“Another great workout in the books,” you proclaim as you drop the barbell, place one foot atop it and strike a heroic hands-on-hips pose, the other gym members gathering around to marvel at your accomplishment, not to mention your slabs of well-defined muscle mass.
Of course, that’s never happened to you. Or any of us, really. Weight training is an often solitary activity, the quest for muscular greatness as lonely as it is ultimately rewarding. But more importantly, no workout is actually complete after your final set. There’s still more to be done to lock in the gains. Here are the two “R’s” that can add up to one very important third “R” — results.
1. Reduce Your Intensity Slowly.
Imagine slamming on the brakes every time you needed to make a stop — no gradual easing up on the accelerator and rolling to a smooth finish. Just “bam!” Sixty-to-zero in less than two seconds. (Aunt Edna, I’m looking at you.) In addition to a potential case of whiplash and desperate palm marks on dashboard where your unlucky passengers have feverishly pressed the imaginary brake, just how long do you think it would be before you’d need to drop off that car at the shop for repairs?
Now, imagine the damage that could potentially arise from treating your body the same way — full-on high-intensity sets, followed by … well, dropping the weights or exiting the treadmill and heading off to the locker room, your heart still beating hard against your breastbone while you breathlessly gulp in oxygen.
An effective cool-down serves as a bridge between work and rest, a way for your heart rate to slowly return to normal, while your mind clears and changes gears. And it doesn’t have to be long — even just five to 10 minutes will suffice if need be.
If you’re weight-training a particular bodypart, consider a few “back-off” sets where you pyramid down the weight, followed by a walking pace on a treadmill or elliptical — a stationary bike is a great cool-down tool, too. Finally, hit the mat for some static-style stretching.
“Static stretching involves generating tension on the muscle in a specific direction and then held still at a point of mild to moderate discomfort for a minimum of 10 to 30 seconds,” says Anthony Carey, CEO of Function First, a health club and personal trainer studio in San Diego, Calif. “The goal is for the muscle to relax and lengthen.”
As a tool to improve range of motion, the American College of Sports Medicine guidelines suggest stretching two to three times per week, and holding each stretch for an accumulated 60 seconds, Carey explains.
Of course, you’ll want to include stretches for the area just trained, but it doesn’t hurt to hit the whole body, as shown in our sample stretch routine.
Sample Post-Workout Stretching Routine
Hold the following stretches for 10–30 seconds, repeating (after a 20–40–second rest) until you’ve hit 60 seconds of stretch time total for each one:
1. Quadriceps Stretch: Stand holding a fixed object or bracing yourself on a wall with your right arm while holding your right foot to your glute with your right hand.
2. Hamstring Stretch: Sit on the floor with your left leg extended, and bend your other knee so your foot comes to the inside of your left knee. Bend forward and reach for your toes, hold for 10–30 seconds, then repeat with the right leg extended.
3. Butterfly Stretch: Sit on the floor with your knees bent and your feet together in front of you. Grasp your toes and lean forward as far as you can while mindfully trying to bring your knees down toward the floor.
4. Lunge Stretch: Drop down into a split position, as deep as you can get. First, turn your body to the right into a deep lunge position and hold, then turn to the left.
5. Cobra Stretch: Lie on the floor, palms positioned on the floor under your chest, with your arms straight, holding your upper body up. Lower your hips toward the floor as you look upward.
6. Back Stretch: Lie on your back, bring your knees to your chest, and wrap your arms around your shins, pulling your knees in.
7. Upper-Body Stretch: Hold a fixed object like a wall with your right hand at shoulder height, arm straight. Now, turn to your right slowly to stretch your chest and upper body. Switch arms and repeat.
8. Triceps Stretch: Put your right arm over your head and reach down behind your neck, placing your left hand over your right elbow to gently help.
2. Replenish Your Nutrients to Maximize Growth and Recovery.
Like checking your parachute before a jump or attaching your rope to your partner’s belay device before a climb, often the last step in a process is the most critical. Same goes for weight training: You can have the world’s greatest workout, but it could all go to waste if you don’t feed your body the essential nutrients it needs to recover within 30 minutes afterward.
This is the “anabolic window of opportunity,” and it takes advantage of your body’s physiological response to exercise: in other words, muscles are wide open for energy replenishment and the protein it uses as building blocks.
With that in mind, you’ll want to consider the following:
• A 20–25 gram protein shake, made with a mix of casein and whey, paired with a simple sugar (40–60 grams): The whey can be assimilated quickly, while the casein goes through a longer digestion process, meaning aminos are delivered almost immediately and also ongoing for a few hours after the workout is complete. Meanwhile, the sugar — which can be anything from pure dextrose powder to gummy bears or angel food cake — spikes insulin levels and spurs nutrient uptake. Don’t let this opportunity for a sweet-tooth quenching pass, because it’s the one meal where simple sugars are an optimal choice over complex carbs.
• Branched-chain amino acids (5 grams): Admittedly, taking an extra amino supplement may be overkill, considering you’re already ingesting protein in the form of a shake. But think of this as a relatively inexpensive insurance policy to make certain you have enough of the three key critical aminos — leucine, isoleucine and valine — in your system to fuel growth processes.
• Glutamine (3–5 grams): Glutamine has a number of benefits for serious weight trainers. It promotes immune function, helps with digestive processes, and may even have a volumizing effect on muscle cells — research shows that stretching muscle cells from the inside out isn’t simply a temporary size increase, but can set permanent growth processes into motion.
• Carnitine (2–3 grams): This substance, synthesized by the body from the amino acids lysine and methionine, has an effect on testosterone receptors found within muscle cells, which in turn allows those cells to make better use of the natural T available in your system. It also helps transport long-chain fatty acids so they can be burned as energy.
• An “All-in-One” Supplement: Advanced bodybuilders may also consider a supplement specially formulated for use after workouts. Such a product may include calcium, potassium, and a range of vitamins, as well as BCAAs and glutamine.
• Water: H20 is just as important after training as during, since the body doesn’t operate at peak efficiency unless fully hydrated. There’s no true set standard of water per day, scientifically speaking, but you may want to set a goal of at least 8 eight-ounce glasses. You can quickly tell if you’re dehydrated by the color of your urine — if it’s not pale yellow to clear and is instead a stronger yellow hue, you need more agua.