Practical tools to measure recovery
By: Dr. Payton Busker, PT, DPT
Recovery is 50% of the equation for muscle hypertrophy and performance improvements within your workouts.
But how do we know if we are properly recovered?
This week’s blog post will serve as a written guide for why recovery matters, what factors expedite or hinder your recovery, how to objectively measure if you are recovered, and what to do with the results of these measures. For the listeners of Dr. Shannon’s Fit Body, Happy Joints, this information will be familiar. Check out Dr. Shannon’s episode on this topic here if you prefer to listen. For those interested in a visual guide, join me below!
Why recovery matters:
Exercise is a catabolic process.
This means that exercise breaks down muscle tissue leading to temporary damage and weakness. This is a NORMAL process and a key factor in muscle hypertrophy. However, we run into trouble when we layer breakdown on top of breakdown (read: overuse).
Overuse can occur when we exercise a muscle or muscle group that has not had adequate time to recover.
When systemic or specific muscle overuse occurs, there is shown to be increased tissue inflammation, especially within our joints. With this inflammation comes an increased risk of injury due to decreased joint proprioception. Layman’s terms: our brains have an impaired ability to sense where a particular joint is in space. This often leads to a protective decrease in mobility and muscular contractility.
Proper recovery ensures that we are not overusing our bodies.
What factors expedite or hinder your recovery:
The following factors can work to improve or deter your rate of recovery:
- Stress/stress management
- Exercise programing
- Specificity/intensity of muscle loading
Let’s briefly break down factors 2 through 6.
Most of us logically know that improved quality and duration of sleep is an important tool for optimal recovery. Implementing healthy sleep habits is a different story. Adequate sleep is specifically essential for recovery due to the release of human growth hormone (HGH) while we sleep. HGH is one of the key hormones responsible for repairing damaged tissue.
We will all have various stressors throughout our lives. However, certain levels of external stressors can exacerbate the physiological stress we experience with normal exercise. Increased emotional and/or physical stress can lead to a decreased capacity to heal and recover. When our stress threshold is exceeded, the body’s number one priority becomes survival, not muscle growth. We highly recommend integrating stress management practices into your daily routine (gentle yoga flows, meditation, breath work) to combat this potential issue.
Proper, balanced nutrition is essential for recovery. Evlo members should refer to our nutrition modules formulated by Functional Registered Dietitian Katherine Andrew.
If you are unable to improve your sleep, stress levels, or nutrition at this stage in your life, consider decreasing the frequency and/or intensity of your workouts.
Exercise programming: This is our bread and butter here at Evlo! We intentionally program each week of classes as to avoid overuse and aid in appropriate recovery. Therefore, muscle groups are never worked two days in a row, regardless of which schedule you are following! We recommend at least one day of recovery before working a muscle group again. This can vary greatly based on intensity/specificity of muscle loading.
Specificity/intensity of muscle loading: The more specific and exhaustive the load is to a particular muscle group, the longer you may need to recover before exercising this same muscle group. Although we recommend at least one day of recovery, you could need up to a week before working a muscle group again if the work to the group was highly specific and intense.
There is no one size fits all to recovery.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Are my joints constantly cranky?
- Do I feel like I’m getting stronger?
- Do I feel systemically exhausted all of the time?
Your individual answers combined with the following objective measures can serve as tools to track your recovery.
How to objectively measure if you are recovered:
Subjective measurements of recovery should not be undervalued. However, it is important to have objective measures with which to measure if we are properly recovering. Grip strength and the CO2 tolerance test are both valuable tools we can utilize to track our recovery.
What is it? Grip strength is how hard you can contract your hand muscles to squeeze something.
Why does it matter? Assessing grip strength can provide valuable insight. It measures the ability for your brain to connect to your muscles and to generate force. When your system is not recovered, muscle activation can be reduced across the board.
What to do:
- Test your grip strength in the morning. Choose a morning where you are feeling really good or have had a few recovery days. For Evlo members, this is often Monday morning!
- Use a hand-held dynamometer for a specific measurement, grab a scale, or subjectively rate how intensely you can squeeze a ball.
- Record this measurement.
- Perform these same steps again on a subsequent day to determine your readiness for exercise.
Results: Steep drops in grip strength throughout your week could mean that you are not recovering between your workouts.
CO2 Tolerance Test
What is it? The CO2 tolerance test measures your capacity to engage your parasympathetic nervous system via mechanical control of your diaphragm.
Why does it matter? The parasympathetic portion of the nervous system is responsible for our rest, digest, and recovery functions. It is essential to have the ability to activate this system on demand.
What to do:
- Inhale and exhale as deeply as you can X 4 rounds.
- On the 5th inhale, breathe in as much air as you can.
- Start a timer.
- Release air as slowly as you can.
- Once no air remains, stop your timer.
<25 sec: may not be recovered
30-60 sec: probably recovered
65-120 sec: completely recovered
What to do with the results of these measures:
If you find that your grip strength significantly decreases throughout your week of testing or that you fall into the <25 sec category for the CO2 tolerance test, you may need to tweak your exercise program or lifestyle factors. We recommend starting with one tweak as opposed to trying to change everything at once!! For example, try getting to bed an hour earlier each night for a couple weeks. Notice if this has an impact on your measurements and/or subjective feelings of recovery.
Again, there is no one size fits all to recovery.
If smaller tweaks do not aid in your ability to recover, it may be time for a reset week. Check out this episode of Fit Body, Happy Joints for more information!
Ultimately, your own immune system is the best recovery tool that you have.
Let’s give it the space to do its job.
Fit Body, Happy Joints Recovery Episode: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/how-to-measure-if-youre-recovering-properly/id1561242280?i=1000544389864
Huberman Lab Recovery Episode: https://podcastnotes.org/huberman-lab/episode-22-science-tools-for-muscle-growth-increasing-strength-muscular-recovery-huberman-lab/
Video guidance by Casey Lance (Exclusive Evlo Member access): https://www.evlofitness.com/educational-webinars/videos/img-1449