In a good week, let’s say you spend seven hours working out. That might sound like a lot of gym time, but it still leaves 161 hours during which you could either undermine all of that hard work, or speed-up results with some smart lifestyle tweaks.
How you eat and what you do in the hours following exercise can dramatically impact whether your body continues to burn more calories, repair, and build muscle in all the places you want it — or if you simply plateau and don’t see any results. We spoke with Barry’s Bootcamp trainer Kate Lemere and nutritionist Lee Holmes to find out exactly which supplements to take, diet tweaks you should follow, and activities worth trying out post-workout to maximize results.
Load up on magnesium
Magnesium is used in just about everything your body does to effectively exercise and build muscle, including protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, blood glucose control, and energy production. Because we tend to lose magnesium as we sweat during a workout, eating magnesium-rich foods — such as dark leafy greens, regular milk, almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, fish (like wild salmon and halibut), and avocado — is an important way to replenish and repair your tired body, and help you get the most out of your efforts at the gym.
If you experience painful muscle cramps, Holmes says this could be a sign that your magnesium levels are too low. “Lack of magnesium can cause muscle spasms, however when taken after exercise it can help to calm your muscles down,” she says. She also recommends taking an Epsom salt bath, which is high in magnesium and can help in the same way as an oral supplement.
Get a massage — or do it yourself
Here’s the good news: Science says you need a post-workout massage. Not only can it speed up recovery time, but a recent study found that massage after heavy exercise can also improve muscle strength. “Working out the lactic acid that builds up in your muscles can be painful, but it’s so worth the temporary pain to feel that sweet relief afterward,” Lemere says.
If you can’t justify getting a pro to rub you down after every SoulCycle class, buy a foam roller, and try some moves at home. Rollers sell for around $15 online, and there’s a ton of great, free information available about how to use them.
Eat protein and fats 30 to 60 minutes after a workout
You know those people who mix their protein shakes in the gym locker room? There’s actually a perfectly valid reason for that. After intense exercise, your muscles are depleted of their stored forms of energy — carbohydrates and glycogen, which fuels all those muscular contractions that allow you to sprint, lift, and jump at the gym. This means that when you finish exercising, your muscles are ripe to absorb nutrients to jump-start the repair process, which is crucial if you want to get long, toned muscles.
Lemere recommends eating a fast-digesting carbohydrate and protein source 30 to 60 minutes after you finish exercising. And, because liquid form is typically the most convenient and easiest for your body to absorb, protein shakes aren’t a terrible idea. “Your portion sizes should be a 2:1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein, aiming for about .25 to .40 grams of carbohydrates per pound of bodyweight.” So, a woman who weighs 140 pounds should try to have 35 to 42 grams of carbs and 17 to 20 grams of protein within an hour of her workout.
Focus on stretching large muscle groups
You know warming down after a workout is important, but only the purest among us manage to stick around for the last 10 minutes of class. You should though, because a proper cool down is just as important as the workout itself. Skip those stretches, and you’re not only at a greater risk of tearing a muscle, but you’re also missing out on some key moves that could help elongate and lengthen your body while your muscles are warm and limber.
“A dynamic stretch will help improve flexibility and therefore your range of motion into your joints, which in turn will help keep you injury-free while you recover faster,” Lemere says. After a high-intensity workout, she recommends stretches that “target major muscle groups such as glutes, hamstrings, hips, core, and shoulders.”
Try and hold each stretch for about 30 to 60 seconds on both sides of the body, while continuing to breathe deeply. “Keep movements fluid, but don’t bounce, as you’ll increase your odds of muscle tearing,” Lemere says. There are plenty of great free stretching guides online, but here are some moves to get you started: dynamic runner lunges, kneeling quad stretches, a figure four stretch, and supine lower back stretches.
Take L-glutamine supplements
If you’ve been squatting heavy weights trying to get a curvier, perkier butt, you should also consider taking some L-glutamine. It’s an amino acid and a building block your body needs to make protein — and therefore build muscle — and, in Holmes’ words, it also “creates the right internal environment for muscle recovery and helps to repair the muscle damage caused during a workout.” It can even stimulate the body’s metabolic rate, which means your burn more calories in less time.
It’s obviously best to chat with your doctor when it comes to dosages, but Holmes told us that people commonly take between “500 mg and 1500 mgs per day” of L-glutamine.
Indulge in self-care
Sleep! Meditate! Watch a movie! Take a bath! Do whatever you have to do to de-stress because it will help your body recover and repair after the gym. “Chronic stress from deadlines and busy schedules can significantly impair your recovery timeline,” Lemere explained, adding, “When acute stress from working out is combined with chronic stress, you’re asking a lot from an already overworked body.” Essentially, any form of stress in your life is going to rob your body’s capacity to take on anything further (like, building lean muscles), which Lemere says can lead to plateaus or even worse — injury. Self-care is essential, not selfish.