If your client is looking to build muscle faster (naturally, of course), the first thing you’d do is increase their training volume since it’s the key driver to hypertrophy.
What if your client is already struggling to recover between sessions, though? Increasing their training volume isn’t going to help. In fact, doing so could even hurt their performance and, worse still put them at increased risk of injuries.
So, to avoid running into these issues, you’d first need to look at improving your client’s recovery from training.
And while it’s tempting to simply pick a popular recovery strategy for your client (e.g., cold baths), many of the techniques out there are plagued with controversies. Some say they do indeed accelerate recovery, while others insist that they’re entirely useless—or, worse still, hurt long-term strength and muscle gains.
So, how would you ever know which recovery techniques you should have your client do? Not to worry, here are the top five recovery methods scientifically proven to work.
#1: Active Recovery
When your client is dealing with monumental muscle soreness (i.e., DOMs) the day after a particularly intense training session, more exercise is likely the furthest thing from their mind.
But it shouldn’t be.
Activity can help increase blood flow throughout the body—in turn, clearing blood lactate accumulation and “speeding up” the delivery of nutrients (e.g., amino acids) and oxygen to your client’s muscle tissues.
This improves recovery. Of course, that’s not to say that you should have your client run a marathon a day after an intense training session.
Instead, get them to do something called “active recovery.”
This is where your client does some form of exercise that's less intense than their regular workout days.
While the definition of "less intense" may seem ambiguous, in general, an active recovery day should feature a low to moderate intensity activity, no more than 60% to 70% of their maximum effort.
Examples of suitable active recovery activities include:
- Swimming: A low-impact exercise that’s easy on your client’s joints and muscles. A 2010 study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine found that triathletes who followed a HIIT session with recovery in the pool showed better exercise performance the next day.
- Cycling, walking, and jogging: Once again, the underlying rationale of participating in active recovery is improving blood flow—so “gentle” activities like cycling, walking, and jogging are perfect.
According to a 2015 meta-analysis published in Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, a massage can help bring blood flow to the area that’s being worked on.
So, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that massage could speed up your client’s recovery process. More impressively still, this 2018 meta-analysis of 99 studies—comparing the effects of ten different recovery methods, including active recovery and cryotherapy—found massage to be the most effective recovery technique.
Specifically: The meta-analysis showed massage to have the most significant effect on DOMs, perceived fatigue, and various markers of muscle damage at 72+ hours post-training.
But before you recommend massage as a mode of recovery for your client, it’s worth noting that the massage generally took place immediately post-training in the studies. Meaning?
It’s unclear whether a massage the day after training would still have a beneficial effect. So, if you’re strictly basing your recommendations on research, your client would have to schedule a massage appointment right after their training session.
As such, that immediately brings up two foreseeable problems for your client:
- Time: Would your client be able to fit an hour of massage into their schedule—in addition to the one-hour training session they have with you?
- Money: Massages aren’t cheap. Assuming each session sets your client back by $80 (a very low estimate, by the way), they'd have to fork out $960 monthly when training three times a week. Ouch.
What About Massage Guns?
With these concerns looming large in your mind, you may be wondering, “What if I had my client use massage guns instead?” They’re cheap and portable. So, a good alternative for massage, right?
Not really. The truth is that there’s been a dearth of research on the efficacy and safety associated with the use of massage guns.
The risk comes in when your client finds areas that hurt and thinks that means they need to increase the pressure on them—when they may be running over an injury, a bony prominence, or even a vein-artery nerve bundle.
In other words: The massage gun is no match for a skilled massage therapist who’s equipped with the necessary expertise on human anatomy and, thus, can tell the difference between bone, muscle, fascia, and nerve.
Bottom line? If your client doesn’t have the time or money to get massages frequently, direct them toward the four other recovery methods mentioned in this article.
#3: Compression Garments
It’s easy to see how light movement (i.e., active recovery) and massage can help improve your client’s blood flow—and, in turn, speed up their recovery rate. But compression garments? Sounds a lot like marketing nonsense.
But research doesn’t lie.
As it turns out, compression clothing effectively guides blood toward the heart and increases the speed and volume at which it flows.
To understand the “recovery-boosting power” of compression garments, let’s bring back the same 2018 meta-analysis mentioned in the “Massage” section.
Although compression garments didn’t alleviate DOMs or perceived fatigue as effectively as massage, they were essentially tied with active recovery as the second most effective modality for reducing DOMs—and were the third most effective at reducing perceived fatigue.
This finding is supported by another 2017 meta-analysis examining the effects of compression garments on recovery from resistance training and subsequent performance.
You must admit that's impressive, considering all your client needs is to wear a piece of compression clothing, and that'll yield nearly the same results as performing light movement! Talk about a life hack.
That said, there are a few things you need to be mindful of to ensure your client reaps the desired recovery effects from their compression garments:
- Area: Your client should wear the compression garment on the area that needs recovery (i.e., wearing compression socks won't help with soreness in the biceps).
- Fit: The compression garment must fit properly—it shouldn't be so tight that it cuts off your client's blood supply, but it also shouldn't be so loose that you can see air bubbles.
#4: Foam Rolling
And when speaking of affordable and accessible recovery methods … who can forget about foam rolling? It speeds up recovery the same way all the other techniques mentioned in this article do: encouraging blood flow.
There are plenty of studies showcasing foam rolling's ability to boost post-workout recovery rates.
For example, this 2015 study found that foam rolling after a workout can help reduce DOMs and, therefore, improve performance in later workouts. In addition, a recent 2017 study published in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research also found foam rolling to be effective at reducing post-workout soreness.
But there’s a caveat. Unlike the previous recovery methods mentioned (i.e., active recovery, massage, and compression garments), the existing research isn’t convincing enough for you to recommend foam rolling as a standalone recovery method.
In other words: You should have your client use other recovery methods like low-intensity cycling and walking—in addition to foam rolling.
Also, make sure to teach your client the dos and don’ts of foam rolling:
- Do: Apply a low to moderate pressure, which rates between 2 to 5 on a 1–10 pain scale. Using too much force when rolling out an area can increase your client's risk of injury.
- Don’t: Make sure your client doesn’t roll “high-risk” areas, like their ligaments, joints, lower back, and neck. Also, advise them against continuing foam rolling when they experience sudden and sharp pain (which could be a sign of injury).
#5: Cold Water Immersion
Alright, so the last recovery method is a little special. Instead of encouraging blood flow, cold water immersion helps speed up your client’s recovery rate by reducing it instead.
But wait. How would that be beneficial?
Well, that's because all that post-workout muscle soreness can be (primarily) attributed to muscle damage and inflammation.
As such, inducing vasoconstriction—via body cooling—can reduce inflammation, subsequently influencing the nervous system to decrease pain and improve the perception of recovery. And guess what?
Research (once again, the 2018 meta-analysis) shows that cold water immersion does work.
That said, though, you shouldn’t be overly eager about pushing your client to use cold water immersion as a recovery method.
Studies suggest that cold water immersion should only be used as a short-term recovery strategy. When used long-term, cold immersion after training could reduce muscle growth and strength gains by blunting the essential inflammation needed for hypertrophy.
So, cold water immersion may only be a suitable recovery method for your client if they participate in competitions that have multiple events on the same day (e.g., Strongman or CrossFit).
Even then, it should only be used on the day of the competition. Also, note that the following protocol is recommended:
- Set the water temperature to about 10–12°C (50–53.6°F).
- Have your client submerge their body up to the neck.
- Get them to stay in the water for ten minutes.
Recovery Methods Don’t Replace Fundamentals
All these recovery methods are great. But it’s worth emphasizing to your client that they don’t replace the fundamentals of recovery:
- Eating enough calories: Your client’s body needs energy to counter inflammation—and heal all the microscopic tears their muscle tissues have sustained through resistance training. A severe calorie deficit accelerates muscle loss. That means that your client can’t afford to undereat.
- Hitting their daily protein goals: Going beyond calories, your client should also be consuming an appropriate amount of protein daily—in general, anywhere between 1.6 to 2.5 grams of protein per kg of body weight (depending on your client's TDEE). Your client should also distribute their protein intake evenly over three to four meals a day; research suggests that doing so maximizes muscle protein synthesis levels throughout the day.
- Getting quality sleep nightly: The human growth hormone plays a key role in growth, body composition, cell repair, and metabolism (i.e., it can help your client’s body repair and rebuild muscles post-workout); its levels peak during sleep. And that’s why your client needs to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep nightly.
- Staying well-hydrated: Preliminary research suggests that the less hydrated your client is, the worst their DOMs would be. While more research is needed on this front, a plausible explanation for this is that water plays a crucial role in removing the waste products and toxins generated by muscle tissue breakdown. So, the more water your client drinks, the quicker their body clears these waste products—and the faster their recovery.
As a certified personal trainer, you should give your client the freedom to adopt recovery methods they feel work best for them. Often, it’s a combination of the methods mentioned in this article.
While you can’t control the effectiveness of your client’s approach toward recovery, you can evaluate and adjust your programming based on how they perform. If they’re clearly struggling to recover between sessions, don’t hesitate to tweak the workouts to address that.
After all, slower progress is always better than your client getting injured—and having to take time off training.
Article Categories: Fitness, Personal Training, & Exercise Science