Contrary to what most people think, you don’t actually build muscle or get stronger in the gym. In fact, when you strength train, you actually break down your muscles, shearing microscopic tears into the muscle fibers, explains certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. It’s during the recovery phase, in the hours and days after you leave the gym, that your body begins to repair these tears. “It’s only after they are properly repaired that your muscles are left bigger and stronger than they were before,” Harcoff says.
And if your muscles are unable to recover? Well, you might face a number of negative consequences, including decreased exercise performance, overtraining syndrome, lowered immunity, and increased injury risk, explains Harcoff. Not ideal for anyone with specific strength or fitness goals, or for anyone who simply wants to stay active.
To give your body the very best shot at success, watch out for these common muscle recovery mistakes, all of which can sabotage your progress.
1. Not Eating Enough
“Skimping on calories when you’re trying to build muscle is like trying to build a house without supplies,” says Harcoff. Basically, it’s mission impossible.
Without ample calories (energy) and nutrients, your muscle fibers are not able to repair as effectively or as efficiently as possible, which means you’ll benefit less from your gym sessions, says online performance and nutrition coach Seamus Sullivan, C.S.C.S. In extreme cases, you may fail to make any strength gains from your workouts.
Worse yet, if you under-eat so severely that the body doesn’t have enough energy available for essential functions like breathing and temperature regulation, it’s actually forced to break down your tissues (including muscle tissue!) for energy, Sullivan adds. “People start to get injured if they keep hitting the gym in an under-repaired, under-fed state,” he says.
Your recommended calorie intake depends on a number of variables, such as your age, current weight, body composition, exact workout routine, and overall health. That said, the International Sports Science Association recommends tacking 500 to 550 calories to the general recommended daily intake for weight maintenance, which you can estimate through an online calorie calculator.
2. Skipping A Post-Workout Snack
No, you don’t need to have a five-course meal in the parking lot before heading home from the gym. However, research suggests that if you wait more than two hours after you work out to eat something, you do yourself and your fitness goals a disservice—and potentially sabotage muscle recovery.
After a hard training session, your body needs carbohydrates that it can break down into glucose to replenish the stored muscle glycogen (or energy) it tapped into to keep you fueled throughout your workout, Harcoff says. Your body also needs protein, which it breaks down into its molecular building blocks called amino acids. “The amino acids can then be repurposed and utilized to repair your muscles, and build new muscle tissue,” he explains. As such, it’s best to eat a combination of carbohydrates and protein—ideally in a 2:1 ratio, according to the American Council of Exercise—following exercise.
Luckily, you can achieve this with a simple snack like a banana and protein shake. A serving of chicken and rice, Greek yogurt with fruit, cottage cheese with honey, or eggs with crackers or toast will also do the trick.
3. Feasting On Fat Post-Workout
Yes, eating after exercise can help jumpstart the recovery process. But eating the right foods matters.
“Foods high in fat digest more slowly than carbs and protein,” he explains. Consuming fat alongside other macronutrients can slow down the digestion of those nutrients, too. So, “while eating a Happy Meal after your workout will supply you with carbohydrates and a lot of calories, the higher fat content of the food can actually delay your ability to recover properly,” he says.
4. Bee-lining It To The Bar
A post-workout beer may be an excellent way to turn a workout buddy into a real-world friend—but that post-workout drink isn’t going to do your workout recovery any favors. “The body sees alcohol as a toxin,” explains Sullivan. As such, as soon as alcohol enters your system, “your body prioritizes metabolizing that alcohol over starting the muscle repair process,” which ultimately impairs strength and mass gains, he says. Meanwhile, when alcohol isn’t in the picture, the body can make muscle recovery its sole focus.
If you’re set on sipping spirits after getting in a sweat, Sullivan recommends having your usual carbohydrate- and protein-packed post-workout snack first and then waiting at least an hour to imbibe.
Still, it’s best to avoid the booze—especially in excess. “Over-consuming alcohol is detrimental to your overall health,” says Harcoff. Plus, because it impacts hydration levels and sleep quality for the worse, drinking will prevent you from getting a good workout in the following days, too, which also negatively affects your fitness goals, he says.
5. Training The Same Muscle Group Again Too Soon
If you want to gain muscle from head-to-toe you need to strength train your entire body, but the dosage and schedule of that training matters.
Generally speaking, you don’t want to train the same muscle group on back-to-back days. “For the average person, training the same muscles on back-to-back days will keep that muscle from being able to recover, and therefore you won’t get the performance, strength, or mass gains you’re after,” says Harcoff.
Further, consistently training a muscle group without giving it time to repair can cause injury, adds Sullivan. Overtraining the same muscle group can lead to an overuse injury or muscle imbalances throughout the body that make it less efficient at navigating life, he says.
Your exact workout schedule will vary based on your workout modality of choice, but you should aim to train each muscle group twice per week, with at least 48 hours between workouts to give them time to repair.
6. Not Managing Stress
Hate to break it to you, but general life stressors (work woes, family fights, etc.) are detrimental to your gains and can absolutely sabotage muscle recovery.
Stress increases levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in your system, explains Sullivan. Cortisol has been shown to inhibit muscle protein synthesis, which is the process the body uses to build new muscle protein and repair old muscle fibers. As such, “constantly being under stress can impair your ability to put on muscle mass,” he says.
Stress may also negatively interfere with workout wins by changing the type and quality of food it causes you to crave, adds Sullivan. Indeed, research published in the journal of Frontiers in Psychology found that emotional distress increases fat and sugar cravings, which is not ideal for people with specific fitness or health goals.
The takeaway? “If you want to put on muscle mass, it’s best to have stress management techniques like breathwork and meditation to help with overall goals,” says Sullivan. That can be a tall order, we know, but even a few short minutes a day can move the needle.
7. Skimping on Sleep
“As far as muscle recovery and gains go, sleep is one of the most important areas of focus,” says Sullivan. Sleep is when the body produces two ingredients essential for repair: testosterone and human growth hormone. “As such, sleeping at least seven hours per night is needed for optimal muscle recovery,” he says. Indeed, one study published in the Journal of Musculoskeletal and Neural Interactions found that those who slept less than six hours per night had poorer muscle strength compared to those with similar exercise routines, who slept seven or more hours per night.
Quality is essential here, too. “The key to good sleep is good sleep hygiene,” says Harcoff. “To maximize the quality of your sleep, remove technology from the bedroom, limit light exposure in the room, and make sure your room is cool,” he says. (For more tactics, check out this list of smart strategies to score solid sleep when you’re stressed.)