Gabriel J. Wilson, M.S., CSCS and Jacob M. Wilson, M.S., CSCSMaximizing Performance and Recuperation for Bigger Gains
Boxing legend George Foreman was unique in the sport in that he would stand between rounds. Some may consider that counterintuitive—if the goal is to recover between rounds, why would George expend more energy by staying on his feet?
His method is known scientifically as “active recovery” and involves performing light physical activity between sets or workouts. It’s the opposite of “passive recovery,” which involves relaxation, such as sitting down in a chair.
Both techniques are meant to improve performance and recovery. Evidence indicates, however, that active recovery between rounds may have given George an edge over his opponents. Active recovery can work for bodybuilders as well, at three distinct times: between sets, postworkout and between workouts.
The classic “burn” you feel between sets is caused by an accumulation of lactic acid, a by-product of anaerobic metabolism, which results in a decrease in weightlifting performance and, finally, an end to it. Decreasing pH reduces the activity of enzymes, lowers white blood cell count and nutrient transporters, and slows muscular contraction and ATP production.
It follows that in order to optimize performance, the goal should be to maximize lactic acid clearance. The most effective way to do that is through aerobic metabolism, providing ample oxygen to the muscles so they can clear lactic acid from the blood.
Studies indicate that the most effective way to accomplish that is with low intensity exercise—30 to 40 percent of your VO2 max.1,2 Exceeding that intensity risks crossing your lactate threshold and actually producing more lactic acid; lower intensity will minimize oxygen delivery to the muscles. So if you feel a deep burn in your muscles during active recovery, you likely need to lower your intensity.
The effectiveness of active recovery over passive recovery between sets has been demonstrated in sprinters and weightlifters, among other athletes. An excellent example was an experiment reported in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Fifteen experienced resistance-trained males performed weight workouts consisting of six sets of parallel squats at 85 percent of their 10-repetition maximum. The participants recovered for four minutes between sets with either passive sitting or low-intensity exercise on a stationary bicycle. After that workout participants performed a maximal-repetition squat test using 65 percent of their 10-rep maximum. The athletes engaging in active recovery were able to do 20 percent more repetitions than athletes who engaged in passive recovery between sets. No wonder George was able to smash all his opponents.
The typical bodybuilding workout involves taking short rest periods—less than one minute between sets. For variation, however, many bodybuilders implement a “heavy” day in their split or focus on progressive resistance with a few key lifts, such as squats. During those days maximal loads are lifted—greater than 85 percent one-rep maximum—and longer rest periods are taken, usually three to five minutes between sets. On heavy training days, when the primary goal is to increase your strength, active recovery will prove most helpful.
Optimally, you perform active recovery specific to the muscle group trained. For example, if you’re training legs, you might walk around between sets or use a stationary bike. If you’re training delts, you might use the elliptical, or lightly shake your arms around between sets.
Active Recovery Postworkout
The goal of postexercise active recovery—commonly known as the cooldown—is similar to active recovery between sets: lactic acid removal. The half-life of lactic acid is normally 15 to 25 minutes after physical activity; however, lactic acid may return immediately to baseline after a single cooldown session. That’s important, as a cooldown performed immediately after exercise can reduce the decline in white blood cell count by a whopping 30 percent, effectively promoting a healthy immune system. That’s particularly applicable to the bodybuilder whose high-volume workouts may impair immune function in the hours following training. Lastly, active recovery can be very useful for bodybuilders training twice daily, so they recover faster for their second session.