Muscle Recovery – The More Advanced You Get the Trickier It Becomes

January 10, 2010

I felt the need to discuss muscle recovery here, because I think many people get this part wrong in their training.

Many magazine and sites would have you believe that the more experienced you are, the better your levels of recovery. That is true to an extent but as a trainee gets stronger, the training stress increases as well. In fact, the closer you get to your genetic potential the tougher and heavier you must lift to see a change in strength (or muscle size if you are trying to increase muscle mass).

Advanced lifters have a much greater need to cycle intensity than beginners. A beginner can gain strength each and every workout, with less time in between sessions.

Muscle Recovery (Neon)

[I always appreciate good photos even if they don’t relate to the topic. 2010 has just begun and I think this will be know as the decade of neon! Old retro 80’s stuff is coming back big which means neon is going to make a comeback. Back in the mid-to-late 80’s black lights were very common place…great for making your teeth look white…bad if you forgot to use a lint roller.]

Advanced Trainees Need Bigger “Stresses” to the Body

In Mark Rippletoe’s and Lon Kilgore’s masterpiece on strength training, “Practical Programming for Strength Training”, they talk about what happens as an athlete becomes more advanced.

An advanced lifter must push their body much harder to achieve a positive adaption than a beginner…

“Unlike beginners or intermediates, advanced and elite
trainees need large amounts of intense work to disrupt
homeostasis and force adaptation
. This means that the stress
required for progress will creep nearer and nearer to the
maximal tolerable workload that the body can perform and
recover from. An elite athlete who is doing ten sets of squats
and making progress may not make any progress with nine sets
and may “overtrain” by doing eleven. The window for progress
is extremely small.” – Rippletoe & Kilgore

Stress to the Body VS Ability to Recover

As a trainee becomes more advanced, his recovery level does increase. This is what is talked about in fitness magazines and in many other fitness books.

What people fail to mention is that in order to make positive progress, the stimulus and stress to the body must increase as well. In fact, the stress to the body winds up increasing at a faster rate than the ability to recover.

Supercompensation (Improving After Recovery)

A beginner doesn’t need a massive stimulus to make progress…and because of that, they can recover quickly and gain strength or muscle (supercompensation).

For intermediate and advanced athletes thing look different…they sometimes need more than one workout to give the body a big enough stress to improve…

“In the novice, a single training stimulus results in supercompensation in 24 to 72 hours, just in time for the next training session. For the intermediate trainee, multiple training sessions in a week are required to induce supercompensation. For the advanced trainee the cumulative effects of weeks of training are needed to induce supercompensation in a month’s time or longer.” – Rippletoe & Kilgore

What This Means & How You Can Use This Knowledge

I hate to make things too complicated, but here’s how you can use this knowledge. If you are beginner you can expect to make consistent strength gains and muscle gains from workout to workout.

An intermediate will cycle intensity (usually a heavy day alternated with a more moderate day seems to work well). An advanced lifter who wants to lift really heavy weights, will want to use a schedule of periodization (beyond the scope of this article).

Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to “Go Light”

Most of us will never reach the level of an advanced lifter, so no need to make things too complex.

What I suggest is to simply lift light weights on the days where the bar feels heavy in your hands. You should know within 1-2 sets of your first lift, if your body hasn’t achieved supercompensation from the last workout.

Don’t worry that you will lose strength, muscle size, or muscle tone by backing off a bit…this is actually the way to experience positive results over time in your lifting.

Most of Us Won’t Need to Worry About This As Much

This site is about just adding a natural level of muscle to achieve the lean look…like men and women in Hollywood. You don’t need to stress the body to-the-max to reach this level. You can do this by simply gaining strength slowly over time while losing body fat.

[This is a funny commercial from “GQ” Magazine. A tiny bit of swearing at one point, but that still qualifies for the PG-13 rating of my site. Love this Billy Idol Song…good for some cheesy Karaoke for sure!]

The Law of Diminishing Returns and Muscle

I am a firm believer in the fact that most people will put on their “natural” level of muscle mass within just 6-9 months of training following a solid workout plan.

Every pound of muscle gained after that simply takes magnitudes more effort than that initial muscle gain. My advice is to add a bit of muscle if you haven’t trained and get that part “out of the way”.

After those 6 months, spend the rest of the time fine tuning your muscle by getting stronger without increasing in size…get great abs, increase muscle definition, etc.


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{ 40 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrew January 11, 2010 at 1:40 am

Great post. I was just thinking about this today. I’ve been lifting for years, and in the past few months, really stepped up the intensity, but noticed that overall, I was starting to get weaker.

I’m now on vacation in what was supposed to be beautiful, sunny Orlando, Florida (it’s 20 degrees here! What gives? There’s a blizzard in my hometown in Kansas and it’s 0 degrees, so I guess this is an improvement). I was sitting around tonight, looking out my condo window at Spaceship Earth on the Disney property, watching the fireworks, thinking “I should go down to the fitness center and lift.” And then I began to look back at my training and realized that I haven’t taken time off in a long time. I used to say that if you can’t remember the last time you took time off, it’s been too long. Seems I don’t practice what I preached to myself.

As much as it pains me, I’m taking a week off and I’m going to come back slowly, with lighter weight than where I left off. Like you say, it will be better in the long run. I think the reason we don’t like to back down or take recovery time is because it FEELS like we’re being lazy. You can feel fatigue. I love getting a good sweat. But you can’t FEEL your body getting better when you’re sitting around taking time off. Backing off the weights doesn’t FEEL like making progress, even though it can help.

Thanks again for posting this article. I think you should repost something like it every 3 months or so as a reminder that we all need to take some time and let our bodies recover.

gus January 11, 2010 at 6:55 am

hi rusty.

i read in a previous article about nutrition and how small of an impact that had to do about gaining muscles, which really was just about training, and nutrition was most about just loosing body fat.

so do you think it is possible to gain muscle while dieting pretty hard( living on a 800- 1500 calorie per day) ?
thx 😛

deb roby January 11, 2010 at 2:04 pm

Black light. EVIL if you have any caps in your mouth- they either show black or sometime a glowing green. I do not need a return to the 80s. please.

I’m laying off most strength training because of an injury. But I’m feeling confident that when I do get back, I will recover my strength in short period of time. Being an early stage intermediate I guess does give me some benefits.

Bobby January 11, 2010 at 4:38 pm

Hi rusty
I’ve got a post on the article about Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen if you could answer it for me please?
Thanks a lot

Rahim January 11, 2010 at 6:42 pm

This actually gave me some clarity to why I’ve been feeling the way I’ve been feeling. I don’t lift weights, but I do calisthenics and martial arts. I went Really hard last week and I was barely able to practice or workout this morning and I think (hope) that it’s what you’re talking about here.

Dave January 11, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Yeah baby… the neon rocks like a RHCP video.

Rusty, good post as usual. I can definitely relate to the diminishing returns part. That’s why I think variety in your workouts is even more important for intermediate and advanced users. To be young again and gain muscle with ease:)

Daniel January 12, 2010 at 1:40 am


when you say that most people will put on their natural level of muscles within 6 or 9 months of training, does that apply to bodyweight training alone? What if one never lift a weight and just use bodyweight exercises. While I understand that won’t work with bodybuilders who won’t to get huge, would that still work in leading to the kind of physique and conditioning you promote, without barbells, dumbbells or machines?

Yash January 12, 2010 at 2:02 am

Like this article, Rusty. It’s easy to concentrate so much on what to do in the gym and forget about resting when you’re out.

One interesting point: If and advanced/intermediate trainee takes an extended break from training, their body can revert to beginner levels of recovery due to the longer period of not training [anywhere from a few weeks to months]. It’s not to say they’ll get even stronger after they come back from a hiatus, but strength definitely drops off when you take time off, but it comes back much more quickly if you were at that levels before you stopped than if you were trying to get there for the first time. There’s no scientific evidence o really explain “muscle memory” but this is one of those strange bodily phenomenon that lends some support to it.

FitJerks Fitness Blog January 12, 2010 at 2:22 am

While I agree with “The Law of Diminishing Returns and Muscle”… I’ve also found that there are effective ways to get over this hurdle. It’s a sticking point, but not a “get stuck” point.

If you can “shock” your body, natural anabolic growth (even if you are past your initial prime time) is easily possible. Ok not easily, takes a shit load of work, but the gain is pretty much equal to the investment put in.

Johnny at The Lean Saloon January 12, 2010 at 2:51 am

Great post. I’ve studied exercise science for nearly two decades and participated in intensive discussion boards like Supertraining, but in the end I’ve gained the most in health, general fitness, and aesthetics by keeping the routine simple. Nothing facilitates adherence and low-stress better than simplicity.

Mindbodygoal January 12, 2010 at 9:23 am

Hi Rusty,
Fantastic post as ever and one that rings very true by my own experiences.

My sport is competitve powerlifting and the ability to recover plays a huge role in my training frequency.
I would concur with your good self that since I have been training at a more advanced level my recovery takes longer.

I’ll give an example.
One of the sessions I complete each week is a deadlift based workout, usually working up to 1 or 2 heavy triples each week and every so often a max effort single rep.

I found that attempting to train like this using a program that rotates every seven days did not provide sufficient rest, with niggles and injuries creeping in after 4 – 5 weeks of training like this.

I now train deadlift once every 10 days and have found this to be optimal, with fewer niggles and less incidents of injury.

In fact, on occasion I have found that taking a two week rest period can result in the first session back smashing numerous personal bests.

Thinking about it now, I actually wonder whether ones “training status” is a red herring and it’s merely the exercise intensity and frequency which determines the amount of rest needed. With the elite level athletes training at a more severe intensity and perhaps pushing themselves that bit harder.

Rafi Bar-Lev at Passionate Fitness January 12, 2010 at 4:05 pm


Is it just me or are you in love with the 80’s?

I like your advice about using lighter weight if you’ve found that you haven’t totally recovered from your last workout (which you can tell by how the weight feels). It makes things must more simple for beginners, since they don’t have a pattern set yet.

Another thing that works well in a situation where you go into a workout and then realize you’re not fully recovered is to switch to body weight exercises, which is sometimes the safest option.


sangita January 13, 2010 at 7:41 am

Hello Rusty – long time since I commented but have been reading the posts fairly regularly. Its been crazy lately so a slightly belated Happy New Year! The wishes extend to your wonderful commentators who are a huge source of knowledge and inspiration. Infact I just spend a lot of time re-reading some posts and the comments!
I had to come here to wish everyone because this site has helped a lot in my weight loss. I discovered the virtual world of fitness in the later part of 2009 thanks to Vic Magary and well…frankly life has’nt been the same since. (Can’t even remember how I went to his site!) I’ve lost 14 pounds (though I have to admit the figure would have been higher had I been more sincere). So thank you so much and hope you have a rocking 2010!

Sway January 13, 2010 at 9:41 pm

Hey Rusty,

Just a quick question.

Is it possible to have extra leg mass even when just jogging? I have been jogging at moderate/slow pace and I still seem to retaining muscle mass. Would it be better for me to a brisk walk instead of running?

I haven’t lifted with my leg muscles in a long time. As well as easily developing muscle in my lower legs that is also where I carry any extra body weight. I would be descibed as a text – book pear shape. But it feels like more solid mass – like muscle not fat. I could really use your advise because I’m all out ideas.

Thanks in advance.

chacha January 14, 2010 at 4:14 pm

hey rusty i love all the advice you give!! I have a did a piece on “skinny fat syndrome” and that is me for a girl and i want to have more muscle definition in my arms and back and shoulders..i have a gym membership and kettlebells..i dont know what to do or what kind of lifting would be their a good routine for women you could prescribe to get more definition? like the type of excersises at the gym or should i do my TT kettlebell wrkouts? thankyou!!

JC January 14, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Gus: Building muscle on 800-1500 kcals is going to be damn near impossible. that is unless you are like 3 feet tall and do nothing but train for an hour and sleep the rest of the day.

Chacha: if you are interested in building muscle, I would recommend the New Rules of Lifting for Women.

Mukundan January 15, 2010 at 6:16 am

Nice and interesting article. Liked ur post very much.

chica January 15, 2010 at 8:30 am

I’ve just started the adonis effect workouts. They don’t seem to believe in recovery…

Ryan Krane January 15, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Hey Rusty,

Super thorough article. This is definitely something I’ll talk about during one of my classes, since most people do think that the more experienced you are in training, the faster you recover. It’s my first time on your blog and I’ll definitely be coming back for repeats!


Trygve January 16, 2010 at 11:50 am

Im gonna work really hard on shoulders, also a bit on chest. But isnt the most important thing with gaining muscles that you get stronger every workout? stronger=bigger? or am i missing something. By that i mean say i do 2-3 exersices on shoulders i make sure that everytime i go in the gym i can lift a bit heavier? or 1 rep more? and when u enter a workout when u cant do that, you need a bit more recovery?

Also regard of reps, what is the best for muscle grow? like in widening the shoulders and get that V shape. And also for tone in other parts? still the 5 reps as you posted earlier for muscle tone.

Karsten88 January 17, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Hey Rusty.
About ESE – I never understood if it’s clever to do cardio or resistance training on fasting days? Anyone here doing that?
And can you do your training sessions in the morning and then have your meal at night? Or is it best to eat 1-3 hours after your workout?

Marc January 18, 2010 at 12:42 pm


I didn’t have an email for you so sorry to put this here.
but I just want to say THANK YOU!!!!! 😉

You’re write up about my “little blog” was so so nice. It was humbling to read, and it feels so good to know that it is appreciated. Simple affirmation that it makes a difference….now that’s what life is all about in my opinion.
Thank you again, and I look forward to meeting up in person one day. The invite is always open for a visit to Naples. Here’s to a nice cold one on the beach!! I mean it!
Have a great week.
(obviously put your link up on my new post today)

Trainerpack January 19, 2010 at 7:33 pm

I have a client, he is 35, when we started he was 20lbs over. Then through heavy weights and intense workouts he lost all 20lbs and gained 10lbs of muscle in just 3 mths. His recovery was much faster as he became fitter. Now he workouts out each day and no soreness!

Burritokid January 19, 2010 at 9:24 pm

Congrats on your book Rust. I’ll be the first to buy. I’m sure you felt it’s been a long road. Cant wait to read and apply it.

Clement January 20, 2010 at 7:36 am

Hey rusty, what do you define as overtraining? Is it when you have Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness (DOMS)? Or if you find the workouts just make you sleepy throughout the day? Oh and btw what do you think of Convict Conditioning’s workouts, especially the squatting progressions? I’d love to master the 1-legged squat, but would it put on excessive mass by following through to the progression phase, what with the high reps per set needed to progress? And should I add a session of high intensity cardio after the strength sessions that Wade reccommends? Sorry for the overload of questions. I know you’re busy with your awesome new programme, but I do need help with this!

Tank January 20, 2010 at 8:59 am

Suggestion: Improve your site by creating a ‘favicon’ – an icon that will appear in a web browser tab or resource locator. It will make the site look more professional. For example:

It’s already a great site, just a small tip to make it even better.

rose January 20, 2010 at 10:34 am

nice article…you make a really good point magazine articles hardly ever seem to pick up on.

New York Limo January 21, 2010 at 2:06 am

I agree about that natural build within the first year of training. Anything earned after that truly takes a lot of hard work and dedication.

Clement January 21, 2010 at 9:49 am

Oh btw, I’ve also been following the earlier workouts that Arnel Rianfrica constructs at I especially like the classic 16 week programme. But I’m afraid it will make me blocky… Will it create the angular look that we all love? I’m so sorry for flooding your message board with so many questions! I’m new to this…

admin January 21, 2010 at 7:23 pm


You can gain muscle under certain circumstances with calorie restriction, but will make much slower progress. It also depends upon where you are at muscle wise. If you haven’t trained in a long time, this is more likely to happen than if you have been training consistently.


Funny…I didn’t know that about black lights and caps!


I am never able to answer 100% of the comments, but I am trying to get to as many as possible the next 3 hours. So I looked up your question. Lower abs, do hanging leg raises. Actually this is a great for overall ab development. As far as maintaining strength. Go lower reps and more rest in between sets when lifting. Maximize tension and minimize fatigue.


Yeah…you are probably just a bit over trained. We all do this from time to time.


It depends upon your body weight routine. If you did something like Convict Conditioning you would have a natural amount of ripped muscle in that time frame.


Good point. I have noticed that after taking vacations and coming back.


True…I guess it depends upon how much muscle you want in the first place.


I agree with simplicity. Nice looking blog by the way (I like simple in blog design as well…easier to access the info).


That is crazy about dead-lifts. I don’t do them anymore, but when I was doing them they seemed to tax my body hard and recovery took 6-7 days. Some of the crazy 600+ pounds I see others doing just look rough to me!


I love new music and styles, etc…but I have a spot in my heart for New Order, anything new wave, The Cure, industrial music, etc. Love that stuff! Good point on switching up to body weight exercises.


Vic has a great site. Gym Junkies is really making waves online with their great free info. Plus both Vic and Justin are stand-up guys.


Running or jogging will do the trick. What will happen is that your leg muscles will temporarily get bigger at first. As you lose weight you will begin to lose leg mass.


I am currently working on what I believe will become one of the best women’s lifting courses online. It has been a long time in development and will be my biggest course by far. Still many months away. The TT Kettlebell workout is great to get rid of skinny fat syndrome. It should do the trick.


Yeah…probably the only way he could gain muscle was if he was under his set muscle size…but in some ways that isn’t gaining muscle. It is just getting where he should have been at anyway.


John Barban has a slightly different approach to lifting that actually works very well. I recommend the Adonis Effect and all of John Barban’s stuff…his blog, podcasts, etc.


Thanks for reading and commenting. This is something that I think people get wrong…a lot.


For size you are aiming to fatigue your muscles with a weight that you can lift 6-15 times before you fail. I would recommend pyramiding weight if you are after mass. Note: Fatigue and pyramiding the weight isn’t as good for strength training. Do a set of 12, 10, 8, 6, and then 12-15 reps for an exercise. Rest only around 60 seconds in between sets. Increase weight in order to fatigue the muscle as you get stronger, but just increasing weight to hit a number isn’t the best approach to building mass.


If you are mainly after gaining muscle then it makes sense to eat 1-3 hours after training. If you are trying to get lean, then working out in on an ESE fasted state works wonders. Honestly…this is a great way to rapidly burn fat.


Your blog continues to be one of my favorites. It is the best one for getting creative recipes. Would love to see what Naples has to offer!


Yes…I knew someone would catch me on this one small point. It does take the body a few weeks to adapt to any new routine. I am not counting those first few weeks. I am counting after the body has adapted to the routine going forward. Good call on that point.


Thanks buddy…you have been a long time reader and commenter and I appreciate it.


I am pretty cool with one-legged squats. Your legs aren’t going to grow out of proportion just lifting your body weight. If you think about it that is what running stairs, hills, all about. You could certainly do HIIT after Coach Wade’s workouts. Again, don’t worry about the one leg squats. I did them in Adam Steer’s Body Weight program this past winter and it didn’t add any mass. Over-training to me is when you feel weaker in your workouts.


I will do this either today or tomorrow. Great idea…can’t believe I am coming up on 3 years and have missed this…thanks.


I am not familiar with his program. I will take a look when I get the chance.


Trygve January 22, 2010 at 9:02 am

i have big legs,ass and hips after all the years of soccer and bad eating i guess. How is the best way to loose all that fat? can be an idea to do weights with 20+reps or more? or is just better to walk and run?

ted January 22, 2010 at 1:24 pm

If im trying to lose extra muscle mass do i need to eat 1gm of protein for that desired weight(i.e. 160gms protein) Im 186 right now and prolly only about 9-10% bf and i want to slim down to 160.
thank you

ted January 22, 2010 at 3:43 pm

to go along with my last question…should i lay off the weights for awhile and just stick to abs and marathon cardio or stay will 3xweek low volume?

Raza - chest workout January 28, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Hey Rusty,

Maxwell Maltz, in his classic book Psycho-Cybernetics talks about the plateau effect and he prescribes the exact same thing as you. He said when we hit a plateau, the best thing is to back off a bit and take it easy. Apparently it helps the body re-regulate itself and make further progress.

On another note, is this why “muscle confusion” is becoming so popular these days? Trick your muscles so they feel like they’re being worked out differently, and then grow bigger and stronger?


Alex Sotelo January 29, 2010 at 3:13 pm

I couldn’t agree with this more. I remember when I first started working years ago. I was a skinny guy, 150 lbs at 6’1″. I gain 30 lbs in the first 3 months of working out. I was hitting the weights 3 times a week and eating pretty much whatever I wanted. Most of that 30 lb gain was muscle. It seemed like I grew after each workout.

Fast forward quite a number of years and I am still at about the same weight (175-180) but I am much stronger and my muscle are much more defined. Although I have seen some recent strength gains, I haven’t see much muscle growth. What I have noticed is that it actually takes me longer to recover from my workouts because of the intensity I have to take my workouts to in order to see gains.

Dave February 1, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Just signed up for the newsletter. I’m really interested in your take on strategic muscle building. A friend got me Arnold’s “Bible” on body-building recently. I was going to get started but ran across your site. I am about 5’7″ and 155 lbs. But my legs are 22-23″ so I already suspected I needed to lay off on some of the power-lifting.

When’s the book coming out? I need to put on some serious upper body mass to even begin to look proportional with my naturally muscular legs.

Seane September 13, 2010 at 1:04 am

I reside in a location where body building and weight training is legendary. In my knowledge this does not ensure a level of fitness on its own. Sure great muscles, but physically fit. No! All muscle building exercises requires a balance of cardio and aerobic to ensure a full body and mind result.

Jeff - Lean Muscle Workout October 26, 2010 at 4:02 pm

Great post Rusty!
You’re dead on with this quote: “the stress to the body winds up increasing at a faster rate than the ability to recover.”
However, most people don’t use any kind of recovery techniques. Because of this, even adding something simple like an epson salt bath a couple times a week can dramatically improve one’s performance in the gym.

Also, a great recovery technique I stumbled across in college last year is what I have come to call The Caffeine Nap. Basically, you drink some caffeine before a 30 min nap. This kind of nap increases energy, recovery, and relaxation. Since caffeine takes a little while to kick in / laying down slows this process, one wakes up from a nap or rest right as the caffeine is hitting. I just created an in depth video of it on my site.


BeyondPT November 2, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Strength training begins with inner strength. Pilates is a great work out while strengthening your core and leaning your muscles. Designed for ballerinas, it’s also great for recovery of joints and muscles. And unlike yoga, it’s higher impact- though still a stress reliever. A great all-in-one workout!

@how to get abs November 17, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Lots of people don’t use any kind of recovery techniques. Because of this, even adding something simple like an epson salt bath a couple times a week can dramatically improve one’s performance in the gym.

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