Any experienced sportsperson will be in no doubt of the benefits of strength training for athletes of all disciplines. Just to reiterate, these benefits are almost impossible to overstate; not only can stronger muscles help reduce the risk of injury, the gains in strength and power that result are also beneficial to many athletes – even those engaging in sports, which although primarily endurance in nature, require occasional bursts of power.
The key to successful strength training is to tailor a program that maximises the benefits for the athlete, while also minimising the time and physical effort expended. Depending on the athlete’s training goals, there are numerous permutations of exercise, sets, reps, loadings and strength training frequencies that can be utilised.
Another variable that can be manipulated is the recovery period following strength training. This can involve altering the speed of each rep, altering the rest period between sets and altering the amount of rest taken between each strength workout (ie training frequency). There is though, another way that recovery can be manipulated – by changing the nature of the recovery. Most recovery periods involve passive rest – ie where the athlete simply does nothing during the recovery period. However, it’s also possible to engage in ‘active recovery’, which involves engaging in some form of light/gentle exercise before the next bout of intense work.
Active recovery is sometimes used during interval training sessions, where the goal is to develop endurance fitness. So for example, instead of just passively sitting or standing at the trackside between running efforts, the athlete remains active at a reduced intensity – ie doing some low-intensity jogging. The theory behind active recovery is that the muscle movements aid the clearance of lactate from muscles – especially after hard efforts. Clearing lactate from fatigued muscles rapidly is desirable because 1) it hastens the time when muscles are ready to work hard again, and 2) it can reduce the subjective feelings of fatigue at the end of an interval session, and may even reduce the severity and duration of any delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Active recovery sessions are also sometimes used after particularly long or hard training sessions or matches; for example, cyclists who go for a short, very easy ride the next day to ‘spin out’ the fatigue from their legs.
Although active recovery strategies have been quite well investigated after sporting activities such as distance running and cycling, and soccer and rugby, there’s very little data on whether an active strategy can help improve recovery from strength/resistance training sessions – sessions which by their very nature are quite intense. However, a very recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has tried to answer this very question by comparing the effects of active and passive strategies on the recovery response after a high-volume bench press protocol.
In this study, 25 resistance-trained men performed a high-volume, very fatiguing bench press session, which consisted of 8 sets of 10 reps at 70% of each participant’s 1 repetition maximum (1RM). Recovery time between sets was set at 75 seconds, and during the exercise session, if the required number of repetitions per set was not completed, then the load was reduced by 5% of 1RM in the subsequent set to enable the participant to complete the required number of repetitions. No forced repetitions were performed. Immediately before the exercise session (baseline [BL]), strength and power assessments were performed. Following the exhaustive bench press session, two different recovery strategies were undertaken by the participants over the next 48 hours:
After the workout, participants were tested 15 minutes, 24 hours and 48 hours post-exercise to assess the acute fatiguing effect of the workout. To do this, the participants were required to perform a bench press throw test (BT – to measure power generation) and an isometric bench press test (IBP – to measure strength). By comparing the change in power and strength measures before and then again at different time points after the high-intensity bench-press protocol, the researchers sought to identify whether an active or passive recovery strategy conferred any recovery advantage.
The key finding was that as you would expect, both groups experienced a very significant drop in bench-press throw power and bench press strength (compared to their baseline scores) when tested 15 minutes after the training session. However, when retested 24 hours after the session, the bench throw power scores in the active recovery group had recovered to almost to baseline levels. The scores in the passive recovery group were still significantly depressed however. The same pattern was noted for bench-press strength; once again, the active recovery group scored close to their baseline levels after 24 hours whereas the passive group scored significantly below baseline scores at the same time point. Interestingly, despite these findings, there were no differences between the groups in measures of perceived soreness.
The theory behind active recovery is that the muscle movements aid the clearance of lactate from muscles – especially after hard efforts.
The most significant point to make here is that until now, there has been very little data on active recovery for strength training. What this study showed is that undertaking some very light active recovery exercise post-strength training significantly enhanced the recovery rate after just 24 hours. This was reflected in the fact that both power and strength of the muscles trained (pectorals, triceps) recovered more rapidly when active recovery was performed.
Putting this into practice, athletes and strength and conditioning coaches should consider including light resistance training sessions (using a load corresponding to 10% of the athlete’s 1RM) in periodised strength training programs in order to enhance recovery between heavy workouts and to optimise neuromuscular adaptations. These could be incorporated into subsequent strength training sessions focused on different muscle groups. For example, if the chest muscles were trained on day 1 using bench press, and day 2 targets the legs, some very light sets of bench presses could be added to the leg session on day 2. This strategy could be particularly useful when several resistance training sessions are performed in a short training period – for example in the accumulation phase of block periodised strength training programs.