"Lift to show, recover to grow." This is one of those sayings that get thrown around a lot in gyms and fitness facilities. The good news is that it is great advice, the bad news is that many of those who say this have no idea how to properly do either. The mainstream idea of recovery is stretch, rest, and protein. This is a very basic form of recovery and sometimes can be counterproductive depending on one's goals.
Active recovery decreases soreness and prepares the body for the next workout as a whole. Notice the first word, the important word, Active. This doesn't mean half-assing a stretch routine and chugging a protein shake on your way home to watch TV. Your body is recovering anytime you are not under stress. This means that not only do you recover outside of the gym, but you are recovery in between sets, and sometimes reps, as well. This is why having a good recovery plan will greatly increase your athletic prowess in training and competition.
The first part of recovery begins before the training. Warming up prepares your body for the upcoming workout, but it also helps to alleviate tight and stale muscles. The warm up should consist of mobility and light weight, or body weight, exercises to loosen the stiffness and lubricate the joints as well as gradually increase heart rate and body temperature. The next step is self myofascial release (SMR). This is the act of busting up the muscle fibers and smashing the knots out. This is where the dreaded foam roller comes into play as well as other torture tools like lacrosse and tennis balls.
Then comes the workout. Hopefully you took the smart route and hired a fitness professional, but that's a different conversation altogether. The main topic for recovery between sets is moving. Most lifters knock out their bench reps and sit on the bench looking around to see if any chicks are watching their amazing accomplishment or gaze longingly into the mirror at how awesome they are. In case you're wondering, this is not active recovery. The best thing to do is simply move around. Walk over to the water fountain, superset some abs, or the best option is to work some mobility drills on another joint or antagonist muscle.
Post workout should be focused on more SMR coupled with static stretching to reduce the swelling of the muscle fibers. This in turn, reduces the sore stiffness of the next morning. Which means you can put in another killer workout sooner to increase workload and muscle hypertrophy. Other recovery tools such as ice baths can be used intermittently after tough workouts or competition prep. They also help to reduce inflammation helping joint recovery as well as increase free testosterone.
The last, but one of the most important factors for recovery is quality sleep. This means getting seven to eight hours of dead to the world, uninterrupted REM sleep. This can be a difficult task, but there are ways to increase the consistency of quality sleep. My personal favorites are a "James Bond Shower" (hot shower to soap up and cold shower to rinse off), a glass of whole milk, and deep embodiment meditation in the black of night. No TV, no blinding bedside clock.
As always nutrition plays a huge roll in all aspects of life, recovery is no different. For more on this topic, look for the "Eating for Recovery" post