How to Prevent Insufficient Recovery in High-Intensity Training


In this post I will use two quotes from a recent blog post by James Steele II. Here is the first quote:

“Unless you allow recovery to happen supercompensation will never occur and eventually the body will decompensate.”

And my comment on it:

It is worse than that—muscles frequently not allowed to recover between workouts will be damaged, and this damage will turn to scar tissue, which eventually will be replaced with fat. This end result of muscle abuse is called fatty atrophy. Unlike the atrophy of disuse, the atrophy of abuse cannot be reversed.

The second quote:

“I found it interesting though that the atrophy was predominantly of the slow twitch fiber types (I and IIa) and a transition back towards a more fast twitch profile was noted.”

Instead of a comment, a few facts and common observations. The facts and observations may at first seem disjointed, but eventually you should see a connection.

1. The glycolytic FT fibers (IIb) are the largest muscle fibers, which makes them structurally the weakest. (This is because their cell membranes and other structural elements are of the same thickness as in other, smaller fibers.)

2. It is long known that people with chronic back pain have a greater ratio of glycolytic FT fibers in their back muscles, which makes those muscles less resistant to fatigue (Biedermann et al. 1991, Mannion et al. 1997). Resistance to fatigue in back muscles—an ability to maintain steady moderate tension for a long time—is needed for those muscles’ back-stabilizing function.

3. Seriously overweight people tend to have massive leg muscles, especially calves, which usually look fat-free—so their size indicates the amount of muscle, not fluff. But when such people run or worse yet, sprint, those muscles tear—it works like clockwork—because they are made of mostly FT fibers. That’s why they are so big, and that’s why they tear so easily.

4. Muscles that are overworked are sore. Exercising them when they are still sore may damage them.

5. The weakest link in a chain determines the chain’s strength.

6. To find out when it is safe to do intense exercises (and for a sore calf, jogging and running are intense resistance exercises), press deep into the muscles to be exercised. You can poke them with your finger, you can roll on a hard roller, or you can get a deep-tissue massage. If you feel tenderness, then those muscles are not recovered sufficiently from the previous work. Change the subject of the workout. If you feel no tenderness in the muscles you plan to load, then it should be safe to do so. (Now, do you really know which muscles you are significantly loading in a given exercise? See point 8.)

7. To positively determine your readiness for intense work, use grip dynamometry or a similar holistic indicator of good neuromuscular function. How grip dynamometry is used for this purpose is described in Science of Sports Training.

8. To really know which muscles are significantly loaded and may be overworked in an exercise, check all your muscles every day for three days after the last workout with a specific exercise and note which are sore or tender. Don’t check just the “prime movers.” For example, if after heavy deadlifts the muscles around your shoulder blades are sore, then those are vulnerable to damage. If your thigh adductors or the arches of your feet are tender, then those are your weak links. If you want to get stronger, not weaker, you have to wait until these weak links are fully recovered.

Unbreakable Umbrella vs. Watermelon

6 Responses to “How to Prevent Insufficient Recovery in High-Intensity Training”

  1. 1 Mark

    The aerobic system is critical in the recovery process. Many power sport athletes think that developing the aerobic system will decrease their power output, when in fact, if trained correctly will allow them to recover more quickly and efficiently. Better recovery means they can train more often and get better gains. In the early phase of your periodization, a focus on raising your aerobic capacity serves two purposes. 1. Your body gets a break from heavy training and can repair. 2. You will be building a recovery base that will allow you to train harder in your building phases. Give it a try!

  2. 2 Matthew Baniewicz

    as i have grown in understanding of the entire training process, through books like Science of Sports training, i have also come to understand the importance of aerobic fitness. depending upon the sport (and season) you have to find the right balance. some weightlifters and track athletes do not need much aerobic work at all. other athletes like ones who compete in basketball, soccer, and football need a lot of anaerobic as well as aerobic fitness. in an event like a football game if one has developed their heart and lungs they will be able to recover faster in between plays. also, a high level of fitness will help them recover in between sets of sprints or resistance training. the better the aerobic fitness the faster you may recover in between speed and strength workouts as well. but be careful not to do too much aerobic work as it can work against you during cycles focsed on maximal strength.

  3. 3 chris

    I’ve got question- I have noticed that if the weight feels too heavy – as in the case of warm ups- I know that I am still not ready to lift and recovered from a previous session. After reading Mentzer’s ideas I cut and cut back my training more and more. Then one day I noticed that all of a sudden the weight felt light and that’s when i knew I was getting stronger. I tried doing say benches on Monday and then waiting until the following week on wednesday or even friday- 9 or 11 days – to bench again and that didn’t work for me- I just got weaker when i would wait that long. But I also couldn’t lift more frequently than that- like say benching once each 7 days.

    The answer seemed to be to me was benching heavy on Monday of week one, then on Monday of week two do something really light – like crazy light like two 20lb dumbbells for 5 or 6 reps just to feel it in my muscles. It has definitely helped increase strength. But recently I have started to notice that the light day may even sometimes be too much- like those tiny 20lb dumbbells actually felt heavy – to me that is a sign I am not recovered. But I still l feel like I need to exercise in some way or my system becomes untrained- that is I think I feel conditioned and I feel better if I get some exercise in.

    So here is my question: is it possible that I could skip the light chest exercise the second week ( the light week) and just do some other type of light training like cables. I ask this for 2 reasons: 1. If I avoid that light chest day will my benching decline because my chest muscles will atrophy. and 2. Can I do some entirely different light lifts – not focused on my chest- and that will somehow maintain my conditioning and also keep my chest from atrophying before the next week of heavy lifting. Is there some crossover in other words from exercises unrelated to my chest or benches that will keep my chest conditioned and not allow it to get deconditioned before the next week of lifting?

  4. 4 nik7d

    thank you tom
    had years of too aerobic and/or no training
    started in on intensity training tonight
    worked with a version of the Optimal Diet since march 2011
    better results than expected
    joint pain and soft tissue injuries much reduced
    quicker recovery times
    better sleep
    much better strength flexibility
    Stretching Scientifically and Science of Sports Training also helped
    any comments on kettlebell?
    primal and/or paleo diets?

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