Patrick Gilbert PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS
Recovery is one of those things that is often overlooked when it comes to training. Many people always prioritize training hard without scheduling in very necessary recovery sessions. They think the most effective and efficient way to get in shape is to go, go, go. On the contrary, true muscle growth comes after your workout has concluded, during your recovery window. If you don’t allow your body adequate rest and recovery, you will have a much harder time seeing real gains from your training. By giving yourself time to take care of sore or tense muscles, relax your body and switch over to a state of rest, you enhance your body’s ability to recover and to “rebuild”, stronger and more resilient than before.
This recovery series is adapted from Dr. John Rusin and his “Performance Recovery System”. Many of the techniques described in this system are the same, but a few have some slight modifications based on subtle differences in philosophy.
In total, there are 6 distinct phases to this Intelligent Recovery Method. They are:
- Global Foam Rolling
- End-Range Stretching
- Flow-Based Movement Quality
- Rapid CNS Recovery
- Steady-State Recovery Cardio
- Positional Parasympathetic Breathing
I like to employ specific techniques from this entire series over the course of a training week. This helps to pick and choose which areas of the body to target based on what may be sore or feeling tense. In addition to that, ideally, I would perform this entire series on an “off day” near or at the end of the week. This is almost used as your weekly reset, giving your body a chance to recuperate before jumping back in for your first training day of the new week.
I also want to point out that recovery is really only necessary if you are truly taxing your body. If your training does not classify as overly rigorous, or your body does not feel worn out by the end of your training week, try turning up the intensity of your training (intelligently of course!) before deciding that you need this recovery method. But if recovery is that missing link in your training process, let’s dive in and fix that!
1. GLOBAL FOAM ROLLING
While I have highlighted foam rolling in a previous post about How to Perform a Complete Warm-Up, this form of foam rolling for recovery will look different than the techniques used for a warm-up. Instead of “prepping” the muscles for activity, as we are doing during a warm-up, this technique does a better job at modulating muscle tone and creating a better state for recovery. Rather than finding specific trigger points and maintaining pressure for longer periods of time, this technique will employ slow and controlled rolling over the entire muscle belly. Take your foam roll of choice and roll back and forth, slowly and without too much pressure into the muscles. This should not be uncomfortable, as trigger point foam rolling tends to be, but should be relatively relaxing. Feel the tension ease as you roll over the muscle belly repeatedly.
The other difference between this and the foam rolling you do in a warm-up is that we are trying to hit all the major muscle groups that you hit during the course of a week of training. I like to start distally and work my way proximal. In practice, this begins with the calves, then works up to the hamstrings, glutes, quads, pecs then lats. Once you finish with your lats, lie directly on the foam roll and slowly roll your thoracic paraspinals, rotating just slightly to each side to avoid rolling directly on your spine. This will help to relieve tension in your scapular muscles. Hang out on each muscle for about 30-45 seconds per side. This should take no less than 5 minutes, but no more than 10.
2. END-RANGE STRETCHING
This series of stretches will look just like the stretches you perform prior to your lifts during your warm-up. The goal is still to make length gains in the major muscle groups used in your training program. This will also help to limit muscle shortening as a result of heavy loading and stress. Stretching on your recovery day after an intense week of lifts will help to maximize recuperation by limiting adaptive muscle shortening. The longer a muscle sits in a shortened position, the more difficult it becomes to stretch that collagen back to its normal length, or past it. By staying on top of this compensatory muscle shortening, you ensure that your muscles remain at their optimal length. This helps not only with performance in the gym, but also with posture and an overall feeling of relaxation. This allows you to get back to your training the following week with less soreness. Similar to global foam rolling, we are incorporating all the major muscle groups that have been utilized during your training. Again, I like to start distally at the calves and work up from there. Make sure to include the quads/hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, pecs and lats. Here are video links to all of the above stretches:
- Calf Stretch
- Hip Flexor Stretch (link to entire article about this stretch HERE)
- Hamstring Stretch
- Glute Stretch
- Pec Stretch
- Lat Stretch
Stretching on your recovery day after an intense week of lifts will help to maximize recuperation by limiting adaptive muscle shorteningTweet
Hold each stretch for 40 seconds, moving into further range throughout the duration of the stretch. With 6 total muscle groups, this should take about 9 minutes in total to complete.
3. FLOW-BASED MOVEMENT QUALITY
Another fantastic way to help speed up recovery is through paced, consistent gross movements through the entire available range of motion. For these movements, you will want to stick to a steady tempo, but not so fast that your heart rate skyrockets. You want to keep your heart rate within a zone of recovery, between 55-65% of your maximal heart rate. The traditional model for people to calculate their max heart rate is the Karvonen Method (220 – Age = Max HR). However, this tends to overestimate for younger individuals, and underestimate for older people. A slightly more accurate method is to take 70% of your age, then subtract that from 208.1
For example, a 30-year old’s max heart rate would be approximately 187 beats per minute (BPM). 208-(30*0.7)=187. On the other hand, the Karvonen Method would estimate that at 190 BPM. Using the second method, that same 30-year old’s 55-65% recovery heart rate zone would be approximately 103-123 BPM. This is obviously easy to keep track of if you wear any type of fitness watch. If you do not have access to one of these, try to keep this at about a 5-6/10 difficulty in terms of where you feel your heart rate and breathing are.
Maintain continuous, purposeful movements throughout at a pace you can maintain for at least 8 full minutes. You can almost think of this as your “corrective” exercise for your recovery day, but with an emphasis on being active, rather than holding stretches or positions for specific lengths of time.
You will be alternating between two novel flow movements for this recovery exercise. The first will begin by squatting down as low as you can with your arms outstretched in front of you. From there, hold onto one ankle while reaching up overhead with the other arm, rotating away from your other arm. Bring that arm back down and repeat for the other side. Once you have completed both sides, hold both ankles and raise your hips into the air which will extend your knees. Feel a brief stretch in the back of your legs then lower your hips back down until you are in a deep squat position again. Rise from this squat while maintaining control of your ascent, then raise your arms out to each side of your body until they come together overhead. Maintain a neutral posture through your spine, keeping tension in your core so your lower back does not go into extension. Slowly lower your arms back down to your sides to finish the first movement.
Next, you will move into the second movement. You may recognize parts of this from the (Modified) World’s Greatest Stretch. Begin by reaching one leg back and into a deep lunge. Reach that same elbow down toward your ankle while keeping your back leg straight and your glute engaged. Bring your other arm out and up toward the ceiling, then do the same for the other arm. Once you have completed this with each arm, place one hand on each side of your front leg and raise your hips into the air, extending both knees so you get a stretch down the back of your front leg. At the same time, keep your rear foot heel in contact with the floor so you feel a brief stretch in your rear calf. With your hands still on either side of your front foot, bring that front foot back in line with your rear foot so you are in a high plank or push up position and slowly lower yourself to the bottom of a push up position. While keeping your hips on the ground, extend your elbows so that your shoulders raise up and your back extends. Hold this for a second or so, then lower yourself back down. Now, complete the upward part of a push up, then think about utilizing the muscles of your shoulder blades to push your body away from your hands and elevate your hips into a yoga position called a “downward dog”. Return to the top of a push up position, again using your scapular muscles, then complete that exact same pattern on your other side, minus the push up/downward dog at the end. Once you have completed both sides, rise back to a standing position and raise your arms out in front of you and up overhead. On this one, I want you to reach up behind your head, forcing your spine to extend. Control this extension with your core. Return your hands to your sides to complete your first rep. (This very lengthy description may sound confusing, but the video should set you straight.)
Complete this pattern continuously for 8-10 minutes. As stated earlier, focus on keeping your heart rate in that 55-65% zone, or between a 5-6/10 difficulty.
4. RAPID CNS RECOVERY
In this next phase, we will be utilizing brief but explosive movements to fire up the CNS. However, instead of performing this to add stimulus to the system to prepare the CNS for intense lifting, we are replenishing the system with neurotransmitters that were depleted as a result of the workouts. The most important factors in making this a recovery tool is to complete exercises exclusively with concentric movements, keeping volume very low and recovering fully between sets. Once fatigue sets in, whether it is due to eccentric stress or with higher volume, you will begin to lose out on the benefits of this recovery method.
I like to utilize medicine ball tosses or slams in pairs for this recovery phase. For example, grab a relatively light medicine ball and get into an athletic stance. Bring the med ball directly overhead then slam it down to the ground. Catch and bring it back overhead for one more slam. Complete two reps total then rest. The goal is to perform only the concentric portion of this movement, so try to aim for a medicine ball that will return to where you throw it from without a significant rebound that you will need to eccentrically control.
Once you finish the two reps, you should rest until your breathing and heart rate have returned to a near-resting level (ideally, down below 55% of your max heart rate). During your rest periods, really try to focus on your breathing to bring your heart rate down as quickly as you can. The goal is to be able to complete these pairs of explosive movements at the top of every minute, but this will depend entirely on your ability to recover between sets. Complete these for 8-10 minutes before moving on to the next phase.
5. STEADY-STATE RECOVERY CARDIO
“So you’re saying that something as simple as going for a walk will help with my recovery?” Yes, yes I am. While this may not seem like a recovery modality, it can be very effective if done properly. You want an activity that will keep your heart rate at a consistent level. Here, we are shooting for close to what we discussed for the flow-based movement quality – around 55-65% of your heart rate max. Improving your base of steady-state cardio will help you to be a more effective lifter, as you will be able to recover more quickly between sets. This cardio work should not be very taxing on your cardiovascular system or your joints. You should choose an activity that limits impact on your joints, such as walking, biking or the elliptical. Walking is preferred, as your arms are allowed to swing reciprocally of your legs.
This is far from the intense lifting or interval training you may be accustomed to. For this portion of the Intelligent Recovery Method, complete 10 minutes of walking, biking or elliptical(ing?) at a brisk pace. If on a treadmill or walking outside, try to complete this on a slight incline. If riding a bike or using an elliptical, increase resistance, but not too high. Find a speed and incline that allows you to achieve 55-65% of your max heart rate and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. You should be able to maintain a conversation while completing this phase of the recovery series. Don’t check your phone while completing this exercise, as you want your arms to swing reciprocally to allow the body to relax. Another tip is to listen to some peaceful music or other sounds to help your overall mindset switch over to a calmer presence for another simple way to help with recovery. Perform this for 10 minutes before moving onto the final phase of the Intelligent Recovery Method.
6. POSITIONAL PARASYMPATHETIC BREATHING
Out of all the techniques described in this recovery series, this one may be my favorite. It utilizes a combination of gravity to aid with “flushing” of your legs, breathing to modulate your sympathetic response and meditation to calm the mind and body. In addition to using this during a recovery day, I personally use this after every single workout I complete. I find that it does a fantastic job of switching over from a “fight or flight” sympathetic state to a “rest and digest” parasympathetic state. While in a sympathetic response, your body is continuously stressed and has a very limited ability to recover. Switching your CNS into a parasympathetic state allows your body to recover exponentially better than being in this stressed state. It allows for a much clearer mindset coming out of a workout, rather than feeling worn down or wired.
To complete this final phase of recovery, lie flat on your back, with your legs resting on a bench, plyo box or any other stable object that will place your hips and knees in a 90-90 position. It is ideal if you can find a quiet, relatively dark environment to complete this. If you cannot manage to find a place like that, simply place a towel over your eyes and cover your head, leaving your nose and mouth exposed to allow unrestricted breathing. From here focus your attention fully on your breath.
- Breath in for 4 seconds
- Hold that inhalation for 2 seconds
- Breath out through pursed lips for 6-8 seconds
- Hold that exhalation for 2 seconds
Your inhalations should mainly bring breath into your belly, limiting expansion of your chest and upper ribcage. Your exhalations should focus on releasing that air and pushing out through your belly. Once you find yourself in a good rhythm, allow your focus to drift away from your breath and throughout your body. Really take the time to sense how your body is feeling, beginning at the top of your head and working systematically down to your toes.
5 minutes is recommended, but feel free to stay longer if you would like. Once you are done, rise slowly, as you may feel some lightheadedness as a result of switching over your CNS from sympathetic to parasympathetic. Upon completion, you should notice a significantly calmer mind and a peaceful feeling.
So there you have it. The 6 phases of the Intelligent Recovery Method to help keep you feeling your best while completing heavy bouts of training. This entire sequence should take no longer than 55 minutes to perform. You can probably get it done in around 45 if you keep moving, but you should not try to rush through any parts of this recovery series. This method is best used in its entirety about once per week. There are also huge benefits to utilizing specific portions of this to suit your individual needs throughout your training week. Try it out – I guarantee you will feel a difference in how your body feels in response to training.
- Tanaka H, Monahan KD, Seals DR. Age-predicted maximal heart rate revisited. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2001 Jan;37(1):153-156.
About the Author – Patrick Gilbert PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS
Patrick is a physical therapist, athletic trainer and personal trainer. He runs Summit Performance and Therapy in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has been training clients of all backgrounds for years and has been a practicing physical therapist since 2016. His training philosophy combines his knowledge of rehabilitation as well as strength and conditioning in order to train clients to achieve great results and avoid injuries in the process. His physical therapy practice focuses on a three-dimensional view and treatment of the body and its many parts. Treatment emphasizes manual techniques and rehabilitative exercises to get patients back to previous activity levels without pain or dysfunction.
For more information about training or rehabilitating with Patrick, contact him at SummitPerformancePT@gmail.com or visit SummitPerformancePT.com