The Basics, Part 1: Recovering From Workouts

“You don’t get stronger from lifting weights. You get stronger from recovering from lifting weights.” – quote attributed variously to a lot of folks (it’s true no matter who said it)

Recovery is doge’s best friend. And yours.

Lifting weights, and all exercise (or indeed movement of any kind) places a demand on the body, and over time the body will respond in a very particular way to the kinds of demands imposed upon it. This principle was first articulated by biologist Hans Selye in the early and mid twentieth century. He called the phenomenon General Adaptation Syndrome.

“We made this statue of you in honor of your GAS… hmm, that sounded better in our heads”

In summary, GAS tells us that the body will first mobilize resources to deal with a demand. This response does not just involve the muscles, or the internal organs, but the nervous system. Once mobilized, these resources act to resist the stress placed on the body (e.g., when we lift, our bodies both mobilize the muscles needed to lift and the biological processes needed to produce additional energy to replace the energy we are using). And of course, if the stress is too great, the body depletes its resources and is unable to further resist the stress. This can result in exhaustion or, in extreme cases, injury or death. Examples of injury can include things like muscle pulls, strains, or tears (in reality these are all tears, just of varying levels of intensity/severity). Once the body has dealt with a stressor, it acts both to replace the resources used in doing so, and adapts itself to better deal with the stressor in the future. This is why repeteadly doing a physical task allows you to get better at it.

In 1956 exercise scientist Franklin M. Henry further expanded the GAS concept by proposing a new theory: that the body will not only adapt to a stress stimulus, but that it will do so in highly specific ways tailored to that stimulus. Sprinting every day will make you a better sprinter, but won’t make you a better bench presser or squatter (save insofar as the muscles and nervous system adaptations for sprinting overlap with those you use for squatting or benching). This concept is known as SAID – Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand.

Funnily enough, strength trainers and track coaches had known all of this for decades, but it is good to have it codified and proven scientifically. There’s an old coaches saying that goes something like “Sprinters sprint. Boxers box. Wrestlers wrestle.” That is, sport-specific improvements come from sport-specific activities.


Arthur Saxon answering the question “How’d you get so good at lifting weights overhead?”

Anyway, the basic idea behind SAID is the foundation upon which rests pretty much all modern training (for any activity in any sport). There are two keys to it:

1. You get out an adaptation based on the kinds of activity you put in
2. You get better at something not only due to the activity but also due to the biological processes that allow your body to recover from and adapt to these activities.

Read these two things again carefully. They are the key to what I want you to understand. You don’t get better at lifting just by doing even more lifting. You get better at lifting (more weights, more reps, etc.) by recovering from lifting.

The corollary to this is that your body has a finite recovery capacity. This capacity is very low in an untrained individual. Recovery capacity can and will improve as you practice a specific kind of activity. However, recovery capacity, like athletic ability, is also highly activity-specific. For example, I’m a decent lifter, but I’m no longer a great marathoner. Conversely, when I was running marathons ~17 years ago, I was not focusing on lifting, and I was not good at it. If I lifted then, I was sore for a week. if I go for a long run now, I take a long time to recover from that as well.

So, we do some work in our Vintage Strong training programs to increase our work capacity. That’s the general idea behind our “volume” days in lifting programs. We do other work to increase our maximal ability in the lifts. That’s the idea behind the “heavy” days in the programs. (More on this to come in a later post.)

But no matter how much we increase our work capacity, we can only take in so many nutrients. We can only get so much sleep. Sleep and food are the two things our bodies use to recover (see corollary article I wrote on energy systems). No matter how efficient we make our bodies at working and recovering from work, there’s an upper bound to how much we can ask of ourselves before we outstrip our ability to recover.

Athletes do this to themselves all the time. “If lifting 3 days a week is good, lifting 7 days a week twice a day must be better!” Swiftly followed by “this lifting stuff is BS, I’m not making progress!”

This is also why feeling “bad” (can barely walk, feel like you’re going to hurl, etc.) at the end of a workout is not a sustainable long-term strategy. You’ll outstrip your recovery capabilities and stall.

Overloading the recovery systems a bit (e.g., the programs y’all are on now) is good. It means you will adapt and get stronger and more efficient at recovery. Doing too much will mean your body simply cannot recover and keep up. Knowing where that line is can be tricky, especially in older athletes whose minds feel younger than the reality of their bodies. (Ask me how I know, and why I’m typing this instead of competing at nationals right now.)

Think about NFL athletes. They are arguably the fittest people on the planet on a number of axes: strentgh, speed, endurance, ability to take physical punishment, and nervous system response times. They train every day, sometimes multiple times per day. But they also have an entire support structure dedicated to helping them recover from that, and rebuild themselves. The same goes for other high level athletes. Lebron James has been very vocal about how much effort (and money) goes into recovering from his training and game schedules.


Sorry, my friend. But you are not Richard Sherman. Sad but true.

None of us are million-dollar athletes with a 24/7 support team helping us do nothing but recover from our work. So we need to moderate our efforts and do something that will tax our bodies a bit less, but that we can reliably recover from. That’s why it takes months to see real results from an activity like lifting.

That’s also why not doing the program your coach has given you, to the letter, will mean you won’t make the progress you want.

Remember, you hired your coach for their expertise in getting results in a specific area.

This entry was posted in Coaching, Recovery and tagged , , by Dave Nix. Bookmark the permalink.

About Dave Nix

I run a powerlifting club in Houston, Texas. The athletes I coach come from all walks of life, and have found success in the gym and on the platform. As a Masters (over age 40) powerlifter, I've competed and placed at USAPL Raw Nationals, as well as winning and placing in numerous local Texas meets. Follow me on Twitter as @Coach_Dave_VS.

3 thoughts on “The Basics, Part 1: Recovering From Workouts

  1. Pingback: The Basics, Part 2 – Why Resting Between Sets Is Important | VintageStrong

  2. Pingback: The Basics, Part 3 – Why We Do Certain Exercises And Not Others | VintageStrong

  3. Pingback: The Basics, Part 4 – Why we do certain set or rep schemes | VintageStrong

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