The heavy lifting workout is in the bag (if not, then read this first), and now it’s time to kick back and let the gain train chug on, right? Wrong! The hours immediately after a big weightlifting session are almost as important as the workout itself. Avoid these post-lifting pitfalls to ensure all that hard work hasn’t been for nought.
1. Skimping on Sleep
This. Is. So. Important.
It’s through sleep and relaxation that our bodies recover from arduous stresses like heavy workouts, and it’s while we’re sleeping that new muscle tissue grows. “Gains happen while we’re sleeping,” explains Stephanie Earl, Strength and Conditioning Coach at Torque Barbell Club in Toronto. “A lack of sleep slows down the production of growth hormones, increases cortisol (stress) levels, and weakens the immune system.” Numerous studies also suggest that a lack of sleep can lead to hormonal changes that contribute to weight gain by increasing appetite and cravings for unhealthy food choices.
2. Excessive Cardio
There’s nothing wrong with a brief cardio session following a heavy weightlifting workout. The problem is when that brief session becomes a marathon that basically doubles the length of your workout. “Excessive cardio will increase cortisol levels, and in some cases, can actually slow down weight loss,” warns Earl. And keep in mind that a heavy workout isn’t just draining, it’s also extremely stressful on the muscles and joints. A long session of high-impact cardio such as jogging or skipping rope will only add to that stress with very little to show for it other than a potential injury. “Weight loss happens when you are in a caloric deficit, and that comes from food, not hours on the treadmill,” says Earl. (Looking to perfect your cardio strategy? Read this.)
3. Listening to Pulse-Pounding Music
Music is great way to get pumped and stay motivated during a gruelling workout. However, once the workout is over, your focus should immediately shift to getting your body into a state of calm and relaxation that will allow for recovery and gains. A recent study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that fast, stimulating music immediately after strenuous exercise inhibited the return of heart rate toward resting levels. Subjects who listened to slow, sedative music also showed lower levels of cortisol. So after your next no-holds-barred heavy workout, turn off the Metallica playlist and put on some Enya. Your muscles (and probably your ears) will thank you.
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“Fasting after an intense workout is one of the worst things you can do,” says Earl. “Your body is screaming for nutrients to help repair itself.” Without proper nutrition, your body will slip into a state of catabolism (muscle-wasting) because it doesn’t have the fuel it needs to replenish what you lost during the workout. This is especially true after a heavy workout when your energy expenditure is through the roof. Post-workout nutrition should focus on protein and fast-digesting carbohydrates that will refill glycogen stores and move amino acids through the bloodstream as quickly as possible. The hour immediately after a workout (often referred to as the “anabolic window”) is particularly important.
Training frequency is one of the most debated topics among trainers and exercise experts. What is undebatable is that training so often that the body can’t recover will lead to a state of overtraining, some of the symptoms of which are extreme fatigue, muscle and joint pain, and stymied gains. How much is too much depends on the individual, with some people being able to train heavy more often than others. One of the best ways to avoid overtraining is to use common sense. Chances are that regardless of your age, diet, and supplementation plan, you’re going to need at least 24-48 hours rest after an extremely intense, heavy workout. Think of it as a reward for all the progress you’ve made.