Churn out tough workouts all you want, but if you really want to see results from your efforts, you’ll also need to pay close attention to what you do after those gym sessions.
Poor post-workout practices can steal your success—but they’re pretty easy to avoid if you know what to look for. Read on to arm yourself against any unintended backtrack.
You Rush Out Of The Gym
We get it, you have places to be, and after tossing around heavy weights or ramping up your heart rate on the tread, the last thing you want to do is more work. But sticking around for a few extra minutes of mobility drills can really pay off in the long run, according to Sean De Wispelaere, master trainer at MBSC Thrive and owner of Sean D. Thrive.
When you push, pull, squat, and hinge, you put a high demand on your joints and the muscles that surround them, says De Wispelaere. Mobility work—like sitting in a deep squat or moving your arms through Y-, T-, and W-shaped patterns—helps you maintain your full range of motion and avoid injury when it counts.
By increasing the flow of oxygen and nutrient-rich blood to your muscles and connective tissues, they’ll also prevent that stiff, locked-up feeling that sometimes follows a tough workout, says De Wispelaere.
You Stay Jacked Up
Not only does working out tax your muscles, but it also taxes your nervous system. During exercise, your sympathetic (‘fight-or-flight’) nervous system kicks in to power you through—but to recover, you need your parasympathetic (‘rest and relax’) nervous system to take over, says Joe Dowdell, strength coach and owner of Dowdell Fitness Systems.
To shift gears from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state, Dowdell recommends doing some light stretching and diaphragmatic breathing after training. As you hold each stretch, take a few slow and controlled deep belly breaths. This tells your system to calm down and sets you up for muscle-building recovery. If you regularly struggle to cool down and recover after exercise, try a supplement like True Athlete’s ZMA With Theanine, which contains zinc and magnesium to promote muscle recovery and the amino acid l-theanine to support relaxation.
You Don’t Eat
Some people feel ravenous after an intense workout, while others can’t even stomach the thought of eating—but food fuels your recovery and progress, says Mike Roussell, Ph.D.
What to eat? Roussell recommends carbs. “Protein is typically the post-workout go-to, but exercise sensitizes your muscles to carbohydrates, so you need those as well,” he says. In the few hours after your workout, your body will use carbs for good (a.k.a. energy storage in your muscles) instead of evil (a.k.a. storage as fat). Replenishing the carbs you store in your muscles (called ‘glycogen’) helps you recover and feel ready for your next session faster.
You Try To Annihilate All Inflammation
We usually think of inflammation as the enemy, and in many cases it can be a sign that something is wrong—“but when exercise produces an inflammatory state in the body, it’s actually is a good thing,” says Roussell.
You see, exercise is stress, and your high heart rate and muscle fatigue signal to your body that something is up, which triggers an inflammatory state. “However, one of the ways your body gets bigger and stronger is by dealing with that inflammation,” says Roussell. So while you might be tempted to down antioxidant supplements right after hitting it hard, these substances can potentially hinder your muscle gains.
Instead of focusing on blasting your body with antioxidants, focus on replenishing your body with carbs and protein, recommends Roussell.
You Stew in Your Sweaty Clothes
Sweat can feel like a badge of honor, but please get out of your gear ASAP. Otherwise you’re more prone to skin issues like rashes and staph infections, not to mention B.O.
Plus, washing up can also benefit your freshly-worked muscles, says Dowdell. Soaking in an Epsom salt bath (which is rich in magnesium sulfate) can promote relaxation and help reduce muscle soreness, he says. Mix about a cup in with your bath water and soak for up to a half hour. You don’t need to hop in the tub right after you’re done sweating; a long soak will still do you good later in the evening.
You Don’t Catch Enough Zzz’s
The hard work you put in at the gym doesn’t transform into results right then and there, but in the hours and days after you finish—and sleep is a key component of that process. “Sleep is crucial to recovery and often overlooked,” says De Wispelaere. Since fitness-boosting hormones like growth hormone are released while you’re dreaming, whether or not you get to bed early can really affect your results.
To score high-quality sleep, De Wispelaere recommends the following steps:
- Four hours before bed: Stop consuming caffeine.
- One hour before bed: Limit how much you drink. (You don’t want to have to pee in the middle of your muscle-building sleep!)
- 45 minutes before bed: Ditch the screens. The blue light that emanates from phones and laptops sends the wrong signals to your brain about what time of day it is, potentially keeping you up.
If an intense workout left you delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), jumping right into another tough session will not only hurt, but it can also backfire on your results. Remember what Dowdell said about those sympathetic and parasympathetic states? If you go hard day after day, your body can’t fully shift out of that sympathetic state, and you don’t recover properly.
“On the day after an intense session, stick to 20 to 30 minute low-to-moderate intensity exercise,” he recommends. (That’s about 65 to 70 percent of your max heart rate.) Jogging or biking, for example, boosts blood flow to your muscles and help remove waste products associated with DOMS. For extra points, tack on 10 to 15 minutes of mobility work after your cardio.