It’s the Recovery, Not the Exercise, That Builds Muscles

Your muscles won’t get instantly bigger after you lift weights or go hard on the exercise bike. These kinds of activities are actually damaging your muscles in a way, but it’s all part of how the body achieves healthy growth.

“You make microtears in your muscles when you work them,” says UNC Health Wellness Services manager and certified personal trainer Kathy DeBlasio, MA. “As you heal, you gain muscle and strength.”

These tiny tears may cause you to feel sore, but you shouldn’t be in pain, she says. They’ll heal within 24 to 48 hours.

“That’s why it’s important to do strength training every other day instead of every day,” she says. “That gives your muscles time to recover and get stronger.”

Try these tips to get the most out of your strength training.

Start with a Warmup

Warming up your muscles before doing any exercises, especially strength training, will benefit your body and help you avoid injuries.

“Do a little light cardio, like walking or riding a stationary bike,” DeBlasio says. “This gets the blood flowing to your muscles.”

The blood flow also increases your mind’s awareness of your movements, which helps decrease the risks of injury, she says.

Vary Your Routine

Giving your muscles time to heal and strengthen doesn’t mean you need to stop all exercise. The solution, she says, is to vary what you are doing. Choose an activity that doesn’t cause microtears in the muscles that are recovering.

“We call it active rest. You can go for a walk, do yoga, ride a bike or do anything that is not targeting working those same muscles but using them in a functional manner,” DeBlasio says.

“If you like to do strength training every day, then train different muscles,” she adds. “Do your legs one day and your back, chest, biceps and triceps another day. That way, you’re still allowing your body to recover.”

Expand Your View of a Workout

You might become comfortable with your routine—you’re increasing your workout time or the weight you’re using, and you’re building strength and endurance.

Then you spend the day raking leaves, packing boxes or playing volleyball, and you feel it later.

“If you’re using muscles in a way you haven’t done in a while, you’re probably going to get sore,” she says. “Take that into account when planning your workout for the next day. Often, moving those sore muscles helps them to feel better.”

Nourish Your Body

Make sure you are fueling your body before, during and after your workout with the right foods and fluids.

To build and maintain energy, eat carbohydrates and protein one to two hours before your workout, says UNC Health registered dietitian Elizabeth Watt.

During your exercise, drink plenty of water. Otherwise, your electrolytes, sodium and calcium could get out of balance and strain your cardiovascular system, Watt says.

If you will be working out for more than an hour, you might want to have a snack that contains carbohydrates and supplement your water with an electrolyte sports drink.

Within 15 minutes of finishing your workout, Watt says to eat a snack that contains protein and carbs, which are fuel to help your muscles repair.

Know When You’ve Had Enough

You can have too much of a good thing, and then it becomes a bad thing.

“If you’re lifting too much or going too long, you may go beyond what your body can manage,” DeBlasio says. “Doing too much can tear down muscle that your body can’t easily repair. Then you can’t train those muscle fibers anymore.”

Listen to your body, she says.

“If you’re doing cardio, let your body recover before you do more,” she says. “With strength training, resting between sets is essential.”

Varying your routine, getting enough rest and fueling your body correctly are the best ways to build muscle, endurance and overall health, she says.

Before starting or changing a strength-training regimen, get cleared by your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.