As a powerlifting coach, the most important part of any lifters’ training program is how they manage their recovery. This is because their training program demands a high amount of effort and load compared with the average person.
There are significant risks if you don’t focus on proper recovery, which includes: having an inability to maximize your training effort, hitting plateaus in strength, feeling psychological burnout, and increasing the chance of injury.
So, how do you recover from hard training? Here are 9 ways:
Strategically plan when you max out
Listen to your body and modify the training program
Do an audit on your technique
Have a proper warm-up routine
Plan a de-load phase of training
Have a proper sleep routine
Ensure you’re eating enough high-quality food at the right times
Engage in low-stress activities outside of the gym
Seek physio, chiro, or massage on an as-needed basis
Regardless if you’re a powerlifter or not, the recovery tools and practices discussed in this article will help you train more effectively.
1. Strategically plan when you max out
While the goal of powerlifting is to increase your 1 rep max on the squat, bench press, and deadlift, this doesn’t mean that every workout you should be maxing out and testing your strength.
If your training program comprised of maxing out every session for every exercise, you might see some progress in the immediate short-term (1-3 weeks), but beyond that, you would begin to plateau your strength and feel overtrained.
How often you max out will depend on your training age.
Beginner powerlifters who have less than two years of strength training experience can actually max out their lifts more frequently than more advanced powerlifters who are closer to their biological potential.
This is because their nervous system (the brain) is just learning how to activate muscle fibers efficiently and quickly when you’re just starting out. But once these neural efficiencies are well-adapted, increases in strength will begin to slow.
Therefore, here are my recommendations on how frequently you should max out:
For beginner powerlifters, I would plan to max out every 2-4 weeks. Your rate of adaptation will be much quicker and so every time you max out you should see 5-20lbs increases.
For intermediate or advanced powerlifters, I would plan to max out every 12-24 weeks. At this level, your rate of adaptation slows and you will only make 5-20lb increases in strength every couple of months. In between your ‘max out sessions’, you’ll need to lift a lot more volume (# of overall sets/reps) than you previously did when you were a beginner.
Takeaway: if you max out too often based on your training age then you might risk not feeling recovered in the short term.
2. Listen to your body & modify the training program
I have a saying: “You’ll never regret modifying the workout based on how your body feels…But, you’ll always regret pushing beyond what your body is capable of doing when it doesn’t feel quite right”
The risk of continuously pushing yourself when you’re under-recovered is burnout or injury.
You might be able to push yourself beyond your recovery 9-out-of-10 times, but the one time you can’t, it might set you back several months because of injury, which would slow your progress immensely.
Therefore, all powerlifters should have a keen awareness of how their body feels at any given time in their training cycle.
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When your body starts to feel beat up, sore, achy or even slightly injured, you should act quickly to modify the training program.
How should you modify?
The first modification I would make is adjusting your intensity by 5% less than the original weight prescribed. The next modification would be reducing the overall number of sets prescribed.
These slight modifications to your workout will allow you to train harder the next time you walk into the gym.
Takeaway: By adapting the program to how your body feels during the workout, you are regulating the training process based on your current levels of recovery.
3. Do an audit on your technique
Your lifting technique can play an important role in recovery because having efficient technique will allow you to train longer and harder before your tissue and joint integrity is compromised.
Proper technique is an important variable in how much workload you can handle over a given timeframe.
The more efficient your technique, the higher levels of volume and intensity you can handle compared with someone with less than optimal technique. When you have sound technique you can distribute the tension and workload to all of the muscle groups efficiently and expend the least amount of effort to do so.
In other words, by improving your technique, you increase your ability to handle more training stress. This results in feeling more recovered over a longer period of time versus someone with less than optimal form.
Takeaway: Continuously strive for better technique in order to train harder and recover faster.
Related Article: How To Deload For Bodybuilding
4. Have a proper warm-up routine
The goal of a proper warm-up is to help your muscles become primed for the main part of the workout and reduce any stiffness and soreness from prior training sessions.
According to PowerliftingTechnique.com, a warm-up should include 5 elements:
A general warm-up: light cardiovascular exercise
Perform either skipping, stationary bike, or walking on an incline for 5-minutes to break a light sweat.
Mobility: targeted exercises to increase range of motion and improve blood flow
Perform self-massage techniques using foam rolling to the major muscles that will be worked that day. Simply find a muscle that’s sore, apply pressure, and continue to roll out other areas.
Dynamic stretching: exercises that lengthen the muscle and improves function
Perform leg and arm swings by moving them through a range of motion 15-20 times.
Muscle activation: exercises that prime the stabilizing muscles that have a role in supporting the prime movers
If you’re squatting or deadlifting, you’ll want to warm-up stabilizing muscles in your core and glutes. If you’re benching, you’ll want to warm-up stabilizing muscles in your shoulders and upper back.
Barbell warm-up: using the main barbell exercise (i.e. the squat, bench press, or deadlift) to warm-up the prime movers and nervous system.
Always start with the barbell for several reps, then slowly build up your weights over 2-5 warm-up sets before getting to your primary load for the day. The number of barbell warm-ups you do will ultimately depend on how heavy you’re lifting.
Takeaway: An effective warm-up routine will allow you to keep your body healthy long-term, which will aid in your overall recovery.
5. Plan a de-load phase of training
A deload is a phase of training lasting 1-2 weeks where you plan to reduce certain training variables (sets, reps, and/or load) in order to get additional recovery.
The goal of a deload is to maintain your levels of strength/fitness and offset any fatigue from any prior training phase.
A de-load phase typically follows a period of hard training where you might have challenged yourself beyond what you could normally handle. For example, you might train exceptionally hard for 3-6 weeks by pushing your recovery and doing more work in the gym than ever before. However, you know that this intense phase of training will be followed by a deload, which will offset any fatigue built up from training beyond your capacities.
Even if you didn’t plan for a deload in your training calendar, you can take a deload at any time if you’re feeling rundown, burnt-out, overly sore, or your numbers are regressing in the gym. These are all signs that your powerlifting recovery is not as effective, and a deload is warranted.
A typical deload protocol is sticking with the same exercises and number of reps that you did in your previous week of training, but reducing the number of sets by 50% (i.e. instead of 4 sets do 2 sets), and reduce the intensity by 5% (instead of lifting 80% lift 75%). This should allow you to maintain your strength while giving you the recovery needed.
Takeaway: Plan a deload after a challenging phase of training, or take a deload anytime you experience signs of excessive fatigue.
6. Have a proper sleep routine
Maintaining an effective sleeping routine is critical to your powerlifting recovery.
You shouldn’t stress out if you have one ‘bad night’ of sleep. However, consecutive nights of sleep restriction, starting on the second night of sleep deprivation, has shown to reduce the force output of multi-joint exercises by a significant amount.
So what should you do if you’ve had multiple nights in a row where you’ve suffered a lack of sleep?
The best practice would be to modify your training, but not skip it altogether, unless you’re showing other signs of fatigue, such as a lowered immune system, burn-out, or injury. In terms of modifying your training, you should focus on isolation movements versus heavy compounded exercises.
A study by Reilly and Piercy (1994), found no strength loss for isolation exercises, such as the bicep curl. What this means is that if you are feeling undercovered from multiple nights of sleep deprivation, you should do isolation exercises and leave your powerlifting movements for another day.
Most experts agree that you should aim to get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night. However, very active individuals, such as athletes, are recommended to get 1 hour additional over and above the normal requirements. Basketball players at Stanford University participated in a ‘sleep extension’ study where they were told to sleep a minimum of 10 hours per night. The result was that their speed increased by 5% and their free throws were 9% more accurate.
Takeaway: Without getting enough sleep, your performance can degrade. However, a consistent sleep schedule can lead to better recovery and enhanced performance in the gym.
7. Ensure you’re eating enough high-quality food at the right times
To recover adequately in between workouts, you need to ensure proper nutrient intake and timing.
In the gym, you apply stress to your muscles. The muscle fibers then become damaged and break down. In order to repair and replace damaged muscle fibers, your body goes through a cellular process called muscle protein synthesis. This process is facilitated by the nutrition you consume (i.e. protein, carbs, and fats).
You should aim to eat no less than 2.4g of protein per kg of bodyweight and 4-6g of carbs per kg of bodyweight each day. You should aim to eat a carb-dense meal pre-workout and a protein-dense meal post workout.
If you are consistently eating less than these targets you will start to feel a lack of energy in the gym, and your muscles may not repair properly between workouts.
Takeaway: Prioritize your nutritional intake to recover from your powerlifting workouts.
8. Engage in low-stress activities outside of the gym
Fatigue can be accumulated from any kind of stressor. Therefore, you need to view your recovery within the context of how much stress you’re experiencing throughout the entire course of the day (not just the 1-2 hours you spend in the gym).
If you have a stressful day at school or work, or are experiencing any psychological stress, this can lead to feelings of being under-recovered despite your workouts being relatively normal.
This is why it’s important to structure periods of time where you are engaged in light, fun, and relaxing activities that have a low stress index. This could be hanging out with friends, taking a walk, taking a bath, or watching Netflix.
Takeaway: Schedule low stress activities throughout the week, and be just as intentional with how you choose to spend your leisure time as your training time.
9. Seek physio, chiro, or massage on an as-needed basis
One of the main signs that you’re feeling under-recovered is feeling small aches and pains. Sometimes these aches and pains are a normal part of heavy training. However, if you’re experiencing a ‘new type’ of pain that you haven’t had before, or if the pain gets more severe, you should not ignore these symptoms and seek a professional.
Finding a physio and chiro that understands your goals in the gym and want to see you return to normal functioning as soon as possible is important. Don’t get caught in the trap of self-diagnosing your aches and pains. Once you see a professional, they’ll be able to tell you exactly what’s wrong, how to fix it, and the timeline to recovery.
I’ve also found physios and chiros to be helpful in reassuring that the aches and pains you’re experiencing are not serious. Knowing that your aches and pains aren’t detrimental to your overall health can be a big mental relief. This is because you don’t have to worry about hurting yourself even more if you continue to push hard in the gym.
Takeaways: Use physios and chiros to take care of your aches and pains.
The most important part of seeing progress in the gym long-term is recognizing signs of fatigue and ensuring you’re implementing the best practices to recover maximally. A combination of strategies discussed above should be used in order to continue getting stronger without the risk of burnout, overtraining, or injury.
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About The Author
Avi Silverberg has a Master’s of Science from the University of Victoria where he researched strength training and exercise science. As an athlete, he fell in love with powerlifting, where his highest achievement was competing at three World Bench Press Championships and winning a bronze medal in 2010. Since 2012, he has been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting where he took the team from placing 30th in the World to top 3. In addition to writing for Fitbod, he writes about powerlifting technique and best practices on his own blog, powerliftingtechnique.com.
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Fradkin, A. Gabbe, B., Cameron, P. 2006. Does Warming Up Prevent Injury in Sport? The Evidence From Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Science and Medicine In Sport, 9(3): 214-220.
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