Last year when I decided to quit drinking, I needed to fill the openness in my schedule to avoid the temptation of going out to a bar or swinging by a liquor store, so I decided exercising was my best option. My boyfriend took me to a local gym—Liberty Gym: Home of the Serious Workout—and took me around the space, answered a few questions that I had, then left me to my own devices. I gravitated toward the weight machines, free weights and leg machines, and went hard (as the kids say). I went nearly every day for the first two months and quickly learned that I had to be active about my muscle recovery.
Some common, basic misconceptions I had about exercise as a beginner adult were that I would see results nearly instantly (You've seen commercials for “instant fix” machines or nutritional programs.); pain equates to quick muscle toning (“no pain, no gain”); focus on certain areas that I wanted to improve (e.g., Kardashian Workouts—aka butt exercises); and to workout those particular places I wanted to improve every day to maintain them. False! (Kinda.)
There are three basic ways to gain muscle (I'm just going to assume you're into this since we've gotten this far): mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage. Most folks rely on muscle damage—which sounds scary but it's totally fine—but that leaves the two others out and your strong lil bod unnecessarily weaker and sore.
To break it down for you a bit more, mechanical tension is the part of the exercise where your muscle gets tight and metabolic stress is the part where you're reversing directions just before a potential bottoming out. A person could just use one of these methods and grow muscle, but a combination of all three is ideal. And how does this relate to recovery? you ask. Hold on to your grippers, I'm getting to it.
To actually accomplish muscle growth, you need the energy to do so. If you physically exhaust yourself while you're working your legs and the next day you go at it again, you aren't going to gain anything except fatigue and the interest of fellow sadists. To properly execute an exercise, you need enough energy, and to have enough energy you need to rest. Not only does this help you while you work out, but our bodies grow muscle tissue while we're resting. It'll take 6-8 hours to feel sore from a workout, but it takes up to 48 to properly recover from said soreness.
Another part of recovery is eating properly. Yes, you do need protein, but you know what's really underrated? Anti-inflammatory foods and fruits and veggies like blueberries, ginger, red peppers, beets and even oats. These types of foods are particularly important because they speed up recovery time by decreasing swollen muscles, therefore giving you the opportunity to continue your regimen sooner.
And guess what? You can do more! I know a lot of people prefer to workout every day, otherwise they fall off their regimen and into a pit full of fast food which is a slippery slope of delicious grease, sugar and salt (which also causes internal inflammation, so not only will you be greasy, but you'll be bloated, too). To accomplish this 24/7 routine you can focus on different parts of the body—for myself I focus on combination exercises for my lower body over the weekend and upper body during the work week—but you should also consider a more passive workout like yoga or foam rolling during your 24 hours of recovery. Not only are those both great ways to decrease soreness, but they're also fantastic ways to increase your range of motion.
The best way to think about recovery is to regard it as another workout, because it is. Plan recovery days as much as you plan your “everyday” workout to stay on track with your health while taking care of your body. Sure you need to push past pain—that's part of why I love working out—but you still need to rest! Take care of your body and you'll be grateful for it sooner than you think.