Your New Lifestyle: Relax Your Way to High Performance

Want to smash weights every time you’re in the gym? Learn the meaning of rest and recovery first. 

By Jim Laird

What do the words “day off” mean to you? Do you know what a day off even is? What are you doing on your so-called days off? I want you to think about this right now, because you need to. If you train hard on Monday, and you’re not training at all on Tuesday, that’s a “day off,” right? Sure, but what if you’re putting in a twelve-hour workday that day? What if you have to wake up at five in the morning, after five hours of sleep, and you’re all stressed out about family problems, your mortgage, your taxes, and your piece of shit car?

Is that still a day off?

It’s not, and after suffering from ulcerative colitis and autoimmune disease—which both affected my training and my life in a profoundly negative way—I started thinking differently about the concept of recovery. Just because you’re not training on a specific day—or you’re in the middle of a deload week—it doesn’t mean you’re recovering. The mistake most of us make is believing that time off from the gym is, by default, a form of rest. Depending on what you’re actually doing—and what your mindset is at the time—your “day off” could potentially be giving your body more stress than your training sessions themselves.

Proof in Practice

I use Joel Jamieson’s BioForce HRV app every single day. If you’re not familiar with BioForce HRV, it’s a device that essentially tells you what your readiness level is for training at any particular moment. Using Joel’s product has shown me, rather graphically, that my everyday life affects my body’s fitness level and ability to recover even more than my training does.

An example of this is my practice of meditation. Before I started meditating regularly, my HRV score routinely dipped into the 40-50 range. I’ll save you a detailed explanation of the science here. Just suffice it to say that this is a very low score, reflecting a low level of preparedness. Once I started meditating thirty minutes every day, my score climbed into the 80-90 range without adding or taking away any training volume.

What was I doing differently? I’d simply learned how to chill out and let my body recover and recharge.

Stimulus Overload

I train very hard. As a result, over the years, I’ve fallen into the habit of doing some extreme things to myself before big lifts. I’ll sniff ammonia caps, work myself into a state of rage, and slap myself in the face before approaching the bar. On my days off, I’d work from six in the morning until ten at night, using caffeine from energy drinks throughout the day to stay focused. The next time I’d train during these periods, I’d need even more stimulus to get going—more loud music, more ammonia, more caffeine, more ephedra, and more slapping.

JLairdWhat I didn’t realize—and I think this is the trap most of us fall into—is that by taking this approach, I was digging myself a huge hole that was very hard to come back from. If you’re constantly hitting that stress response, day after day, it’s not going to be there when you need it. In order to get it, you’re going to have to overstimulate yourself like I did, and this makes things exponentially worse.

The harder you rest, the harder you can train. Think of your body as a high-performance dragster. Mechanics rebuild the motors on dragsters every two races or so, and that’s exactly what you need to do with your body. To train hard and become an elite-level athlete, you need serious downtime. Take a tip from Mr. Olympia-level bodybuilders: they wake up, train, get a massage, eat, take a nap, eat, take another nap, and then eat again. That’s their day.


Obviously, if you work for a living, you can’t take things to this extreme, but you should try to come as close as you can. Paul Chek popularized the concept of “working in before you work out,” and that’s been lost in western culture somewhere along the line, primarily because people fail to understand the effects of the modern lifestyle on their bodies. There are a fortunate few among us who are capable of powering through this, but the vast majority of people would be much healthier and get far more out of their workouts if they’d simply spend some time relaxing—sitting in the park or meditating—instead of trying to solve the problem by training harder.

Recovering from your training sessions isn’t just about muscle repair. Recovery also involves cognition, digestion, and your internal organs. These things won’t experience recovery if you’re constantly under stress. As Dr. Robert Sapolsky explained in his (highly recommended) book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, it’s not a natural human condition for us to always be in a fight-or-flight state. Over time, if you’re constantly running your body into the ground—even if it’s only in your mind—there’s a price you’re going to have to pay. This can potentially include heart disease, cancer, and a host of other stress-related conditions.

The Time Conundrum

When you’re busy—and even when you’re travelling—you need to take 10-15 minutes to sit quietly and breathe. This will calm you down and put energy back in your “bank.” This is where a product like BioForce HRV can be invaluable. If you’re having a stressful few days, and your reading is suddenly orange or red—the “slow it down” indicators—it’s probably a good idea to cut back on your training for that day. Chop it down 10 percent or so, then come back next time fresh and ready to go.

Most people instinctively won’t want to cut back, but the idea here is to get some technical work in. Focus on form, and get your body back to a place where it’s recovering. The next time you train, you’ll feel better and your level of performance will be much higher.

Of course, you’re likely to run into plenty of workouts where you can’t ratchet it down and you’ll just have to train through things. When this happens, it’s crucial to make sure you spend some time doing the right things afterward, on the back end. Relax. Meditate. Take naps if you can. If you can’t do things optimally before a hard session, it’s your job to mitigate the damage by getting it done afterward.

The Tools

HRVThe single most effective thing I’ve found for recovery purposes is meditation. I have a meditation app on my phone that I’ll listen to for a half hour—anywhere, even on airplanes—and it’s made a huge difference with both my HRV score and my performance in the gym. The more time I can take to chill out and meditate, the harder I can focus at work, and the better job I’ll do.

One of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to learn has been the ability to sit quietly without my mind running a mile a minute. I’ve worked my way up to a solid hour with my meditation, and everything feels better as a result. My body responds more quickly and effectively, and I’m much sharper cognitively. When I don’t meditate, I can definitely feel a difference. Most people choose to compensate for their energy deficits with coffee or energy drinks, but they’d be much better off doing 10-15 minutes of meditation in the morning.

I also like to walk for leisure—just for the sheer enjoyment of being outdoors, as opposed to getting on a treadmill for an hour and doing it for exercise. Anything non-stressful that you can do for downtime will be effective—hanging out with friends, turning off your phone and avoiding Facebook and Twitter, and giving yourself some serious time just for you. Do whatever you can to put some positive energy back into your system, let your body come back to homeostasis, and get out of that continuous fight-or-flight response.

Dealing With It

Using BioForce HRV, I typically won’t get an orange or red indication on the exact day I experience stress. That happens a day or two later. I’ve very cognizant of this lag after having some serious health issues, so when I have external stress—when my work schedule gets ridiculous, for example—I try to just do enough to not get weaker.

My gym and my business are my priorities right now, so my main thought is that I don’t want to get worse. I want to maintain all the work I’ve done in training. When my lifestyle is back to where I’m able to push myself as hard as I want to, I’ll push. Again, some people may not like this approach, but if you want to lift heavy and be healthy over a long period of time, you should seriously consider this strategy. As I said earlier, people are like cars—and different cars respond differently to different styles of driving. We’re not all high-performance machines, so you have to work with and maintain what you’ve got.

Nutrition and Supplementation

Suffering from an autoimmune disease and a gluten intolerance has taught me a great deal about how to put less nutritional stress on my body—and I’m a big fan of “real food” as a result. Before getting sick, I was eating all sorts of breads and pizza. I didn’t realize it, but this was putting a lot of stress on me. This is why I’ve long been a supporter of Paleo’s philosophy, because it pulls out a lot of the foods that caused inflammation and digestive issues for me.

Nutritional timing, the way Kiefer outlines it in Carb Back-Loading and The Carb Nite Solution, is also extremely important. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that when I do my carb-loading the right way, my HRV score goes up—and it doesn’t drop nearly as low on my “bad” days. Eating the right kinds of carbs, at the right time, will help you recover from your training sessions a lot faster. Couple this with making sure your vitamin D levels are in order—and getting some exposure to the sun—and you’re covered nicely.

Deload Weeks

jimlairdIt’s smart, every few weeks, to do some dedicated restorative work. This can involve either going down in weight and working your form and technique, or you can take things further and get the barbell out of your hands altogether. I train with a bastardized form of conjugate periodization where I have a single day each week that concentrates solely on technique and explosiveness—but a total deload week can be very productive for most people.

For me, this entails some moderate strongman training and form work. I won’t do any of this to the point where it crushes me, but I’ll have a good time throwing medicine balls, dragging sleds, and improving my form in the main lifts by working up to 60 or 70 percent for 10-15 singles. Done every few weeks, this will give you a break, changing things up from the constant grind of training.

Chill the F**k Out

Everything I’ve covered here comes down to choices. It’s up to you to choose what you prioritize. When you wake up in the morning, choose to be organized ahead of time so you’re not all stressed out about getting to work on time or what you’re going to eat that day.

Your external stimulus is very important in this regard, too. I used to listen to loud music all the time—in the car, when I trained, and even when I’d wake up in the morning. I’ve gotten away from that habit, tending more toward audiobooks or more relaxing music. I like to save my bullets for when I actually need them. Forget all that external noise, and prioritize getting plenty of sleep every night in a cool, dark room.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it helps if you learn to not take things personally. One thing I’ve found in life is that if someone has a problem with you, it’s usually not your problem. It’s theirs. I’ve made a major effort to not get as emotionally involved with things, and to let everything just roll off my back. If someone cuts me off in traffic, instead of screaming and pounding on the steering wheel, I’ll just relax and be happy I’m having a better day than they are.

Even if you’re what I’d describe as a “high-threshold” athlete, you can’t have that high threshold operating all the time. Give yourself some downtime, make choices in your daily life that slow things down, don’t take things so personally, and just breathe and relax. Adopt this lifestyle and you’ll see results immediately across the board. Relax as hard as you train, and you’ll be able to come back and train even harder.