Several years ago I wrote about my addiction to exercise . I had been working out nearly every day for years, and avoided my rest days like the plague. Although I’ve come a long way since then, I still often struggle with finding the time to take my rest days – between teaching boot camp classes, running, cycling, and my regular gym routine – finding down time to recoup really can be a difficult task.
I so often preach to my clients and friends, “TAKE YOUR REST DAYS!” And I explain to them the repercussions of not doing so (and threaten them with a huge bill if they don’t listen). (I’m working on heeding my own advice.)
WHY REST DAYS ARE IMPORTANT
Taking a break from your workout routine is just as important as your workout because it’s an equal part of the total process required to build strength, endurance, and muscle. Exercise, especially strength training, breaks down body tissues. Rest days allow your muscles, nerves, bones, and connective tissue time to rebuild. Your rest days, and the way you handle them, can greatly affect your ability to build muscle and get stronger. For many lifters, the problem isn’t that you take an occasional rest day, but that you don’t take enough. And not using your time wisely in your training week can also hinder your progress.
I know all too well that it can be torturous taking down time from the gym. If you’re like me, a rest day can make you feel like you’re slacking off, or even guilty for taking said down time. Instead, we will train six or even seven days per week – hindering our progress. But the proof is in the pudding – the most successful lifters and bodybuilders usually train (only) four or five times per week. Those of us who train more than that will see our progress (if any) at a slower pace. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but most of us are not that fortunate (or genetically inclined) to reach those successes so sudden.
I can attest that my seven-days-a-week training addiction caused more problems than it proved progress. I suffered (and still do) from over-training syndrome and adrenal fatigue. My cortisol levels were/are elevated, causing weight gain, which I am still struggling to lose, and my sleep was severely disrupted.
We have to let go of the “all or nothing” mentality and the mindset that we “must work out every day”. I know first-hand how difficult this can be. Instead, we should consider our future progress and the way we look at our training program. It we think “stimulation days” instead of training days and “growth days” instead of rest days, would we be more inclined to take those well-deserved and needed days off from our training? Growth days are meant to be exactly that: growing more muscle and preparing your body to perform the next day.
When you take a rest (growth day), you build more muscle, your glycogen stores are replenished more easily, and allow the nervous system to get back to an optimal working state. Not only will you grow faster, but you will also improve your performance on the day(s) you’re back in the gym.
If we consider this: Our bodies have limited resources – think of it like a bank. If you spend all those resources (your money) on your workouts, instead of resting (saving), then eventually, your bank will be empty, meaning you won’t have enough available resources to fuel your workouts or allowing for adaptation and growth. Allowing your body to rest will replinish the resources, allowing for faster muscle growth and improved performance.
During off days, your body is devoted to more of your resources for growth and repair. the nervous, immune, and hormonal systems are also back to a place of growth and performance. A rested body (and mind) will perform at a higher level, which means more volume, making your time in the gym more effective.
Those growth days make you grow directly by allowing your body to recover. They make you grow indirectly by allowing greater stimulation on your body during your sessions.
In addition to taking your rest days, you also must consider such things as your nutrition during your rest days. Many people will lower their macro or calorie intake. Seems like a good idea, but it would be wrong.
Sure, it seems like the right idea to lower your intake of carbs, since you won’t be burning as much when not working out; therefore you do not require as much fuel*. (*If your goal is to lose weight, then there is some truth to this.) If your goal, however, is muscle-building, then your rest days should be spent trying to maximize growth and performance, and not just days where you aren’t doing anything. Thinking back to the bank analogy, your rest days should be seen as an investment.
So, with respect to the value of your nutrition on your days off, don’t cut carbs and calories that will leave you with muscles that aren’t replenished with glycogen and not taking advantage of the anabolic properties of insulin. Instead, be sure to consume plenty of good carbs and protein during those rest (growth) days. Either keep your carbs and protein at the same level of intake as your work days, or even increase your intake slightly.
Optimize your growth days. If you are training four or five days a week, then you will need two rest (growth) days. But, to get the biggest bang for your buck, it is not ideal to take two rest days consecutively. (This does not apply, of course, if you are suffering with an injury.) To optimize your training, your heaviest lifting days should be your third and fourth training days because your performance should be at its highest. Your first training day can certainly be heavy, but you don’t want to be negatively fatigued on your second day (which should be your lightest). Your training days should always be challenging.
Each training day you should perform at the highest possible level. On your rest days you should be putting your body in the preparation to perform at the highest level. This also goes for your nutrition, supplementation, and training.
Training should be triggering biochemical responses that will tell your body to adapt and grow. Once that’s been triggered, doing more will simply deplete resources. Your body should be better to adapt if you treat if properly, including allowing it to recover. It would be counter-productive to have to take more, unplanned, rest days because it was under-recovered from a previous workout.
If you over-train and don’t allow yourself the proper recovery time, you’re setting yourself up literally for failure and the possibility of injury, over-training syndrome, etc. In addition, you could spend more time in the gym trying to make up for “lost time”, which could all be avoided just by ensuring you take proper amounts of rest. We must keep in mind that intense workouts definitely shouldn’t be a daily occurrence.
Your goal respecting your growth days should be to train hard and rest hard.
In the not-so-long run, rest makes you stronger! Rest allows the muscles that you have broken down to heal and recover. It is the rest that allows you to recover so you can be strong, and thereby handle the increased weight, and increased number of sets and reps needed to gain further.
Plan your week. Plan your workouts and your rest (growth) days. Consider your nutrition (and supplementation). Be flexible, adjust your training, rest, nutrition, and even sleeping accordingly. And most important, listen to your body (and respond accordingly).