Are You Missing out on This Essential Exercise Element?

Ask any trainer and they'll tell you the same thing: Recovery is a highly important aspect to a well-rounded and intelligent exercise program.  Unfortunately, it commonly gets overlooked as an afterthought in the training pyramid. With society constantly "on the go," people are always looking for ways to maximize their short amount of time at the gym, often resulting in lackluster results, increased levels of pain, injuries or burnout. It's time for the training epidemic of "more is better" to come to an end.

Cramming in more exercises, sets and reps, multiple high-intensity sessions and aimlessly adding more weight in hopes of better results is not the way to achieve them. If there needs to be more of anything, an emphasis needs to be placed on more recovery. The pillars of recovery include proper nutritional practices, positive lifestyle habits and, of course, smart exercise recovery methods. Having a systematic approach in place to optimize your recovery after each training session will provide what the body needs to reenergize, repair and recover, allowing you to feel great and prepared to get the most out of the next training session.

What is important to understand is that recovery is not a passive process. Meaning, sedentary habits post-workout will not lead to optimal results and recovery. When you hear the word recovery, it's not the couch and a cold brew that should come to mind—it's mindful movement and stretching. If you are truly seeking high performance, great aesthetics and longevity, active recovery measures need to be utilized.

The body thrives with movement. Therefore, using active recovery methodologies that promote movement, interstitial fluid circulation, cardiovascular activity and changes in respiratory rate are going to give the body what it needs to recover at its absolute best. During a training session, there is a heightened response of the central nervous system that causes vital metrics such as blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature to increase as other physiological responses (respiratory rate, blood flow, et cetera) also increase central nervous system activity. Consistently taxing the central nervous system without downregulating them back to normal levels after your workout can have adverse effects on the body so it's important to focus on a little TLC on a regular basis.

The four-step recovery strategy outlined below is designed to expedite the recovery process by downregulating the central nervous system, while placing an emphasis on reducing muscle tension, improving mobility, enhancing circulation and increasing flexibility. This sequence is also easily repeatable so you can complete it after every training session to maximize recovery and efficiency.

1. Low-Effort Cardiovascular Work

Completing low-intensity cardiovascular work immediately after your training session is meant to start pushing the body into a state of recovery. Activities such as walking, jogging, biking, swimming and other low-impact exercises are good choices to keep stress off the joints and intensities in the correct range.

Aim for 10 to 15 minutes of your chosen activity and actively focus on bringing your heart rate back down to normal resting activity levels as you cool down. 

2. Foam Rolling and Self-Myofascial Release Techniques

What did we do before foam rollers? The truth is, we dealt with a lot of unnecessary soreness and pain. Applying the use of a foam roller or specific self-myofascial release techniques play an important role in normalizing soft tissue tone. Think of using this tool and these methods as removing the "internal parking break" placed upon the muscles. By placing external pressure on muscle tissue, the receptors in our body are stimulated to release the tension that is restricting better tissue tone and smoother movement. Using a foam roller during the recovery process of your workout helps with circulation, inflammation reduction and alleviating muscle tightness in the needed areas.

While foam rolling, prioritize the large muscle groups starting at the most distal end (farthest from the body's center) of the muscle, and roll slowly toward the most proximal end of the same muscle tissue. By directing the flow of interstitial fluid toward the heart, it will allow for a better opportunity to get put into central circulation to get excreted from the body.

For maximum benefit, spend two to three minutes rolling over each desired muscle tissue in a smooth, controlled manner. Again, make sure to focus on the big muscle groups such as the hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, lats and pecs.<pagebreak>

3. Mobility Sequence

This four-move mobility sequence focuses on the most common areas that need more range of motion amongst the general population: the thoracic spine/cage, hips and anterior chain. Common lifestyle habits including sedentary positions at a desk, texting, computer and tablet work, and a myriad of other anterior dominant habits cause these areas to become limited and "tight." Prioritizing these drills will help create a balance throughout the body for better overall movement and boosting injury prevention.

Mobility Drill Sequence:

1. Hip Flexor Stretch with Thoracic Spine Rotation (2 sets, 5 repetitions): In a half-kneeling position, start with a tall posture and sink your hips forward seeking a stretch in the hip flexors, quadriceps, hips and hamstrings. As you are moving forward, reach forward with both hands and place both hands flat on the floor on the inside of the front foot. With the hand closest to the foot, externally rotate reaching toward the ceiling, keep the opposite hand on the floor. Once the end position is achieved, work backwards to the starting position, and repeat.

2. Quadruped T-Spine Rotation (2 sets, 5 repetitions): In a quadruped position, place one hand on the back of the head. Maintaining a neutral spine, internally rotate the upper body, bringing the bent arm toward the opposite arm, then externally rotate the bent arm towards the ceiling to your maximal range of motion. Remember to exhale as you rotate towards the ceiling. Return to your starting position, and repeat.

3. Foam Roller T-Spine Extension (2 sets, 5 repetitions): Lying on the floor, place a foam roller underneath the mid-back in a comfortable position. Fully extend the legs out, with feet together, and place the hands behind the head. Extend the upper back and head toward the floor, focusing on opening the rib cage and thoracic extension. Exhale as you extend over the roller, and inhale as you return to your starting position.

4. Toe Grab Hip Drill (2 sets, 8 repetitions): Standing with feet about shoulder-width apart, reach down and grab the toes of your shoes. While holding your shoes, sink the hips down between your legs toward the floor, while simultaneously keeping a tall posture until you reach the end position of a deep squat. Once this position is achieved, push the hips back up while keeping hold of your toes achieving a stretch in the posterior chain.

4. Recovery Breathing Practice

Recovery breathing is an excellent method to further work on returning the body to a more complete rested state. Getting the body into a relaxed position and controlling respiratory rate will help lower heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels and muscular tension to help reset the central nervous system and, thus, maximize recovery.

To properly use recovery breathing, find the quietest place possible to complete the following practice:
  1. Lay on your back with your feet elevated above the torso and legs slightly bent. Position the arms on the ground at your sides.
  2. Relax your entire body, relieving any tension or stress in the muscles.
  3. Focus on deep belly breathing using the following breathing tempo for two to five minutes:
    1. Inhale for three to four seconds
    2. Hold at maximal inhale for two seconds
    3. Exhale six to eight seconds (double the amount of inhale time)
    4. Hold maximal exhale for two seconds
Incorporating this four-step recovery strategy into your regular routine will not only maximize your recovery and results, but it will also leave you feeling stronger than when you started. Keep in mind that most gym-goers who experience setbacks such as injury or pain are likely not overtraining, but rather under-recovering. Make recovery work a priority and treat it as an important element of your overall training will streamline your results, improve performance and minimize risk of injury. We'll call that a win-win-win.