Ask most people what they’re doing to build muscle and they’ll tell you all about which training program they’re on, which exercises they’re doing, how much protein they’re eating and how many hours they spend in the gym every week. They may even brag about their dedication and “no days off” mentality.
Unfortunately, most lifters don’t understand a key principle:
If you want to build muscle, the real secret is outside the gym.
It’s called recovery, and it’s the unsung hero of gains.
Have you ever seen the Steve Martin film Roxanne? Martin plays C.D. Bales, a witty, intelligent, sensitive man who falls in love with Roxanne, a beautiful astronomer played by Daryl Hannah. There’s only one problem: C.D. has an epically enormous nose.
And Roxanne is highly intelligent, but also–well, a bit shallow. She friend-zones C.D. and falls for his handsome and jacked buddy Chris (Rick Rossovich), whom she assumes must be as brilliant as he is hot when she sees him buying a book of French philosophy (which, of course, he was actually buying for C.D.).
Chris is terrified to talk to Roxanne, so he convinces C.D. to be his voice. C.D. ghost-writes romantic letters for him, and even feeds him lines through hidden headphones during a date.
Rom-comedy ensues, and ultimately C.D.’s words work their magic: Roxanne falls madly in love. Only later does she find out that C.D. is actually her true Prince Charming.
Why the Rotten Tomatoes diversion?
Well, it’s a fun movie, and you might enjoy it.
On a rest day.
Which you should be taking.
Because when it comes to building muscle, just like in Roxanne, we tend to glorify the hot guy (training)… when the hero all along was actually the dude with the outsized schnozz standing off to the side (recovery).
We don’t build muscle in the gym.
We damage muscle in the gym.
The act of lifting weights stresses and tears muscle fibers at a microscopic level. The body responds by creating new muscle, in addition to repairing what was already there.
But muscle fibers don’t just magically repair themselves and get bigger. Your body can only adapt and build muscle if you give it the space, time and adequate resources to recover.
Three keys to recover well and build muscle
Many, if not most, people who lift chronically neglect at least a few aspects of recovery. Here are the most important areas where you should focus your attention.
If you can focus on only one aspect of recovery (although I certainly hope you can focus on more), it should be getting enough quality sleep. This is especially true if you’re also trying to lose fat/recompose your body.
- Makes it harder to gain muscle (creates anabolic resistance)
- Actually encourages your body to LOSE the muscle it already has (is catabolic)
- Promotes unhealthy eating (causes cravings for high-calorie foods)
- Inhibits fat loss, even if calories consumed are unchanged (causes decreased insulin sensitivity and slows metabolism)
While people require varying amounts of sleep, the generally agreed upon target range for general health and for muscle gain is 7-9 hours. Seven should be your floor; more is better.
Sleep quantity matters, but so does sleep quality. If you’re able to track your sleep, do, and focus on promoting as much deep sleep (Stage 3 sleep) as possible. This sleep stage tends to occur earlier–within the first few hours after you go to bed–and it’s during deep sleep that your body does that all-important repair work on muscle and other damaged tissues, as well as restoring your immune system.
2. Rest days
I’m astounded how many people new to strength training believe they’re failing if they’re not in the gym every day.
Yes, your body does a lot of repair work while you sleep, but not all of it. You can’t repeatedly stress the same muscles day after day without a break and expect them to grow.
Strength training doesn’t only damage the muscles it targets; it also puts demands on your nervous system, especially when you lift heavier weights. This type of stress won’t hurt you as long as you take adequate time to recover from it. Without proper recovery, you won’t see the results you want, and you’ll be setting yourself up for injury, illness, and overtraining.
So if you can follow only one rule here, leave at least 24 hours between training muscle groups.
This need for rest is why many bodybuilding programs incorporate splits, which allow the lifter to train upper body muscles one day and lower body the next, or even on the same day. Experienced lifters may be able to manage splits reasonably well, but in my personal opinion, most people, especially older beginners, should rest for a full day between strength training sessions, regardless of body part.
You don’t need to train every day!
For most people using a good program that incorporates compound lifts (like squat, deadlift, bench and overhead press, etc.) and progressive overload, strength training 2-3x a week is absolutely sufficient. Even many top powerlifters only train 3x a week, though some add in a lighter fourth day. M-W-F or Sat is a pretty common schedule for a lot of serious lifters.
Like competitive bodybuilders, Olympic weightlifters train more frequently than this, but that frequency is designed to help them learn speed, skill, and technique, not to build more muscle or get stronger.
Everyone else: you should NOT be in the gym every day, or even MOST days.
And that doesn’t mean you should be climbing mountains or training for a marathon on the other days.
Rest days are for rest. If you want to do a strenuous hike or run a 10K, that’s awesome, but that’s not a rest day. If you plan that kind of activity, factor it into your schedule and don’t hit heavy weights the day before or the day after.
This doesn’t mean you should sit around watching Netflix on rest days, though. Research suggests that “active recovery” is more effective than doing nothing. On rest days, pursue relatively gentle movement like a brisk walk, leisurely bike ride, swimming, foam rolling or yoga.
Careful with the cold water
A quick note here. You’ve probably seen athletes on social media or ESPN shoving themselves into tubs of ice water in the name of recovery. Cold water immersion (CWI) has definitely been shown to reduce inflammation, and it can make sore muscles and joints feel better, as well as improving mood and energy levels. There’s also some research suggesting it may help us live longer, although the jury is still out on that.
However… while individual results may vary, CWI may backfire if your goal is building muscle, specifically because because inflammation is necessary for muscle protein synthesis. And here’s the kicker: CWI doesn’t appear to be any more effective than active recovery.
So if you want to partake in cold plunges, have at it, but the evidence suggests it’s best to wait at least four hours after you train if building muscle matters to you.
Nutrition is probably the least-well-understood recovery factor among people who strength train. Even very experienced lifters don’t always know what to eat–and especially how to time what they eat–to maximize their body’s ability to recover.**
Of the three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat), carbs matter most for our purposes here. In general, we must keep protein high to repair and build muscle. But for the purpose of immediate recovery, carbs provide the most bang for the buck.
Your body can only store so much energy in the form of glycogen, the fuel for muscles. The glycogen reserves in your muscles and liver get used up during hard training and need to be replaced, and carbohydrates provide the raw material (glucose) to do that. Eating carbs immediately after training helps your body replenish its glycogen stores faster and improves endurance the next time you train.
Post-training carbs also help mitigate catabolism, or muscle breakdown, after training. When you consume carbs, you jack up your insulin (which is fine immediately after lifting or exercise, because your body is primed to use that insulin to allow glucose into muscle cells). Insulin reduces cortisol, a stress hormone that gets released when we train.
We want the cortisol to flow during training; it helps process energy so we can get the hard work done. But we do NOT want excess cortisol when we’re recovering, because among other nasty things it does to our bodies, it causes muscle breakdown.
So, to kick-start recovery, hit your system with a hefty dose of carbs immediately post-training, and don’t skimp on them during rest days either. Your body needs calories, and carbs specifically, for effective recovery.
Don’t sabotage your hard work!
The bottom line is that you can be more dedicated and savage at training than anyone else in the gym—but if you neglect sleep, nutrition, and taking appropriate rest days, you may still fail to get the gains you want.
So prioritize your recovery and build more muscle!
**Note: I recently became an ambassador for Fiercely Fueled Nutrition, the coaching service I’ve used for the last five years. FFN makes sure I’m eating correctly to maximize performance in the gym and when I compete. They also offer masterful help with weight cuts and bulks, and while they do work with everyone, they have particular expertise working with female strength athletes. If you’re looking for help with any of these, drop me a note–or use my discount links to reach out to them directly.