If You Can’t Recover, You Can’t Improve


At Some Point in the Training Process it is Necessary for Recovery to Become a Training Modality- Buddy Morris


Recovery, what is it?

According to Google:

“a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.” Google, Recovery

or for the nerds:

“One definition of recovery is as follows: “Mostly, recovery is defined as the compensation of deficit states of an organism (e.g., failure or decrease in performance and, according to the homeostatic principle, a reestablishment of the initial state.” – William Sands

Recovery = a “return to normal” , a “reestablishment of the initial state”

But wait, what?

Isn’t the point of this whole training thing to improve?

To end up, with a new, better, improved, normal?

I think so.

So how do we improve in the first place?

Progressive Overload:

“continually increasing the demands on the musculoskeletal system to continually make gains in muscle size, strength, and endurance. Simply put, in order to get bigger and stronger, you must continually make your muscles work harder than they’re used to. Most often, that means increasing the resistance” –Chris Goulet

We do more than last time, recover, adapt and are hopefully reformed at a new, higher functioning, level.

So really, recovery, for our purposes, isn’t just a return to normal but instead the realization of a higher level of functioning as the “new normal”.

As the same Bill Sands article puts it:

However, Stone et al. expand the concept of recovery beyond repair or refueling and add the idea of growth and supercompensation (i.e., Weigert’s Law) (110,191,255). “Recovery is a process of getting back what was lost or simply bringing an athlete’s performance back to where it was. Adaptation deals with the process of long-term adjustment or alterations related to a specific training program. Thus, the coach and athlete cannot simply be satisfied with recovery but must strive to enhance ‘recovery-adaptation.’” (227), p. 201. The concept of recovery should be broadened to include recovery and adaptation (RA).

The only valuable training is the training that we can fully recover and adapt to.


Therefore, we’re limited in the work we can do and still receive a positive effect from training.

And worse, too much work (stress) might be detrimental to progress…

“Are you getting better, or tired”

There is a limit to the amount of stress we can put on the body and not have negative consequences.

That limit was first introduced by the Soviets and termed  the:

CAR (current adaptive resources):

Ie: Whats stuff(s) are available in the body/ system for you to recover from training (and all of lifes stresses) and get gainzzz.

The higher your CAR, the more you can do and still get gainzzz. <—one of the reasons you need some cardio

Well, the concept of CAR wasn’t some evil Soviet BS, it still exists today.

It’s just been renamed: Allostasis

Adaptation in the face of potentially stressful challenges involves activation of neural, neuroendocrine and neuroendocrine-immune mechanisms. This has been called “allostasis” or “stability through change” McEwen

And the use/ adaptation of these resources (the “chunk” taken out of the pie) as the Allostatic Load:

There are a number of circumstances in which allostatic systems may either be overstimulated or not perform normally, and this condition has been termed “allostatic load” or the price of adaptation(emphasis mine)

So, How Much Should I Do?

Well, enough to get a positive result, increased strength, size, speed etc.

But not so much that you get a negative result, tiredness, lethargy, excessive soreness and stiffness, injury, etc.

Ya gotta find that happy medium….

The place between the upper and lower limit(s) of stress that signals the body to grow, yet not so much that you overwhelm the system.

Maximum Recoverable Volume:

This is a concept I first heard named by Mike Israetel.

Simply put its:

“the most training that an athlete can effectively recover from”Juggernaut

The MRV is the upper limit of volume that you can expect to adapt to.

Any more loading is probably inducing more fatigue into the organism than the system can handle.

Too much stress can lead to all types of fun things like:

  • Overtraining Syndrome
  • Snap City
  • Sickness
  • Lethergy
  • Hating life
  • Beating puppies <—-maybe not, but could..

So you REALLY want to stay at or under your Maximal Recoverable Volume.

That way you can ensure that you’re actually getting improvement from all of the training you’re doing and not just adding work to make you tired.

But, Working Out Once A Week Aint Gonna Cut It:

The body needs enough stress to give it the growth/ adaptation signal.

Minimal Effective Does:

Popularized by that lying piece of sh@t, Tim Ferris <—c’mon man, aint nobody working 4 hours a week..but I DO love his podcast, he actually seems like a really cool guy.

The MED is simply the smallest dose that will produce a desired outcome and anything BEYOND the MED is wasteful. – Gray

Basically, the MED, for our purposes, is the least amount of work you need to for positive adaptation to occur.

CAR vs. MRV and MED

This is the way I think of all of this in terms of smashing the weights:

Maximum Recoverable Volume is the UPPER LIMIT of what the body can handle and Minimum Effective Dose is the LOWER LIMIT that will lead to the change you want.

So, here’s a fun chart I pulled from a highly respected scientific journal:

Don’t over-analyze this, its NOT to scale, its just to get the idea. 

In truth, you’re MRV is probably just barely away from touching the outer edge of the red circle.

That would better represent the amount of volume (stress) where ANY more work would overcome your recovery capabilities, ie the point at which you’re just getting tired, and not better.

Which is better, MRV or MED?

IMO (in my opinion for the non-internet acronym savvy) it depends…

What do you want/ need?

Other stressors/ potential stressors are in you life?

But Roy, don’t we want to do the most work we can and get the most gainzzz possible?

Yes, we do want the most gainzzzz possible.

But, at what cost?

We need to be able to recover from the training (stress) or we didn’t get better, we got tired.

In general, I’m a fan of:

“Get the most out of the least”

Using the Minimal Effective Dose.


Cause life happens,  its unpredictable, stress accumulates through all aspects of your day and we need to be able to successfully recover to ALL stresses to achieve a higher level.

The last thing I want to do with anyone is over-stress them in the gym and take away from their sports, hobbies, careers, family and life in general.

Plus, there is the law of diminishing returns:

“any rate of profit, production, benefits, etc., that beyond a certain point fails to increase proportionately with added investment, effort,or skill.”Dictionary.com

If it takes an extra 30 minutes a day training to receive marginal benefit above what has already been achieved, for most people,

the cost is probably not worth the investment of energy and time.

We need resources available for growth, not just a return to the previous normal.

While MRV is probably closer to optimal training because, I would assume, the more work you can perform and recover from the more adaptation and therefore gainzz achieved.

You’re also butting up against the limits of your CAR at that point and it probably wouldn’t take much to exceed your recovery ability if you’re not careful.

If all you have to do is train, eat and sleep, training at MRV would probably yield superior results over the same term.

How superior?

I think that’s the question we ultimately have to ask ourselves.

Again, is it worth it.  <—-often the answer is yes…

Overarching Take Home:

Disrupt the system (allostaic load) enough to create change.

But try not to disrupt the system (allostasis) for too much or too long.

At least get to the orange circle and stay inside the red and mostly be in the light blue.

How The Hell Do I Know How Much Work That Is?

How do you feel?

If you’re feeling good, energetic, limited aches, pains, good libido and you’re improving….

You’re on the right track.

Sure you’ll eventually need to take deload weeks, maybe months and days off from training. <—-stress accumulates no matter what and regardless of MRV or MED will need to be relieved.

It’s the rate of stress accrual that differentiates the two.

But if you’re making gains and not beat up, you’re good to go.

The More Technical Approach:

Heart Rate and HRV

Resting heart rate is a wonderful barometer of the stress load on the body.

If you’re resting heart rate is suddenly up, for no apparent reason, you’re overstressed.

You’re allostatic load is too high, you’re up against or even beyond the red circle and the body is trying desperately trying to recover from the induced stress.

How to know:

Wake up, try not to do too much and take your heart rate, record it, keep a record for a month.

After a while, if you take your heart rate and its usually 60 but you get 72 at the same time of day, under the same conditions, something is off and you’re under more stress. <—YOU’RE PUSHING UP AGAINST OR PAST THE RED CIRCLE

Personally, I wouldn’t trust one reading, but if I had an elevated heart rate 2-4 days in a row, I’d consider that a really good signal.

If this is the case, it’s probably best to back off or do some easy, recovery, work (aerobic), mobility etc.

How much of a difference?

I don’t know actually, I just use 5 beats.

5 Beats above normal, probably need to adjust.

HRV: Heart Rate Variability

HRV is kinda like resting heart rate but it’s actually a measure of the variability between heart rates.

No, your heart is NOT a metronome, or at least you don’t really want it to be.

The more variable the heart rate the more responsive you are to stress and the more recovered you are.

To find your HRV you’re gonna need an app.

Here’s some:




The Cold Hard Truth:

To really know what your limits are, it takes years of listening to your body, solid programming, and experience to know where your optimal training range is.

There is NO physiological monitoring device that is superior to whats inside you already. (A good coach can help too).

My 2 Cents: Auto- Regulation, RPE, working up and not being an A$$hole.

I’m an A$$hole…

I would guess that 85% of the ouchies and minor injuries I get are from NOT LISTENING to my body and trying to push through.

This is stupid, and makes me an a$$hole.

Thankfully, after 20 years of doing this I’m starting to learn.


“Auto-regulation simply means adjusting the day’s training to fit the body’s needs.”– Mike Tuchscherer

This is typically NOT for beginners or the casual exerciser.

Sometimes, how you feel is a lie and once you get going you’ll turn in a great day.

Other days you’ll feel great going in and lay  a giant steamy one once there’s some weight on the bar.

But those tend to be exceptions to the rule once you’ve done this for a couple of years, and generally speaking you know when its gonna be a day on the struggle bus.

So how do you Auto-Regulate?

“How hard was that on a scale from 1-10”

If you’ve trained with me before you’ve heard this A LOT.

Thats so I can “auto-regulate” the coming reps, loads and workout as a whole.

It’s based off RPE, rate of perceived exertion.

“(RPE) is a way of measuring physical activity intensity level. Perceived exertion is how hard you feel like your body is working. It is based on the physical sensations a person experiences during physical activity, including increased heart rate, increased respiration or breathing rate, increased sweating, and muscle fatigue. Although this is a subjective measure, a person’s exertion rating may provide a fairly good estimate of the actual heart rate during physical activity”CDC

Here’s how it goes (for me):

1-5: Aint junk, I don’t sweat it.

6-7: You can feel some weight on the bar, but not on the struggle bus yet.

8: This was hard, usually hard enough you need to take a solid break and probably sit or find a nice machine to lean on for 30-60’s or so. But, after 1-3 minutes rest I could confidently complete that effort again and do it at least 2 more times this session.

9: Really f-ing hard. MAYBE, on a great day I can do this one more time but I gotta rest and I’d really rather not.

10: Load is blown…..There is NO WAY I can physically perform that task again. Don’t ask, I’m done.

How do you know what you’re RPE is going to be before you start?

Well, you don’t, thats the point and why you “work up”.

Working Up: 

In truth EVERYDAY should, in some way, be auto-regulated.

You do this by “Working Up”.

When you see the main lift of the day and it says:

  1. Bench Press: 3x 5 @ 225

That doesn’t mean jump on the bench and knock out 3 sets of 5 for 225.

It means do that after you warm up to it and part of the warm up is the working up.

Working up: is taking the movement you’re going to be performing, beginning rather light and slowly adding weight while usually decreasing reps to prime the body and gauge how you feel and things are moving that day.

Here’s a good example or “working up” for a heavy 3×5 @ 225lbs bench press session:

  • General Warmup (mobility, stretching, other warmup type stuff)
  • Bench Press:
    1. Empty Bar
    2. 10x 95
    3. 10x 135
    4. 10x 160
    5. 10x 185
    6. 5x 205
    7. 5x 225 1st working set that counts. 

That’s how “working up” should go.

The 6 sets that precede the 1st working set allow you to gauge your trainability for that day and adjust the volume (weights x reps x sets) as necessary.

By allowing your body to talk and listening/ adjusting to what it says, you can almost always get in a session that is at least the MED (so you’re getting gainzz) for that day but also stays within your MRV (so you’re not smoked for the next workout).

But at Some Point Recovery Becomes a Training Modality:

It has to be planned and accounted for.

When you’re dealing with:

A) High stress life

B) High Training Volumes

C) High Training Intensities

You can’t just hope

“The Greatest Recovery Modalities Know to Mankind Are Built Into Us Already” – Buddy Morris

Sleep and Nutrition.

Sleep enough and eat right.

  • Sleep about 8 hours a night.
  • Eat like an adult.

It’s really that simple and you don’t really need me to expand on those…

Sure there is some probably some efficacy to epson salt baths, cryotherapy, sauna therapy and all the others.

But NOTHING beats getting good, quality, restful, sleep and eating a nutritious diet.

How To Recover/ Adapt/ Improve:

Really this was 2K words to say:

“Train some, but not too much, eat well, sleep enough, when the body says don’t do this, don’t do it. Try to do more next week, unless you’re fatigued then do slightly less until you feel good again.”


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