Recovery Ethics

Photo by Mexitographer/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Mexitographer/iStock / Getty Images

If that title sounds strange, it's probably just because it's the first time you're hearing it.

The principle of 'work ethic' on the other hand is ubiquitous in Western culture. This is the idea that hard work and effort are virtues in and of themselves, and are worthy of reward, or at the very least praise.

With the ascendance of technology, our relationship to 'hard work' in the 21st century has necessarily undergone a transformation of sorts. Where hard work used to be admired for the sheer difficulty of manual labor, technology has now given rise to the ability to more easily leverage intellectual capital, and has also modified the idea of working hard, to the idea of working smart.

Though our approach to hard work may have changed, the virtues of a strong work ethic are still the same regardless of whether you work hard, or smart. 

Some of these virtues include:

  • Reliability/Trust
  • Focus
  • Conscientiousness
  • Positivity
  • Prudence

While recovery ethics are not entirely dissimilar from work ethics, in a way they do encapsulate the other side of the coin. Where work ethics may largely cover the virtues we enlist to interact with the outside world, recovery ethics are by and large the virtues we call upon to interact with our internal world. As you can probably guess, these are the virtues that might enable us to heal and recharge ourselves in order to prepare for the next bout of intense effort - whether it be physical or intellectual. 

Some recovery virtues include:

  • Humility

In the context of exercise and health, humility resides in recognizing the sheer complexity of the human body, and that not only do you not have all the answers, but nobody else does either. Personally, I employ humility when it comes to my own exercise programming, and this forces me to continually course correct. Frequent course corrections increase the likelihood that you'll experience some success, and also makes you realize that success is largely a matter of luck - and this humbles you even further.  

  • Patience

For any individual seeking gains in strength or muscle mass, patience is perhaps the most difficult virtue to employ - especially if you're spending a lot of time in the gym. Human beings have a tendency to covet what others already have, and we almost never see the years of struggles individuals have overcome to get there. That, or we fail to recognize the importance that genetics play in determining overall body composition. Perhaps most importantly, practicing patience allows the human body to manifest it's improvements.

This is obvious when you push hard with your programming for several weeks, and then you take some time off to heal. I've found that time off is critical not only for manifesting improvements, but for avoiding injury as well. When you finally manifest several rounds of improvements, you also realize how incremental physical progress actually is. DNA replication takes time. Just think about the 40+ weeks it takes to build a new human, and that's only a few pounds of muscle. Furthermore, in the case of gestation, evolution is actively trying to construct muscle. When you're aging, evolution is actively trying to break it down. 

The application of patience also applies to dietary choices - which further contributes to the manifestation of physical improvements. Rushing around all day every day in no way gives you the time to make proper choices with regards to your diet. It's important to take some time and actually plan out your eating template for the week. This may or may not include meal prep, but either way, having a map in your head - or written down - will enable you to make much better choices.

  • Authenticity

The degree to which your are true to your own personality or character is the degree to which you may consider yourself to be authentic. Authenticity is that which occurs in the face of external pressure or suggestion.

In the context of health and exercise, making a genuine decision for what you truly want to achieve goes a long way in aiding the development of authenticity. This can take months or years to decipher, but once you've truly decided who you are or who you want to be, and you've mapped the work it will take to get there, there is almost no amount of external pressure that can throw you off track.

During this time, you will notice your growth - both physical and spiritual - away from much of what you used to consider acceptable or desirable.  If you're genuinely following the path you've mapped for yourself, you will much more easily be able to recover from small failures along the way - as you understand your end point may be years down the road. 

  • Contentment

The practice of humility as outlined above is a necessary condition for the realization of contentment. Part of the recovery process resides with the emotional state of feeling satisfied with what you have achieved thus far - and the earlier you are in your journey, the more you have to appreciate the little things.

Humility + Time = Contentment (for the big accomplishments)  

This can also be thought of as the practice of feeling fulfilled and being happy with what you have right now - as opposed to constantly pining for a hypothetical future. It doesn't mean you shouldn't think about the future, nor does it mean you shouldn't plan for the future, but just be sure develop a practice of consistently feeling grateful for what you have right now. 

  • Adaptability

If we think of life as being a process, then adaptability is the strategy we use to navigate the obstacles this process throws at us. Most people currently following an exercise program will understand that things often don't go exactly as planned.

For example, I recently sprained my MCL while attempting a PR for the back squat while wearing sub-optimal footwear. I had spent so many months focusing on my technique that I didn't think for a second that my old shoes wouldn't support my arches while squatting heavy. 

It would be easy to focus on the negative (injury, spending money on new shoes, days off) and make excuses, but since I'm adaptable, I'm choosing to look at the positive side of things. In the grand scheme of things, this injury is minor and I'm certain it will heal on it's own. The scale of the injury could have been much worse had it not shown up until my squat load was much higher. Furthermore, next week is a scheduled de-loading week. This means I'll be spending lots of time experimenting with lighter weights and improving technique. 

Having this mindset means that although I might FEEL derailed, the reality is that I'm still very much on track to achieve what I set out to accomplish in the first half of the year. 


These virtues comprise much of what I believe to be a legitimate system of recovery ethics. While it may take some time to deploy each of them in your own life, I believe that improving your practice in these areas could be the key to taking your health and fitness to the next level.