Finding time to exercise can be challenging enough… And things get really complicated when you stress about what you’re supposed to do after your workouts.
There’s a ton of information available about this – so much it can seem overwhelming.
But it doesn’t have to be.
No matter what type of exercise you do or your current health situation, following a few key post-workout rules will help you get the most from all your effort in the gym.
Keep reading to find out what they are… and how to apply them.
Keeping Things Simple
What you do after your workouts doesn’t need to be as complicated as people make it out to be. But with that said, paying attention to a few key things can make a huge difference in your performance, strength gains, and muscle recovery.
Here are 8 golden post-workout rules to keep in mind:
1. Push Hard, But Not Too Hard
The first golden post-workout rule starts before your workout is technically even over. It’s that important!
It’s hard to beat that feeling after an intense workout when you gave it your all…
But if you push too hard, you’ll wear yourself down, increase your chances of getting injured, and make sticking to a consistent workout routine impossible.
I’ve been there. It’s hard to get motivated to exercise when your body is still mangled from your last session…
But you do have to push yourself to get stronger.
How hard should you push?
Definitely past your comfort zone. Effective exercise shouldn’t be painful, but it’s uncomfortable. Try to progress beyond what you did last time, whether that means shaving time or increasing your weight, reps or volume.
There’s a fine line between “overreaching” (where you want to be) and “overtraining.” When you overreach, your performance improves (1). But when you overtrain, you get fatigued, increase your blood pressure, and wreck your immune system (2).
It takes some practice to find a point past your comfort zone that’s also sustainable. If you’re new to working out, start slowly and work your way up. Dealing with muscle soreness in your next workout is okay. But injuries and chronic fatigue – symptoms of overtraining – will stop you dead in your tracks.
2. Eat Afterward
Post-workout nutrition is one of the most confusing aspects in fitness.
A lot of it comes from the idea of an anabolic “window of opportunity.” Eating certain foods during this window, which only lasts a limited time after working out, supposedly helps you optimize training-related muscular adaptations (3).
That’s why you see people at the gym slurping on protein shakes as soon as their workouts end. They’re trying to take advantage of that window of opportunity.
But there are some issues with this typical bodybuilder wisdom…
A review of 23 different studies on protein intake and timing found that exercisers who ate concentrated amounts of protein immediately after workouts didn’t gain any more muscle mass than exercisers who ate the same amount of protein spread throughout the day (4).
The study above didn’t track carbohydrate intake and timing (another bodybuilder post-workout favorite). More research needs to be done in that area, but the studies so far suggests you don’t need to be so strict about stuffing your face immediately after a workout.
It’s still a good idea to eat something after your workout. Most people will do well with a combination of protein (to repair broken down muscles) and carbohydrates (for energy). In the Paleo world, this usually means an animal product and a starchy vegetable (like chicken and sweet potatoes).
After you’ve worked up a sweat, it’s time to rehydrate.
All that sweat from workouts can lead to significant fluid losses. William Adams, the director of sports safety policy initiatives at the Korey Stringer Institute, says you sweat out between one and four percent of your body weight for every hour of intense exercise (6)!
How much water should you drink when you’re done?
A lot depends on the type of workout you did, how intensely you did it, and the environment where you did it (an outdoor summer run will make you sweat a lot more than swimming laps at the indoor pool).
Adams has good advice about how to set a guideline for yourself. Weigh yourself right before you work out and as soon as you finish (don’t drink anything in the meantime). You want to drink at least that amount of weight in water after you finish.
A lot of people get fancy about post-workout drinks, but water is the most effective (and Paleo) way to hydrate. Speaking of that…
4. Avoid Sports Drinks
Go to the gym, work out, and pick up a Gatorade afterward.
That’s exactly what a lot of other people do. They love the way sports drinks taste after a hard workout. Or maybe they’ve heard about replenishing their electrolytes – and how those drinks supposedly do it better than water or anything else.
Sports drinks can be useful… but only if you’re engaging in high-intensity exercise that lasts longer than an hour. They might be just what the marathoner or triathlete needs, but for most of us they’re flat out unnecessary. It’s really tough for a normal exerciser to lose enough electrolytes to need to worry about replacing them with a beverage instead of their next meal.
Yes, sports drinks have electrolytes. But they also have other chemicals and added sugars that make them counterproductive. If you’re trying to lose weight, drinking a sports drink after a workout might erase all the calories you just burned (7)!
Stay hydrated like our Paleo ancestors did: use good old water. That’s what athletes used to do until sports drink makers spent a lot of money sponsoring questionable research that doubted water’s ability to hydrate (8).
5. Track Your Progress
You can’t improve something unless you measure it. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what a lot of people are trying to do with their workouts.
You might be able to remember how much weight you lifted two sessions ago, but how about two months ago? Not keeping track sets you up to waste a lot of time – time you could have spent getting more out of your workouts.
If you want to train towards a concrete goal instead of just work up a sweat, you must track your workouts. A disorganized approach might get you some early results, but progress will taper off and you’ll end up frustrated.
A good old notebook works just fine. There are also tons of new fitness applications and wearable devices (like Fitbit and Apple Watch) that make tracking your progress easier than ever.
You’re already spending the time to work out, so you might as well make the most of it. One study found that obese women were more successful losing weight by tracking their food intake and exercise through daily text messages (9).
6. Use Active Recovery
The time after a hard workout can be uncomfortable, especially if you just did heavy resistance training.
All that soreness and fatigue make you want to just sit around on the couch. But doing the exact opposite – staying active – will keep your joints limber and help ease the pain.
On days after tough workouts, give some active recovery a try. Active recovery is an umbrella term for any light cardio that stimulates blood flow and improves the circulation to your muscles.
Several studies found that active recovery was more effective than passive recovery at removing lactic acid, which causes muscle soreness (10, 11). So, just because it’s an “off” day doesn’t mean you have to sit around doing nothing.
Next time you do a brutal workout and are feeling it the next day, try a walk, light bike ride, swimming, yoga, or even some mobility drills. You’ll get back into fighting shape faster than you think.
With most exercise, your muscles contract over and over again. Finishing your workout without stretching leaves them in a shortened state. Leave the gym without stretching, and you pay the price later with more stiffness and muscle soreness.
Doing a few stretches after your workout will help loosen up your muscles and joints, and even speed up the recovery process.
There’s a lot of debate over which type of stretching is best. Some people like dynamic stretching, which is fast-moving and targets major muscles throughout the body at the same time. Others prefer good old static stretching – the old school “stretch and hold” style you learned in gym class.
Static stretching is ideal after a workout. Because dynamic stretching increases your core temperature and uses a lot of movement, it’s better suited for warm-ups. It doesn’t take long to go through a circuit of five or six static stretches after your workout. Hold each position between 10 and 30 seconds, then repeat the circuit if you’d like.
If you don’t know where you get started, check out this great energizing stretching routine.
8. Take Time Off
Unless you’re an elite athlete preparing for competition, working out every day just isn’t necessary.
Working out too often leads to decreased motivation and performance, and probably an injury sooner rather than later.
A lot of people get confused about how long to rest between workouts.
Many factors go into this (12):
- Age (older people recover slower)
- Workout experience
- Workout intensity
- Workout frequency
- Workout length
You don’t have to wait until all muscle soreness is gone before you work out again. But if your body is in serious pain and you dread the thought of going to the gym every time, you might be overdoing it.
Most people see great results with three focused exercise sessions a week. A meta-analysis of 140 studies found that the ideal muscle recovery time between workouts was one to two rest days (13). It depends on the volume of your resistance training and overall goals (whether you’re going for size, strength, endurance, etc.)
You can work out five or even six days a week without negative effects if you’re willing to target different muscle groups each session. Splitting up upper body days and lower body days is always an option. And you can also mix up different types of workouts (for example, weights one day and swimming on the next).
Try to take a least one day off a week. You don’t have to laze around doing nothing, but you can give your body a break and hit the gym next week feeling super motivated.
Working out – and doing it consistently – takes a lot of effort. You deserve to make the most of it.
The post-workout world can get confusing with so many loud voices and conflicting opinions. But you don’t need to feel overwhelmed. Eat right and stick to these eight golden rules, and you’ll get the most results for your effort without all the hassle.
Do you have any specific post-workout rituals? If so, what are they? Leave a comment below and share your experience!