Getting bigger and stronger is a pretty simple process conceptually.  You train, you disrupt homeostasis in a variety of ways (metabolically, structurally, neurally, etc.), you recover from training, and you wind up a little more jacked and a little stronger so your body is better equipped to meet the “threat” of training the next time you hit the gym.

Most people focus on the first part of that process – how to train – but don’t pay enough mind to the second part of that process – how to recover.

However, recovery is at least as important as training, and arguably more so.  By recovering more effectively from training:

Your per-session strength and muscle gains will be larger.

You’ll be able to train harder before fatigue sets in since you’ll be fresher when you hit the gym.

You’ll be able to train more often, giving your muscles more opportunities to grow, and your nervous system more opportunities to master the lifts you’re training.

Your injury risk will be lower.

When most people think of recovery, their minds instantly go to supplements or modalities like ice baths or massages.

In some cases, supplements can help a little bit; for new lifters, HMB has proven quite effective at reducing muscle damage and improving recovery times, and creatine and L-carnitine have both been shown to help a bit.  Massages can also help a bit, but they’re too expensive for most people to rely on as a go-to recovery tool.  Ice baths, on the other hand, do make you feel like you’ve recovered fasted, but can actually decrease strength and muscle gains.

However, you have three weapons in your recovery arsenal that are all substantially more effective.

  1. Sleep

Lack of sleep makes it harder for you to both lose fat and gain muscle.

It’s apparent that sleeping for the standard 7-8 hours per night is vastly better than sleeping less than that.  However, there’s actually some data on athletes showing that even more sleep is dramatically better.  Studies on tennis players, basketball players, and unpublished data on swimmers all show dramatic improvements in a relatively short amount of time with extra sleep – aiming for 9-10 hours per night instead of 7 or 8.  Some of the variables studied (like serving accuracy, reaction time, and shooting accuracy) could have just improved because of improved mental performance with more sleep.  However, others, such as sprint times, are pure performance indicators.

Thus far, there haven’t been any studies done on lifters looking at the effects of additional sleep beyond the standard recommendation of 7-8 hours per night, but there’s good reason to believe that not only does insufficient sleep hurt you, but extra sleep – shooting for 9-10 hours per night – will help with recovery and performance in a big way.

Although I recognize that time is tight for most people, getting more sleep is usually a simple matter of managing priorities.  If you generally watch an hour or two of TV per day, you can cut that out to hit the sack sooner, for example.  Sometimes it’s impossible to get more sleep (sorry new parents and grad students), but if you can carve an extra hour or two out of your day to sleep more, that will improve your recovery more than any other single thing you can do.

  1. Nutrition

Eating enough protein and calories is a simple way to make sure you’re recovering well.

Protein needs depend on whether you’re trying to gain, lose, or maintain weight.  If you’re trying to gain or maintain weight, you need about 1.2-2.2g of protein per kg of bodyweight (or .55-1g/lb), and if you’re trying to lose weight, protein needs to go up to 1.8-2.7g/kg of bodyweight (.82-1.23g/lb).  You can read more about that here.

Calorie needs depend on your size, body composition, and activity level.  A few different formulas like the Katch-McArdle and Harris-Benedict formulas can predict your basal metabolic rate, which you can then multiply by an activity factor to get a reasonable idea of your daily calorie needs to maintain weight.  Then, if you’re trying to lose weight, you decrease that number by about 500-1,000 calories per day, and if you’re trying to gain weight, you increase that number by about 250-500 calories per day.

If you want to simplify that process, you can just get my diet spreadsheet that takes all the guesswork out of the process for you.  You just need to log your weight, calorie intake, and activity every day, and it’ll automatically adjust your calorie goal to ensure you gain or lose weight at the rate you want to.

  1. Stress Management

Chronic stress disrupts a lot of your body’s systems, but, most importantly for us, it hinders muscle recovery.

People who are stressed out take (literally) twice as long to recover from training, and don’t gain as much strength as people with lower stress.  You can read more about that in this article, Stress: The Silent Killer of Gains.

Stress management is harder for some people than others.  Some people are just naturally more stressed-out, and that can be compounded by a stressful job or difficult life circumstances.

However, there are a few things everyone can do to help manage their stress levels:

Meditate daily.  The form of meditation you do doesn’t matter too much, but just taking 10-20 minutes of quiet time to clear you mind each day can make a big difference.

Breathe.  If you’re feeling stressed right now, give this a shot.  Close your eyes.  Inhale for 5 seconds through your nose.  Hold that breath for 5 seconds.  Exhale for 5 seconds through your nose.  Repeat that 5-10 times, trying to shut out every thought except for counting the seconds you’re inhaling, holding your breath, and exhaling.  That’s a simple way to bring your stress levels down in just a minute or two.

As much as possible, surround yourself with positive people, and shut out negative people.  Surrounding yourself with positive people is easy.  Shutting out negative people can be difficult sometimes (i.e. if they’re coworkers or people in your family who you really can’t escape), but there are probably at least a few people that make your blood boil that you can interact with less.  Pro-tip:  the “unfollow,” “unfriend,” and “block” buttons on social media are magical.

Read instead of watching TV
Move.  On top of the work you do in the gym, taking 5 minutes when you’re feeling stressed to walk around can work wonders.

You don’t get stronger in the gym
Most people don’t stop to consider this basic fact. At the end of a workout, you’ve accumulated some fatigue and you’re weaker than when you walked into the gym.

You get stronger outside the gym
That should make you look at training from a slightly different perspective.

Rather than looking at training with the perspective of “I’m going to do this because it will make me bigger and stronger,” you should look at training thinking, “I’m sending my body a message, and I would like it to respond to that message by strengthening and growing.”

It may seem like a semantic difference, but it’s an important one, because it helps put the entire training process in perspective.

You see, it’s not the training itself that makes you bigger and stronger. It’s how your body RESPONDS to the training that makes you bigger and stronger.

Your body adapts by responding to what it perceives to be a threat. When you work out, you’re sending your body the message that being forced to lift heavy weights is a “threat” (via stress to your muscles, bones, and connective tissues) that it needs to respond and adapt to.

That’s all well and good when lifting is the only major threat your body perceives. It will generally have no issues adapting to it.

But what happens when you throw more threats at it? And what are these threats? Anything your body perceives as a significant stressor.

When your body is trying to respond to multiple threats at the same time, it doesn’t respond quite as well to any of them. You can think of it as multitasking. If you’re trying to read a book, play a video game, and work on a project for school or work simultaneously, you won’t retain much of what you read, your kill:death ratio will be horrendous, and you’ll certainly do pretty lousy work on your project.

Two of the most important threats that keep your body from responding well to training are lack of sleep and chronic life stress, such as a stressful job, a bad relationship, financial worries, etc.

Without going too much into the nuts and bolts of your body’s stress response, it meets these threats by making sure you have plenty of energy floating around your blood stream, available for use to keep you more alert and to make sure you’d be capable of fighting or running away if the situation called for it (for most of human history, those were the two basic ways we responded to most threats, hence the common term “fight or flight” response).

Ensuring you have enough available energy to meet these stressors is your body’s primary adaptive response. Most importantly for the context of lifting: This is an inherently catabolic (“breaking down tissue”) process.  Your body breaks down stored glycogen and proteins to make sure you have enough available energy to respond to the threat.

That’s bad news for the lifter. Getting bigger and stronger is a fundamentally anabolic (“tissue building”) process.

So when the stress from day-to-day life and lack of sleep tell your body it needs to be in a catabolic state, you’re going to have a hard time carrying out the anabolic process of building muscle.

Training is like having a conversation with your body. You give it the message that it needs to get bigger and stronger via stress on the muscles, bones, and connective tissue. You hope it will respond to that message appropriately. But when stress builds up and you’re not sleeping enough (which is a stressor of its own, which also compounds the effects of whatever chronic stress you’re under), you’re effectively sending your body mixed messages, telling it that it should both tear itself down and build itself up.

The end result is something similar to the multitasking scenario from earlier. It doesn’t do a very good job getting bigger and stronger, and the training stress makes you less able to cope with the stressors of day-to-day life and lack of sleep until eventually your body is so worn down that you completely burn out, often resulting in some sort of sickness or infection; when your body’s ability to respond to threats is overwhelmed, bacteria or viruses that would usually be stopped cold by your immune system are able to multiply enough that you wind up sick with a cold, flu, or respiratory infection.

So remember, when you’re trying to tell your body it needs to get stronger, you need to make sure you’re managing your day-to-day stress, sleeping enough, and getting adequate nutrition. Otherwise you’ll get nowhere.