Reassessing Recovery. Train as a unified whole, rest as a unified whole.
I have recently concluded that the recovery precepts I have lived by, taught and championed for decades are wrong. It was ironic in that I had been considered one of the leaders of the less-is-better school of training. My mentors trained less than their mentors and put gaps between training sessions. I thought we were on the cutting edge of rest and recovery. It turns out our definition of less might not have been less enough.
First, some recovery basics. Effective progressive resistance training is traumatic. The athlete uses the barbell and dumbbells to target a lift or muscle or muscle group. A successful workout stresses the body and the targeted muscles to such a degree that, as a defensive measure, the body builds more muscle in order to cope with the self-inflicted trauma that is hardcore free weight training.
How long does it take for the body to regain hemostasis, how long does it take for the body to normalize? That depends on the severity of the workout, the individual, and your definition of normalize. We know this, if a workout is taken before the body has truly normalized – not partially normalized – results will be subpar. How could they not be? How could a “rested effort” not be superior to a fatigued effort?
Experience teaches that big muscles take longer to normalize than small muscles. It takes longer to recover from handling heavy poundage then light poundage. It takes longer to recover from a set of 5-reps with 405-pounds in the deadlift, fully and completely, than it does to recover from a set of 10-reps in the bicep curl with 100-pounds.
Old school bodybuilders would train every muscle three times a week. This high-volume moderate-intensity approach was based on flawed science. It was erroneously believed that unless a muscle was trained every 36-hours it would degrade, go backwards, any muscle and strength gains made would disappear if a muscle was not continually trained.
Primal powerlifters discovered that they couldn’t cope with benching 500, squatting 600 and deadlifting 700 three times a week. These early power pioneers of the 60s and 70s took the radical step of cutting the overall training volume by 1/3rd. Instead of training a muscle three times a week, they cut back training each muscle (and lift) to twice a week.
In the 1980's elite powerlifters were bench pressing 600, squatting 800 and deadlifting 900. There men cut the training volume another 1/3rd. Now each muscle or muscle group was trained once a week. Hit a lift or exercise one time every seven days and rest for the next six days. By performing a lift once a week, recovery was maximized. Or so we thought and assumed.
The classical powerlifting template lays out as follows…
Day 1 Squat, hamstrings, calves
Day 2 off
Day 3 barbell bench press, flat dumbbell press, incline dumbbell curl, nose-breakers, pushdowns
Day 4 off
Day 5 deadlift, power clean, barbell overhead press, seated overhead dumbbell press
Day 6 off
Day 7 off
While the legs are recovering from the stresses they were subjected to during the Saturday squat session, why not hit a bench press and arms session two days later? Chest and arm work won’t interfere with leg recovery. On Thursday hit a deadlift and overhead press session.
The flaw in our thinking was in failing to consider that the entire body was never allowed true rest. Every few days, some section of the body was being blasted, traumatized, brutalized, in another high intensity training session. If the body is jolted every few days does the lifter ever fully, truly, recover? If the trainee is traumatizing some part of the body every 2-3 days, when is the athlete ever truly rested?
Why is the rested effort so important? Because it is an irrefutable truth that insofar as improving strength and speed, performance can only improve when the athlete is fatigue free. Regardless how good performance is when over-trained, performance would have been better if that same athlete had been fully and completely rested. Who could argue that a truly rested athlete performs better than that same athlete fatigued, to a greater or lesser degree?
My recovery reevaluation occurred with a chance rereading of Charlie Francis’ book Speed Trap. Francis takes the reader along as he undergoes his evolution from elite athlete into elite coach. Starting in the 1970s, he developed personal relationships with top Eastern European and Soviet track and field coaches. Their input completely changed his (then) orthodox approach towards speed and sprinting.
Iron Curtain coaches stressed that all out, 100% sprinting should only be done when “completely rested.” And further, the only way to improve all out top speed was to sprint when totally and completely rested. Any degree of fatigue degrades results. Sprinters of that era (and this era) would mindlessly run “all out” every day. Factually, they were running at 100% of their fatigued best. Running as hard as possible every day ensures a sprinter never runs fully rested.
Francis would cancel one of his elite sprinter’s all out top speed workouts if he detected any hint of fatigue. If he heard uneven footfall as the sprinter walked or warmed up, he’d say “Not today, you need more rest.” When in doubt he would err towards more rest. His sprinters were human thoroughbred racehorses, V-12 Testarosa Ferrari Berlinetta, lightning fast, yet fragile and prone to blowouts when going at 102% of their awesome capacity.
Francis learned how to teach sprinters to go all out safely and consistently. A big part of staying safe when going all out is only going all out when fresh. When an elite athlete runs as fast as humanly possible, when an elite athlete lifts as much as humanly possible, the body is at its most vulnerable. There is inherent danger in doing more than you are currently capable of – however this is how you become capable of doing more than you are capable of.
There is no sense, the Russians reasoned, to run at 102% of 79% (of rested capacity.) To improve top speed the sprinter needs to run at 102% when 100% rested. Put differently, all out running when fatigued cannot improve all out top speed. Regardless if its sprinting or powerlifting, an athlete going all out when fatigued will have a subpar performance and risks injury.
What is the solution? In strength training, a good case can be made for lifting once a week, do all progressive resistance training for the week on the same day in the same session. Then rest everything for a full week. Train the body as a unified whole and then rest the body as a unified whole. This way muscles (and Central Nervous System) are stressed together and then rested together.
How long recovery takes varies person to person and depends on the severity of the workout and the severity of underlying fatigue the athlete brought into the workout. For the sake of regularity, let us assume that back and leg muscles take seven days to recover and chest, shoulder and arm muscles recover in five days. If you kick the hell out of a different section of your body every 2-3 days, when does a full and complete whole-body recovery take place?
What if all strength training takes place once a week? On the same day and time. No strength training of any kind for the next six days. In a single session, perform squats, bench presses, deadlifts and overhead presses. If you have the time and energy, add power cleans and some arm work, biceps and triceps. All on one day, all in one session.
Then take the next six days off from strength training. You can do other athletic conditioning or sport drills – just no strength training for the entire week. What better way to ensure recovery than six full days of complete rest?
Recovery should not be thought of in terms of body parts – recovery should be thought of as a whole-body event – recovery is about the entire body recovering, fully and completely, before engaging in another high intensity training session.
One aspect of the recovery process the Iron Curtain coaches alerted Francis to was that in addition to full and complete muscular recovery, the central nervous system needed to be fresh and rested. The CNS becomes agitated, overexcited and overwrought by mental stress. Extreme physical stress also adversely impacts the CNS.
Muscular recovery and CNS recovery are not synchronized, synonymous or linked to one another. Recovery is multidimensional. There are a myriad of effective protocols, tools, modes and strategies designed to accelerate recovery…massage, steam, sauna, whirlpool, ice bath, nutrition, post-workout replenishment, etc.
Multi-time world powerlifting champion Kirk Karwoski and I coach a bunch of local powerlifter/athletes at a rural location at the base of the Catoctin Mountains. Regular guys from a small town gather every Sunday to squat, bench press and deadlift. This is the only time this group can gather. We do all three lifts on the same day. Most will do some overhead pressing and arm work after the three lifts. Others just do the three lifts and leave. That is it for the week.
The lifters obtain the benefit of Karwoski and my merciless coaching. 90% of our Sunday crew are unable to train during the week for a variety of reasons. These men are firemen, electricians, warehouse and construction workers that have neither the time nor energy to train during the week.
Despite being relegated to training once a week, these men are, to a man, making sensational strength and power gains and concurrent increases in lean muscle mass. The conventional wisdom is, ‘Oh, too bad, if only these guys just had more time to train, they’d really get results!’
These men are, through necessity, blazing a new recovery paradigm.
Is the goal to embark on every strength training session fresh and rested? It should be. These lifetime drug-free men are training once a week are getting dramatic results, week after week, month after month, year after year. We are in our fifth year and many of our lifters have been with us since the beginning and have yet to plateau. Don’t tell us once-a-week training doesn’t work – we have too many flesh-and-blood examples that prove otherwise.
The old saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” These rural trainees, forced by necessity to “only” strength train once a week, are inadvertent recovery pioneers. They might be the new Mothers of Invention. I guess that makes Kirk Frank Zappa.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.