Here’s How Muscle Recovery Really Works

Hey Angels and Alphas,

You know it, I know it, everyone knows it – there are few things that feel more rewarding than finishing a hard workout. You feel accomplished, you’ve pushed yourself to the limit, and you’re ready to indulge in a process of recovery.

But the fact is – just because you’ve stopped running, doing sprints, or lifting weights, doesn’t mean your body is done doing its work. In fact, from the moment you get in the shower to the moment you step outside the gym, your body has already started the process of repairing your muscles you just worked so hard to break down – so it can help them come back stronger and better at your next workout.

The majority of your results happen in between your workouts.

And while paying the utmost attention to your workout routine and how it plays out, you should know that learning the ins and outs of muscle recovery will help you go a long way toward achieving the results you’re really looking for.

Today, we’re here to break down everything that happens to your body after your workout, as well as the intricate mechanisms of muscle recovery that make it one of the most important parts of achieving your dream physique.

Your workout is the first trigger in a timeline of internal body events.

First of all, as you’re working out, assuming you’re working out for strength and hypertrophy, you’re basically working to create micro-tears in the muscles you’re
working. As soon as you drop the final rep on the final set, your body begins a complicated process of repairing these micro-tears.

Not every workout you do will produce the necessary “damage” to cause your muscles to become sore. And when a workout does that, you’ll probably feel it around 12 to 24 hours after your workout is finished. This soreness is known as DOMS, delayed onset muscle soreness, and it’s the often tight, achy, painful sensation that is basically a byproduct of your body’s recovery process.

Muscle recovery happens in two basic phases the initial phase and the resolution phase.

The first, also known as the phase of regeneration, also includes the part of your workout when you’re actually doing damage to your muscles since this is technically a part of the muscle repair process.

Although inflammation is something we’re all trying to keep away from our body, it’s actually an essential part of muscle repair. (That’s why if you take anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to ease your muscle soreness, this might actually lead to stalling your progress and decreasing your gains.)

When your body is recovering from a workout, it released a group of cells called helper cells or satellite cells, directly to the damaged areas so they can rebuild the micro-tears in your muscles. This repair process continues for as long as it takes a “messenger molecule”, a.k.a an inflammatory mediator, is present to send signals to your body to restart at the end of each cycle of building. That’s precisely why NSAIDs such as paracetamol prevent your gains – because they prevent inflammatory mediators from forming, cutting back on your recovery potential.

In the resolution phase, also known as the remodeling phase, the regenerated muscle fibers basically finish developing, and your strength goes back to normal.

So how long does it take for muscles to actually recover?

How long it takes for your muscles to recover is basically how we measure recovery. But this depends on a variety of factors, including how intense your workout was, what activities you participated in, and your overall fatigue prior to your workout.

Generally, it takes anywhere between 24 and 36 hours for your muscles to adequately recover from endurance exercise, meaning running and cycling. Moreover, it takes up to 72 hours to recover from more high-intensity forms of exercises such as heavy resistance training, HIIT, or plyometrics.

Some exercises, especially those that emphasize eccentric, or lengthening contractions of muscles also cause increased levels of muscle damage, and naturally, more intense forms of DOMS. Concentric (shortening) and isometric (static) contractions produce less damage.

We can take a prime example of eccentric-heavy exercise – downhill running – whereas cycling tends to be concentric-heavy. Isometric exercises could be wall sits, planks, and a lot of yoga poses.

Does this mean I should be sore after every workout?

Not at all! If your muscles are sore, it means you did more, or in some cases, different, than what your body is used to. That’s why if you want to progress in any given
dimension (i.e. strength), it is important that you keep challenging the muscles to make progress.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should be chasing after DOMS every workout you do. This is a recipe for disaster, and it is not a productive way to progress. Sooner or later, you will reach a point where you overwhelm your body with the intensity you’re putting it through, naturally leading not to progress, but to a degradation of your ability to recover. And when you cannot recover productively, you’re basically eliminating your progress, and you’re exposing yourself to incredible risks of injury due to overtraining.

To conclude…

We know this for a fact – muscle soreness isn’t really fun, especially if it’s all the time. And while muscle soreness is hard to avoid, especially if you’re a beginner, knowing how recovery works can reduce some of the anxiety that comes with your first direct experience with DOMS.

The best thing you can do is to learn how recovery works and be prepared to ease into new workout programs and new ways of training so you can guarantee your progress. Making sure you’re warming up, and cooling down, after every workout will decrease the pain and stiffness coming with DOMS and will give you the ability to improve your recovery so you can progress how you should be progressing – slowly and surely.