The vast amount of workout advice buzz around the gym and internet can make it difficult to create and follow a consistent fitness plan. As importantly, with an onslaught of tips on lifting form, interval training, reps, sets and more, what to do after the workout often falls to the wayside. Many ignore the importance of nutrition and rest in the quest for more intense workouts and increased distance and strength. However, exercise scientists agree that without proper post-workout recovery, you could truly be wasting your time in the gym.
Personal trainer Shannon Clark sheds light on this claim in the article, "8 Ways to Maximize your Post-Workout Recovery" on the Bodybuilding website. Your intense squat workout may have been tough, and you may have worked your abs harder than ever, but you won't build an ounce of muscle if you do not refuel with proper nutrition and rest, says Clark. You may push your body to its limit, never see the results you expect and even do more damage than good.
Here's how the experts recommend you harness your fitness potential and make your post-workout habits work for you, not against you.
Moderate your workout intensity, says BPI Sports co-founder and fitness enthusiast James Grage, who advocates pushing the body to its limits to perform better than the previous workout but not completely destroying it. If you destroy your muscles and are sore for days, you will prevent optimal performance and motivation in subsequent workouts. He says, "If you constantly obliterate your body to complete and utter exhaustion with every workout, this damage accumulates over time and your body will revert its energy to repairing the downstream effects of the damage rather than building new muscle." To put it simply, work hard, but not too hard.
Then, after you've given it your all at the gym or on the trail, focus on nutrition. Your body will practically be crying out for rejuvenating fuel to rebuild torn muscles and spent glycogen stores after a workout, says author, so-called lifehacker, and fitness buff Timothy Ferriss in his 2010 best-selling book, "The 4-Hour Body." Answering this call with focused nutrition will assimilate the effort you have exerted in the gym toward better performance. He suggests ample post-workout protein consumption along with healthy fats, electrolytes -- such as bananas for their potassium -- and substantial rehydration.
The aisles of groceries and specialty nutrition stores are lined with dozens of protein powders that promise a quick infusion of rebuilding nutrients. But Consumer Reports Magazine says let the buyer beware. In a 2010 analysis of 15 popular protein powders, the magazine reported that a few of them exceeded the limits of arsenic, cadmium, mercury and lead proposed by the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention. Either buy natural, high-quality protein supplements or follow Ferriss' recommendation and eat a whole-foods meal of lean meat, eggs and plant-based protein sources, such as beans and quinoa, after your workout.
Most fitness proponents would say getting in tip-top shape requires a diet of 80 percent clean, 20 percent indulgence. But the percentage of diet and exercise is important, too. Celebrity actor and wellness enthusiast Matt Bomer, best known for his roles in "White Collar" and "Magic Mike," told Men's Fitness magazine that he maintains his physique, health and energy levels by focusing 80 percent on diet and only 20 percent on exercise.
In addition to effective intensity and focused nutrition, Shannon Clark encourages her clients to strive for lifestyle balance -- specifically balancing intense workouts with active hobbies, and getting enough sleep to meet your daily needs.
Many athletes and gymgoers become so dedicated to a certain skill, sport or physique improvement, says Clark, that gym time overpowers recreational activities. She recommends a healthy balance of fitness and fun, such as tossing a Frisbee, playing tennis or riding your bike. These opportunities, called active rest, not only help to loosen up tight muscles but also serve as mental replenishment that can put a healthy perspective on hyper-focused goal-based workouts.
Jonathon Scott of the University of Hull's Department of Sport, Health and Exercise Science reported on the importance of sleep in physiology and behavior in the article "Effects of sleep deprivation and exercise on cognitive, motor performance and mood." According to Scott and his team, insufficient sleep negatively impacted the vigor, mood and reaction time of the study participants, and increased the likelihood of accidents.
Whether eight hours is the right amount, or some other sleep-wake cycle works better for you, Ferriss claims that the most restful sleep durations fall within 90-minute intervals in order to line up with natural rapid-eye-movement cycles. For example, if you can't get eight hours one night, shoot for either six or seven and a half -- durations divisible by 90 minutes. Even with less total sleep, says Ferriss, waking up at the end of a sleep cycle can be more restful than waking up mid-REM. Just as with exact nutrition components and amount and frequency of exercise, it's worth experimenting to see whether this is helpful.
Likewise, while you're learning how to optimize both your workout and post-workout regimen, be willing to modify what you're doing as you go forward to keep your activities and attitude fresh and effective. Whatever you do, the experts agree: Combine restful sleep with invigorating workouts and balanced nutrition to see your fitness results reach new levels.