulated, to what systems and how long the system takes to recover.
VARY THE LIFT, VARY THE REST
The reason weightlifters can do the full snatch and clean & jerk nearly every workout is because the load (weight on the bar) of those movements is very small in proportion to the squat and deadlift. Similarly, powerlifters can bench press much more frequently than they can squat and deadlift because of the reduced load of the movement. On the other hand, if you were to squat incredibly heavy and with volume it wouldn't make sense to come in the next day and try to replicate that same workout with an even greater intensity. The variation on the lift could be adjusted to limit the load and help tolerate an increased frequency. For example, a muscle clean will greatly reduce the load on the bar as compared to a competition clean. You could muscle clean every single day and probably make pretty good progress.
Other aspects of the lift which alter the length of rest needed from one overloading session to the next is range of motion (ROM) and amount of muscles used during the lift. Bicep curls require very few muscles to work in concert to move a weight a very short distance. Therefore, bicep curls can be performed very frequently within a training program. Whereas a barbell deadlift has a greater ROM, a greater number of muscles used, much greater load on the bar, and most likely greater psychological arousal. These differences lead a lifter to infrequently perform deadlifts, but being able to bicep curl up to 4 times a week, with each session being progressed from the last.
IMPLICATIONS OF BODY SIZE
The size of the lifter has an implication on the amount of rest needed due to a few reasons: potentially larger weights lifted and increased ROM and greater amounts of body tissues to be disrupted. More tissue damage means longer periods of recovery to bring an athlete back to performing well enough to present an overload. A 48kg female back squatting 80kg will not require as much rest between squat sessions as 160kg male back squatting 272kg.
WHEN TO RETURN TO BASELINE
In this discussion of how much rest from session to session is needed to return to a state of being able to present an overload there are measures which are required and others which can be delayed. Glycogen (energy stores within a muscle cell) is depleted and replenished throughout the week. An inability to replenish these energy stores, because of inadequate nutrition or improper training will impact total training volume. As we know, total training volume is the main drive of adaptation. Muscle damage on the other hand can be tolerated to a point from workout to workout and will not be entirely brought to baseline until the deload week after a mesocycle. Nervous system fatigue disrupts the homeostasis of the central nervous system (altering concentrations of neurotransmitters) and is not brought back to baseline until the deload week as well. Other markers may not be returned to baseline until the active rest phase after a competition peak.
RECOVERY WITHIN A PERIODIZED PLAN
Recovery follows a predictable pattern. Throughout most of the mesocycle (4-6 week training cycle) rest days and light sessions (training session with decreased volume and intensity) provide enough recovery to keep the athlete progressing in their training, whether that be adding weight to the lift or sets/reps. Eventually accumulated fatigue begins to halt or decrease performance if the training is consistently progressed without periods of decreased intensity and volume. This is prevented with the inclusion of deload weeks. A deload week is a microcycle typically proceeding a mesocycle, it begins with reduced training volume and then reduced volume and intensity towards the latter half. This down week allows for the recovery of muscle tissue and improvements in the central nervous system.
On a larger scale, the healing of connective tissues and even psychological markers of fatigue requires even more time. After a competition prep is concluded there is a period of greatly reduced training volume and intensity. Typically an athlete will not lift over 50% of their one repetition max during these training weeks and complete time off for the first week is advised. This time away from training often aids in igniting the drive to push for the next competition.
MICROCYCLE HACKS: CENTRAL VS PERIPHERAL FATIGUE
Within a training microcycle there will usually be heavy, medium, and light training sessions, each with a certain focus (accumulating volume, pushing intensity, recovery). These different sessions accumulate different types of nervous system fatigue. Heavy sessions bias central fatigue, which references fatigue factors altering the central nervous system (brain & spinal cord). This can be experienced as being unmotivated, groggy, tired, or even sick. Training which typically induces this state would be magnified by increases in psychological arousal during the training session.
Whereas peripheral fatigue is experienced throughout the rest of the body, (in the periphery), excluding the brain and spinal cord (i.e. muscles, nerves). This includes muscle soreness and stiffness. Training which typically induces this state would be higher volume, lower intensities, and slow eccentrics. A microcycle hack is to alternate sessions, one focusing on accumulating central fatigue and then the next with a peripheral fatigue bias.
SPECIAL CONSIDERATIONS: OVERREACHING
Typically a return to or above previous performance levels is necessary to overload and create a need for adaptation. An exception to the need for immediately adequate recovery is overreaching. Overreaching is the act of increasing volume and intensity to the point of causing a performance decrease. Functional overreaching is purposefully implementing periods of overwhelming training and allowing for recovery and super-compensation. Non-functional overreaching is training above the athlete's recovery threshold for too long a period of time, without a super-compensation following appropriate recovery.
Overreaching is a strategy employed at the tail end of a mesocycle or a peaking protocol. The overreaching phase is then followed by a deload or taper, in which the athlete has a sufficient recovery period to return and then surpass baseline performance. The overreaching is brought about by a sudden, drastic increase in volume or intensity. This could look as simple as taking a week's volume and increasing it by up to 1.5-2x.
HOW SHOULD YOU PRIORITIZE REST AND RECOVERY?
With all of this information the question still becomes: how much should you rest and how recovered should you be from session to session? Well, you never want to be so under or over recovered that you cannot consistently overload your physiology. If so, you will begin to stagnate or regress. This is not to say that you shouldn't feel good during some training sessions or very beat down during others, because how you feel is not the indicator we use when assessing recovery, it is performance. Now, motivation to train, hunger, feeling sore/achy, these are all indicators of accumulated fatigue and they have their place when deciding how to adjust training going forward, but performance is the most trustworthy indicator, far more objective than the other measures.
Proper construction of the micro, meso, and macrocycle will balance the degree to which each system is recovered and when it needs to receive adequate recovery. A thorough understanding of your physiology, training age, goals, and mental fortitude all play in to the construction of these time periods. Exercise frequency, intensity, and volume will be adjusted to promote proper recovery from training session to training session, microcyle to microcycle, and mesocycle to mesocycle. If a program has 7x7 on Monday in the backsquat at 75% and 6x8 on Tuesday at 80%, RUN.
Joshua is a strength coach and weightlifter located in Columbus, Ohio. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Ohio Wesleyan University with a degree in Health and Human Kinetics and a minor in Psychology. He is currently pursuing his Master’s in Strength and Conditioning from East Tennessee State University. His interests are most consumed by human physiology and subsequently periodization, programming, recovery, and mindset.
Not only does Joshua have the education, but he’s been a competitive weightlifter for the last 3 years, training under some of the best coaches in Ohio. He has also coached many to the platform, including powerlifters, weightlifters, and recently, crossfitters. Besides directly impacting athletes through improved performance he continues to share his passion of strength through his writings, podcasts, and other social media platforms.
You can learn more about Joshua here purposedrivenperformance.com
Want to learn more about the Principles of Programming?
- Scientific Principles of Strength Training (Israetel, Hoffman, and Smith, 2015)
- Principles and Practice of Resistance Training (Stone, Stone, and Sands, 2007)
- Tapering for Strength-Power Individual Event and Team Sport Athletes (Bayzler, 2016)
- Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (Haff and Triplett, 2016)
- Resistance Exercise Overtraining and Overreaching (Fry and Kraemer, 1997)