If you go to the gym or play or watch sports, you probably see athletes standing with their hands on their head or bent over with their hands on their knees during a break from a workout or game. Other than being an indicator of fatigue, these “poses” may actually speed recovery, allowing athletes to get back to action faster. Quick recovery is important for performance in athletes, especially if they have back-to-back events. It’s also important for the rest of us when we do workouts that have multiple sets, separated by brief recovery periods.
During intense exercise, muscles can accumulate by-products of energy production, including lactate and carbon dioxide, that can contribute to fatigue. Obviously, reducing activity is critical for speeding recovery, so sitting or standing at rest are sensible ways to take a break. The wastes produced during exercise can, in part, be removed through breathing, so efficient ventilation in recovery is important. This leads to choosing recovery positions that promote both rest and efficient breathing.
One way to do this is to brace your upper body using your arms. For example, sitting with your elbows on your knees can allow your abdominal and chest muscles to work more efficiently, making it feel easier to breathe. By contrast, holding your arms at or above shoulder level can increase the work of breathing. However, if you stand with your hands clasped on your head you can reduce the effort and make breathing feel easier.
Knowing this, it is easy to make sense of two common recovery positions: standing, bent over, with hands on knees and standing with hands on the head. Both brace the upper body to allow more efficient breathing which may promote faster recovery.
A recent study compared these two recovery postures to determine which was most effective. In this study, recovery was determined by tidal volume, the amount of air per breath, and how quickly heart rate decreased, called heart rate recovery, measured during breaks from intense exercise. A higher tidal volume and faster drop in heart rate indicated better recovery. The results showed that tidal volume was higher and heart rate recovered more quickly when subjects were in the hands-on-knees position compared to the hands-on-head position.
In this study, the subjects stood still during recovery, but another approach is to keep moving. The metabolic wastes produced during exercise are removed from the muscle after exercise. Research shows they are removed more quickly during an active cool-down period compared to standing still. This is mostly relevant for athletes who need to recover quickly after a training session or event.
An active cool down after exercise is also important for safety. One reason is to prevent a condition called post-exercise hypotension, a drop in blood pressure that could lead to dizziness or fainting. Continuing to move at a lower speed after exercise can maintain your blood pressure and prevent this from happening.
This makes recovery from exercise relevant for everyone. For athletes or people who do intense exercise, resting with your hands on your knees may help you recover faster. After exercise, keeping moving at a lower intensity for several minutes can help prevent dizziness in recovery. Regardless of how you recover, regular exercise is the most important thing you can do to improve your health and fitness.