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 (ahem, booty)—or if you simply plateau and don’t see any results. We spoke with Barry’s Bootcamp trainer Kate Lemere, celebrity trainer Ridge Davis, 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. Keep scrolling to see what nine actions are the best thing to do after a workout.
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. "When using these products, find areas of tenderness and stay there until it dissipates," says Davis. "Breath-work is critical when performing self massages. Intentional relaxed breathing will help your central nervous system relax and allow the muscles to follow suit."
You may even have a self massage tool right in your dog's toy box. "I love using foam rollers and lacrosse/tennis balls as home self massage tools," states Davis. When referring to either the lacrosse or tennis ball, Davis uses it for upper body muscles and states "it pin points specific areas of tension around the shoulder blade and traps."
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.
You can even focus on passive stretching, a little different from dynamic stretching. The difference with passive stretching is you hold stretches for a period of time using props or a partner to intensify the stretch by adding more pressure. "When holding stretches, two minutes in each position is a great time to get the most benefit," says David. "Three minutes if a particular area is tight."
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 you 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.
Fill up your water bottle! All that sweat dripping down your face and body during a workout was water loss that needs to be replaced. "You should aim to drink eight to 10 ounces of water after your workout," says Davis. The American Council on Exercise recommends you also drink 17 to 20 ounces of water two hours before you exercise and 7 to 10 ounces every 10 to 20 minutes during exercise.
"Dehydration is a big risk if you’re not drinking water after your workout," mentions Davis. The American Council on Exercise states that dehydration can wind up causing fatigue, loss of coordination, and cramps. Not only that, but your body will have a hard time regulating its temperature leading to potential heat exhaustion or even heat stroke. A little quick tip from the American Council on Exercise is that rehydration happens a bit faster when sodium is involved, whether it's from sports drinks or other beverages that contain electrolytes.
Cooling down after a workout doesn't mean jumping in an ice bath, but rather giving your body time to calm itself after intense movement. According to the American Heart Association cooling down is just as important as warming up before a workout. They mention that after your workout your heart is beating faster than usual, your body temp is higher, and your blood vessels are dilated. Stopping too fast poses the risk of passing out or feeling sick since your heart rate and blood pressure drop fast, too.
Just like you probably don't have the same exercise routine on repeat, you also don't need to do the same cool down. "Your cool down depends on your type of workout and intensity," says Davis. "If you did an intense cardio or HIIT workout, then doing a five to eight minute walk or jog is perfect. If you did a strength workout with heavy weight, a great cool down is 10-15 minutes of static stretching."
You just dominated a workout and now all you want to do is chill, but don't be lingering in those sweat-soaked clothes for long. "One should change clothes as soon as possible after a workout, if possible," recommends Davis. "There is a high possibility of fungus growing in moist crevices of your body." The American Academy of Dermatology Association also recommends hopping in the shower post sweat sesh otherwise acne-causing bacteria can rear its ugly head.
Be aware of the type and size of workout clothes you're wearing as well. "If you’re wearing tight clothes, there is likelihood of skin chafing and skin irritation from the constant friction," Davis adds.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Office of Dietary Supplements - Magnesium. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements.
Abrantes R, Nunes S, Monteiro E, et al. "Massage acutely increased muscle strength and power force." Journal of Exercise Physiology. 2019;22(7):100-109.
Burd NA, Beals JW, Martinez IG, et al. "Food-first approach to enhance the regulation of post-exercise skeletal muscle protein synthesis and remodeling." Sports Medicine. 2019;49:59-68.