Serious athletes should always have purpose, a sense which should also extend to training, competition, and recovery. Objectifying training and competition is often easy, but quantifying recovery not so much. After all, recovery is a broad topic and encompasses everything from sleep to nutrition. Perhaps the intention was to remain deliberately vague as an admission that there is a great deal of uncertainty as to what is best. Rejuvenation, like the training process itself, is not one size fits all: What works for one may not work for another.
What to do, when to do it (or when NOT to do it), and how long to do it for are all debatable. However, the necessity for quality restoration strategies is clear. Unfortunately, current strategies seem to be confined to a tiny box of foam rolling, band work, random circuits, or tempo work. Some more progressive, creative strategies that are becoming increasingly popular include pool workouts, training on sand, and various compression strategies. All such strategies are great and have their time and place.What makes this method unique is the fact you can develop multiple attributes that are extremely relevant to all athletes while remaining within the bounds of recovery, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
The purpose of this article is to propose yet another strategy—a more-assertive approach that employs higher-intensity, lower-volume efforts to induce blood flow and fire up the nervous system. By combining less stressful barbell lifts with lower-impact dynamic efforts, as well as light localized repetitive efforts, a potent neural rush and pump can quickly be achieved. This strategy may not be for everyone and it is merely a new perspective on an old narrative. What makes this method unique is the fact you can develop multiple attributes that are extremely relevant to all athletes while remaining within the bounds of recovery. You can still tastefully develop mobility, strength, and power, even on an off day.
Blood Flow Is the Canary in the Coal Mine
Good recovery beginning and ending with blood flow was popular a few decades ago. Blood flow is an athlete’s best friend in the rejuvenation process, delivering nutrients and the necessary recovery agents to the ailing muscles to begin rebuilding while concurrently removing by-products and metabolites. The problem is the magnitude and rate of change, along with the context of the situation. For example, look at the active recovery post on SimpliFaster showing how we need to take easy sessions with a grain of salt.
In theory, anything that promotes blood flow could constitute a restoration method. Too often though, athletes do not do enough to stimulate the necessary blood flow to jump-start the recovery process. Choosing to be too passive dulls the nervous system as well. The circuitry that is responsible for the delicate inter- and intramuscular dynamics required for sport is incredibly sensitive and one day of doing too little can disrupt progress. The art is knowing how to keep training levels up without resorting to just resting or doing silly babysitting-type workouts.
Lightly exercising as a means to recover has been shown to be beneficial to both the mind and body. The exercise and psychology evidence concludes that maintaining high levels of physical activity is significant for reducing the likelihood of depression, elevating mood, and minimizing stress among former athletes. Athletes are creatures of habit and typically prefer structure. A day or two devoid of structure can be disruptive to an athlete’s very delicate equilibrium. Even the perception of remaining on task can be invigorating to an athlete’s psyche.
Pain science researchers distinguish between therapeutic exercise and pain-inducing exercise, contending that overly fatiguing exercise appears to be the critical threshold. Good training has to drive adaptation and sometimes must be uncomfortable. Good recovery should be just the opposite and leave an athlete feeling better than when they began. Less will always be more for rejuvenation purposes.Good training has to drive adaptation & sometimes must be uncomfortable. Good recovery should be just the opposite & leave an athlete feeling better than when they began, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Team camaraderie is also a subtle by-product of organized recovery work. Being held accountable on days that are still important but perhaps less significant breeds a culture of high accountability and highlights attention to fine detail. It is often this attention to minutiae that separates good from great and great from legendary. It’s easy to be emotionally invested on game day, but a true measure of the character of an athlete is what they do when nobody is watching.
Not doing enough to take ownership of this process will typically leave an athlete sore and very lethargic the next time they choose to turn the engine on. With that said, it is extremely important to ensure there is the necessary contrast between high stress training or competition and lower stress recovery. “Middling” this approach can cause an athlete to fall into a perpetual rut of expending too much energy during recovery to make progress during more demanding training sessions.
There truly is an art to doing just enough but not too much. Utilizing relatively high intensity efforts with extraordinarily low volume is great for keeping the nervous system engaged while still recovering. A more assertive approach to recovery not only keeps the athlete in a constant state of readiness, but also provides greater purpose to the entire process by allowing for the establishment of goals.
Realistic Ways to Manage Strength Training Stress
Hand-selecting and showcasing barbell exercises that are less demanding by nature serves as the foundation to this approach. Heavy deadlifts and back squats impose the most stress from a strength perspective, so deliberately choosing barbell exercises like a front squat or overhead squat is great to deliberately minimize the stress imposed. For instance, the average ball court athlete typically can front squat about 75% of what they can back squat and can overhead squat much less than that. This fact allows an athlete to be relatively aggressive at these specific movements while not being overly demanding systemically.
These two movements are also unique because of the positioning required and the resulting mobility that athletes can develop by using them frequently. The front squat requires a greater vertical posture of the spine and ultimately requires more hip, knee, and ankle mobility than a back squat. Also, the value the front rack position provides in mobilizing the elbows and shoulders is often never discussed.
A proper front rack position with full grip (not just a few fingers) requires tremendous coordination of the wrist, elbow, and shoulder, not to mention the added abdominal and upper back activity for the functional bracing of the spine. For a ball court athlete, the runs and jumps primarily rely on the hip musculature. This may not seem that important, but I have always contended that the added upper body mobility increases the likelihood an athlete can stay healthy when being jostled in contact scenarios or upon landing awkwardly.Additional upper body mobility in ball court athletes increases the likelihood they can stay healthy when being jostled in contact scenarios or upon landing awkwardly, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
The overhead squat is even less demanding regarding magnitude of load, but it could be perhaps the most demanding variation of a classical lift in terms of mobility. At the absolute bottom of an overhead squat, the ankle, knee, and hip achieve near terminal flexion in order to achieve the vertical posture necessary to keep the bar stabilized overhead by the lats and not the medial deltoids. The entire body must work as one cohesive unit to mobilize and stabilize during an overhead squat.
Experience has shown that in very low volume scenarios these lifts can be aggressively challenged, with the athlete no worse for the wear. Quickly working up to a daily max in these lifts, and even potentially setting a PR, would not deter from the goal of recovery. Heavy barbell bridging is also highly effective at directly stimulating the powerful muscles of the hips without having to directly load the spine. I specifically like the fact that it changes the athlete’s spatial orientation, which is good to break the monotony of always being on their feet.
The more varied we can make the recovery process while still staying true to the task at hand, the better it becomes. Different is good to prevent overuse and it keeps everything fresh. Heavy unilateral efforts such as the lunge, split squat, step up, and rear foot elevated split squat typically impose comparable levels of stress to the front or overhead squat depending on the proficiency an athlete has for a movement. They represent great alternatives as well.
Using the barbell to aggressively induce training adaptations with recovery from heavy sessions is only effective if the athletes are already highly adapted to the specific movements. I strongly feel that a well-prepared athlete should be able to quickly take a few singles and get to 80-85% of their maximum in any movement within about five minutes. If it takes longer than this, the athlete probably isn’t adapted enough to the movement and they’re probably dedicating too much energy to trying to learn or develop the movement on a day that development really isn’t the goal. Experimenting too much while attempting to rejuvenate can sometimes lead to more soreness in new spots.
Precision Volumes and Intensities
Utilizing singles and doubles as a rep range is a great way to minimize both volume and time under tension. The more time a muscle spends under eccentric load, the greater the potential for delayed onset muscle soreness, which is to be avoided at all costs when recovering. EMOMs, clusters, and waves are great ways to efficiently build to the desired intensity range. An EMOM—completing a rep every minute on the minute—establishes a steady rhythm, and in a recovery scenario, 5-8 minutes or 5-8 reps between 55% and 85% is more than sufficient.
Waves take a similar approach, but undulate in intensity, peaking, dropping, and peaking again. Wave training is extremely popular in the sport of weightlifting and highly effective. I have always theorized that since the snatch and clean and jerk actively seek torque as opposed to tension, the increased rhythm, timing, and speed of these lifts sometimes necessitates taking a step backward before moving forward. With that said, wave training can still be equally as effective in stimulating a potent neural response in less skillful, more tension-inducing movements such as squats, pulls, and presses. Again, staying between 55% and 85%, staying under 10 minutes, and working quickly to keep heart rate elevated to promote blood flow are all that is necessary.
A quick seven-minute wave performing a rep roughly every minute might look something like this:
55%x1, 65%x1, 75%x1, 65%x1, 75%x1, 80%x1, 85%x1
Clusters are great ways to accumulate high-quality singles even quicker:
50%x1, 65%x1, 80%x1, 75%x3x1 (re-rack, walk a few steps, repeat)
There truly are an endless number of ways to remain productive and stimulate recovery simultaneously. Sometimes the randomness and freedom these days provide leaves an athlete feeling so good at 85-90% that they take an extra single or two and PR. Although it shouldn’t be the goal, there is something to be said for striking when the iron is hot.
Again, this is all predicated on having highly adapted athletes who are very self-aware. Chasing PRs too frequently, even with less stressful movements, can overly tax the “fight or flight” response and constant overstimulation of the adrenal glands during training can possibly leave an athlete a bit flat when it matters on the competitive field. Floating around the “Goldilocks” region of roughly 85% consistently over time will organically generate new marks without emotionally investing too much capital.I personally feel it is important for athletes to stay in touch with their explosive and dynamic qualities even on restoration days, just to a lesser degree, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
Combining lower-stress dynamic efforts with barbell exercises can amplify the neural response. If impact, stress, and volume all remain low, it provides a way for an explosive athlete to achieve a “runner’s high” very quickly without having to put in the obligatory volume of low-intensity running. I personally feel it is important for athletes to stay in touch with their explosive and dynamic qualities even on restoration days, just to a lesser degree.
Some coaches may prefer letting athletes fully decompress. I just prefer letting the engine idle, as opposed to completely switching it off. Light skill work emphasizing marches and skips, jumping rope, light medicine ball work, kneeling jump variations, and single leg hopping are great at minimizing forces while still getting the body to move fast. The only things that really should be avoided altogether are maximal sprints, bounds, and high-impact plyometrics.
Repetition Work to Contrast Intensity
After 10 minutes of barbell and light dynamic work, finishing up with a few minutes of high-repetition, single-joint movements to address weak points and promote a light pump is a great way to create just a little bit of volume and facilitate some localized muscular endurance. Light dumbbells, band work, and sled work can be effective strategies for keeping the heart rate elevated while simultaneously strengthening. These efforts should be very light, establishing a distinct dichotomy between the higher-intensity, lower-volume bar and explosive work.
It is optimal to avoid moderate intensities and rep ranges, though there most certainly is a time and place for bodybuilding set and rep schemes since they are an effective means by which to promote blood flow. Constantly varying the means keeps the body guessing and prevents stagnation. Because of how light the repetitive efforts should be, more creativity can be exercised than with the larger compound movements. The repetitive efforts should supplement and strengthen larger compound movements or weak points and should not be taken to complete failure. Leaving a few reps in the tank is a best practice when trying to recover.Leaving a few reps in the tank is a best practice when trying to recover, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
The commonality between the more labor-intensive barbell and dynamic efforts and the more volume-oriented repetitive efforts is quickly stimulating and immediately backing off. It is the combination of all three means that produces a more well-rounded, dynamic approach to restoration. Any one of them can stand alone, but layering them together in various well-thought-out ways to continually keep the body on its toes (figuratively) can provide great value in down times between higher stress trainings and competitions.
Recovery sessions provide certain freedoms from structure and in many ways necessitate different movement patterns to promote enhanced health. Beyond avoiding getting too adventurous with barbell movements, maximal sprints, and heavy stretch shortening cycles, athletes have a blank canvas on which to create if the parameters of recovery are still being met. The specific exercises are of less importance than the physical duress they cause. What might be stressful to one athlete might be easy to another, so it is important to really find a select few exercises that are less stressful and continually rotate them to avoid accommodation.
Adding pauses at various points in range of motion is great for putting a new spin on a familiar exercise while simultaneously lessening the burden on the athlete. Paused reps will always diminish the stress and they are great at developing specific weak points and teaching starting strength by having a dynamic force overcome a static force. For most athletes, it is wise to avoid heavy eccentric exercises, as most muscular damage occurs during the stretch phase. Hinging exercises such as deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and good mornings typically are just far too stressful to the hamstrings to be done on recovery days. These specific exercises are hard enough to integrate around good speed work as it is, and it’s best to avoid them altogether when attempting to rejuvenate.
The sessions themselves should be brief and to the point. It should take 15-20 minutes—tops—to quickly feel the bar in some context, do something explosive, and get a brief pump.
- Example 1: 8-minute EMOM; 3-second paused overhead squat (50-80%); 1×8 lunge + overhead med ball throw (1-4 kilos); 1×25 band face pulls; 1×25 band good mornings; 60-second low squat
- Example 2: Front squat wave 50%x1, 60%x1, 70%x1, 60%x1, 70%x1, 80%x2x1; kneeling squat jump 1×5; light reverse sled drag, 3 minutes; 1×10 alternating deadbugs
- Example 3: Jump rope 2×30 seconds, 30-second rest; ankle dribbles 1×20 yards; straight leg shuffles 1×20 yards; BB glute bridge 75%x2x3; alternating DB step up 1×20; incline DB press 1×20; quadruped + hip external/internal rotations
An athlete is not obligated to find a lacrosse ball and foam roller in order to recover. Athletes can and should be thoughtfully challenged daily. The degree of difficulty merely needs to vary. This isn’t “grinding” or “doing work” for the sake of work or show. These cliched, ambiguous terms always leave me wondering why “smarter” and “more efficient” haven’t caught on. This is a more aggressive strategy, but it cuts away a lot that is extraneous while allowing an athlete to do productive work while still recovering.
Easy Sessions or Conventional Aerobic Training
Knowing when NOT to go to the gym is valuable as well. Although this option should not be exercised frequently, there is a time and a place for a good-quality pool workout, hike, or even a nice bike ride. These workouts may have less of a physiological effect, but a profound psychological effect. A deliberately timed day away from the gym can invigorate an athlete and leave them more inspired for the next training session.
Stringing together good-quality training day after day, month after month, and year after year, demonstrating consistency over time, is the tried-and-true champion maker. This lends itself to monotony and athletes are not robots. Specifically, “microdosing” with ultra-light aerobic sessions with different movement patterns can provide the necessary break from the monotony and interject a bit of fun at the same time.A deliberately timed day away from the gym can invigorate an athlete and leave them more inspired for the next training session, says @houndsspeed. Click To Tweet
There is really no way to periodize these types of training, as an intuitive coach will need to be able to gauge the temperature of the room and quickly assess when their athletes need a light aerobic session. Conversely, if athletes are training hot and in a fantastic rhythm, taking a day to tastefully overreach is equally okay. This is where the value of adaptability in coaching matters.
Restoration Is Training with Rest Benefits
Restoration can take many forms, but it should still be something. Too often, recovery becomes synonymous with doing nothing. Lightly training to bridge more significant training sessions and competitions is a great way to stay productive, ready, and mentally engaged. It does not have to be cliched foam roller and static stretch work, either. Diminished variations of traditional barbell and power exercises are great alternatives to more traditional means of recovery as well.