How To Recover After The Gym

Photographed by Winnie Au.
Whether you head to the gym regularly, wear heels daily, or just sit hunched over a desk at work, pain can become your obnoxious sidekick. And, if you don't take care of those minor-but-annoying aches now, they can lead to bigger setbacks down the road.
One way to fight pain is to use exercise as medicine. Start by thinking of your body as a whole unit that works together, rather than as segmented sections. Translation: Try to strengthen the muscles that surround and support the joint or area that’s actually causing you pain. So, if your knees hurt, look to your hips and glutes; toughening them up will help align and stabilize your trouble spot. This is all part of the “bad-neighbour” theory that running coach and Equinox personal trainer Wes Pedersen explained to us — a.k.a. "the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone," et cetera.
Five common hot spots for pain include the ankles, knees, hips, low back, and shoulders. We asked Pilates expert and licensed physical therapist Alycea Ungaro to share simple strengthening exercises to keep these areas of the body — and their neighbors — happy and pain-free. Then, we asked senior master of research and program design at Trigger Point Performance Therapy Kyle Stull, MS, for a smart foam-rolling plan. Because, it's time we all finally learned what to do with those weird, long tubes at the gym. Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release, which helps reduce muscle stiffness and increase your range of motion. So, it's a great team player in the game-plan against pain.
It’s important to keep in mind that your doctor should always be your first line of defense when dealing with pain, whether it’s chronic, sporadic, minor, or intense. The following exercises and foam-roller stretches are designed to be part of a general preventative process, not a method of self-treatment; always consult with your doctor first to understand why you’re hurting and then determine the best approach for your specific needs.
Ready to feel better now (and forever)? Click through for your anti-pain plan.
1 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.

Two x Four
This exercise engages the muscles of the foot, while also training your lower-body muscles to work together, explains Ungaro.

Start standing, facing a wall (or the back of a sturdy chair), with your legs parallel and feet hip-width apart. Rest your hands against the wall at shoulder height for balance. Perform a mini squat by bending at your knees while keeping your heels pressed against the floor.
2 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Now, keep the knees in this bent position and raise your heels, so that you’re balancing high on the balls of your feet.
3 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Remain on the balls of your feet and straighten your legs. Then, slowly lower your heels to the ground with control. Repeat this 5-8 times and then reverse directions, so that you’re raising onto the balls of your feet (with straight legs) first. Do this exercise 2-3 times per week.

You might find it easier to do this move barefoot.
4 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Ankle Alphabets
This simple exercise engages all of the tiny muscles within the foot and will give you better range of motion while also helping to improve your balance, Ungaro says.

Stand tall with your right side parallel to the wall. Rest your right hand on the wall for balance and extend your left leg in front of your body. Be careful not to “dump” in your right hip; instead, keep your core engaged and your spine long. With your left foot, trace the letters of the alphabet, A-Z, in the air with smooth, exaggerated motions. Then, switch sides. Do this exercise 3 times per week.
5 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Roll Your: Calves
"The calves are one of the more problematic areas of the body,” Stull explains. “Due to the types of shoes we wear and the position we put our ankles in, the calves can easily become shortened. This...can decrease range of motion in the ankle and can lead to foot pain, shin splints, and [increased] chance of ankle sprains.”

Sit with your legs extended in front of you and place the foam roller horizontally, just under your left calf. Place your hands slightly behind your hips with your fingers pointing away from your body. Cross your right leg over your left ankle for added pressure. Now, do 4 slow rolls forward and back, then 4 spans, moving your left ankle to the right and left. Then, repeat on the opposite side.
6 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.

Wall Chair
“Stamina is an element of strength that your knees require,” Ungaro says. “This static move taxes your quads and hamstrings, both of which cross the knee joint, to improve function and form.”

Stand with your back against the wall and your legs out in front of you. Feet are hip-width apart and parallel to one another.
7 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Slide down the wall, keeping your back flat against it. Hold for 30 seconds (progress toward 1-minute holds); then return upright. Do 2 full reps, 3 times per week.
8 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Pilates Leg Raises
“You can do these while watching TV,” Ungaro says. When you’re ready for a challenge, add an ankle weight of 3-5 pounds.

Lie flat on your back with your arms out to your sides, your palms down, and your knees bent with your legs pressing together. Extend your right leg out at ankle height. Hold for 10 seconds, squeezing the thigh muscle.
9 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Now, raise the right leg to shin height and hold for 10 seconds.
10 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Then, raise your right leg to knee height, and hold for another 10 seconds. Now, reverse the movement, lowering the right leg to shin height and holding for 10 seconds, then lowering to ankle height and holding for a final 10 seconds. Repeat the cycle 2 more times, then switch legs. Do this exercise 3 times per week.
11 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Roll Your: Iliotibial (IT) Band
“The IT band is an area that takes on a lot of stress,” explains Stull. “The key when rolling the IT band is to go slow. After 4 rolls, be sure to add in knee bends to attempt to reintroduce movement. This is what makes the biggest difference.”

Lie on your left side as if doing a side plank — with your left forearm on the ground and your right hand on your right hip. Place your right foot on the floor in front of your left leg, and slide the foam roller beneath your left leg (between your knee and hip). Shift your body weight onto the foam roller. Now, for 30 seconds, slowly roll forward and back from the bottom of your hip to just above your knee. Add 4 knee bends at the end (bending your left knee, bringing your heel behind the body). Then, repeat on the opposite side.
12 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Low Back

The Swan
“This is possibly the single most important exercise for your back,” explains Ungaro. “It trains your spinal muscles to engage and fight gravity. You'll increase strength and stamina, and improve your posture all at once.”

Lie on your stomach. Hold your legs together and stretch your arms in a wide-V shape.
13 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
In one slow and controlled motion, raise everything (head, arms, and legs) off the ground. Hold for 5 counts, then lower with control. Repeat this 4-6 times, and do this exercise daily.
14 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Shoulder Bridge
This exercise engages the muscles that run along the back of your body, from your back to your hamstrings. “You'll increase mobility and symmetry in your spine," explains Ungaro. Be sure to carefully articulate through the spine when raising and lowering to avoid any sudden, jerking movements, she adds.

Lie flat on your back with your knees bent, your feet hip-width apart, and your heels a few inches from your butt. Keep your arms long by your sides. Slowly, raise your hips toward the sky until your torso is in a straight line from knees to shoulders.
15 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Without rocking to one side, raise your right leg up to the ceiling and hold for 5 seconds. Slowly return your right foot to the floor.
16 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Now, raise your left foot to the ceiling and hold for 5 seconds. Repeat this cycle for a total of 3 sets. Then, with both feet on the floor, lower your hips to the ground. Do this exercise 4 times per week.
17 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Roll Your: Glutes
“The majority of the population will deal with low back pain at some point in their life,” explains Stull. And, the pain is often attributed to poor posture and alignment of the hips. “When we are seated for long periods of time, the big muscles in the back of the hips — known as the glutes — become immobile... Taking time to roll these areas can introduce some movement and allow these muscles to work better.”

Sit on the foam roller and cross your left leg over your right knee. Lean toward your left hip. Slowly roll forward and back on the foam for 30 seconds; then, switch sides. Repeat.
18 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.

This move will build strength in your shoulders while also engaging the muscles of your arms and abs, explains Ungaro.

Stand tall, with your heels pressing together and your toes slightly apart, creating a small V-shape with your feet. Hold a 2- or 3-pound dumbbell in each hand, and let your arms hang in front of your thighs (you can always do this move without weights).
19 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Make mini circles with your hands as you raise your arms overhead. It should take you 8 circles to get to the top.
20 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Now, reverse the direction of the circles and lower your arms back to the starting position. Repeat 2-3 more times. Do this exercise 3 times per week.
21 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Long Stretch Planks
“This exercise will help increase your shoulder strength and stability,” says Ungaro. Remember: Do not allow your hips to raise or lower during the move; keep your body rock-solid.

Assume the top of a push-up position, with your arms straight and your torso long. Keep your legs together and your wrists directly below your shoulders.
22 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Tighten your core and roll forward on your toes, bringing your shoulders in front of your hands. Now, roll back, stretching your heels and calves by bringing the shoulders behind your hands. Use your feet to move your body forward and back. Repeat this cycle for a total of 5 reps. Lower to your knees, sit back on your heels, and rest in child’s pose. Do 2 more sets. Do this exercise daily.
23 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Roll Your: Upper Back
Poor posture can lead to back pain. “Rolling the thoracic spine can help to get better movement...which means better stability through the shoulder girdle and less shoulder pain,” explains Stull.

Sit on the floor with your feet flat. Place the foam roller horizontally underneath you, just below your shoulder blades. Lace your fingers behind your head, or cross your hands in front of your chest. Tighten your abs and lean back on the roller, lifting your hips slightly, and slowly move forward and back for 30 seconds — rolling from your upper to middle back.
24 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.

Pilates Squat + March
“These Pilates-style squats target your glutes, but also pull in the inner thigh muscles, which contribute to healthy hips,” explains Ungaro.

Stand tall, with your legs glued together and your arms folded in front of your chest, “genie” style. Bend into a squat, keeping the upper body as upright as possible. Hold for 3-5 breaths.
25 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Squeeze your glute muscles and return to standing. Then, raise your left leg in a high march, aiming to bring your left thigh parallel to the floor.
26 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Return your left foot to the floor and repeat with your right leg. That’s 1 rep. Do a total of 8 reps, 3 times, resting between sets. Do this exercise 3-4 times per week.
27 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Lunge & Drag
“This move requires you to work with more dynamic energy,” explains Ungaro, “and uses the outer and inner hip muscles with deep lunging and resisted movements. Tight IT bands and weak inner-thigh muscles often contribute to hip pain.”

Stand tall with the heel of your right foot wedged into the arch of your left foot. Your feet should create a small-Y shape. Hold a 2-4 lb. dumbbell in each hand. Your arms should be resting in front of your thighs.
28 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Now, in a big sweeping motion, lunge forward with the front leg, keeping your feet slightly turned out, and raising your arms overhead. Be sure your left leg is straight and you’re driving down through your back heel. Now, straighten your front leg and drag it back toward your left leg, lowering your arms as you go. Do 6-8 reps, then switch sides. Perform this exercise 3 times per week.
29 of 29
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Roll Your: Quadriceps
“The quads are large, powerful muscles that help us squat, run, and walk,” says Stull. “Due to the many demands, these muscles can become very overworked and [can] begin to alter the position of the hips. When the hips are not in proper alignment, there can be general hip pain and possibly low back pain.”

Start in a forearm-plank position and place the foam roller just above your left knee. Your right leg is out to the side for support. Roll forward and back for 30 seconds between your hip flexors and just above your knee. Then, add 4 slow knee bends, bringing your left heel toward your glute muscle. Then, repeat on the opposite side.

More from Fitness


R29 Original Series