If a little bit of something is good, then a whole lot is better. Right?
When it comes to building strength, one of the most important parts of any training routine is the rest day – intentional, scheduled time for rest and recovery. In fact, it’s so important that a “more is better” mindset can actually block progress and prevent you from achieving your goals.
If you want to get into the habit of strength training, you must also get into the habit of resting!
In a world that expects us to do it all, the prospect of “just resting” can be a tough pill to swallow. But don’t just take my word for it. Let’s take a look at the body of supporting evidence.
Why Make A Habit Of Rest Days?
1. Rest days are necessary in order to build muscle.
The act of lifting weights does not, in and of itself, build muscle. Muscle growth is the result of the combination of several factors: resistance training, fuel from an adequate diet, and recuperation through adequate rest. Imbalance in any of these areas can – and will – throw off your progress.
When a muscle is worked, it incurs stress and small amounts of damage. Unlike a full-blown injury, this damage involves microscopic tears to the muscle and connective tissue, which the body must then rebuild. The end result? Muscle growth. Strength.
But in order for this to occur, the body requires proper fuel and rest. That’s why fitness experts advise us to eat a balanced post-workout meal of protein, carbs, and fats, and to ensure an adequate rest period before the next workout – typically 48 hours, or one full rest day.
In addition to rest days between workouts, it is also necessary to have rest periods within a workout – that is, to rest between sets. The length of time depends on the the type of exercise and its intensity, but a good general rule is to allow 30 to 90 seconds before starting a new set.
Resting between sets allows your body time to replenish its stores of adenosine triphospate, or ATP. ATP is a molecule that transports and stores energy within cells. It’s necessary for muscle contraction. When we exercise, we deplete our reserve supply. When we rest, we recover it. Pushing your muscles too hard without allowing for adequate recovery not only tires you out, it puts you at an increased risk of injury and impedes strength gain.
Failure to adequately rest during and between workouts means your muscles can’t grow – at least, not as well as they should. So if it helps your mindset, think of rest periods as growth periods.
For more information on recuperation and muscle growth, check out this article. It does a good job of explaining why rest is an essential component of strength training.
2. Rest days reduce the risk of injury.
It makes sense that a muscle broken down by exercise and exertion, but unable to replenish itself through proper rest and growth, is more susceptible to injury.
To the body, exercise is stress. It’s good stress – at least, when we don’t overdo it – but it’s stress nonetheless. We know that living in a chronically stressed state – due to work stress, financial stress, relationship stress, and so on – has negative repercussions for our bodies, minds, and spirits. But what about when the body is under chronic physical stress?
Same. It’s no good.
For starters, physical stress causes inflammation. That’s why, if you accidentally hit your thumb with a hammer, it will turn red, swell up, and feel warm to the touch. Your body is responding to an injury, fighting potential infection, and starting the healing process. That kind of inflammatory response is good. And so is the one brought about by exercise – unless your body never has a chance to get out of that state.
Overall, moderate exercise is actually anti-inflammatory. Overtraining, on the other hand, can cause chronic inflammation, which in turn can lead to persistent muscle soreness, muscle and tissue breakdown, and overuse injuries.
In other words, too much exercise is counterproductive. But it gets even worse.
Overtraining syndrome is the result of constantly pushing the body to exercise without allowing for adequate recovery. It has serious consequences, ranging from fatigue and flu-like symptoms, to insomnia and emotional dysregulation, to long-term hormonal imbalances.
In women, the Female Athlete Triad is characterized by energy deficiency, irregular or absent menstrual periods, and bone loss. It can occur in conjunction with an eating disorder, body dysmorphia, or just a general misunderstanding of the body’s needs. In any case, it presents a serious problem in the long term, and it sounds the alarm that the body requires proper nourishment and rest – stat.
3. Rest days are part of a healthy mindset.
A healthy mindset is the foundation of any successful habit. In order to stick with a fitness routine, you must first shift into the right mindset. That means learning to be gentle with yourself, respecting your body’s unique strengths, limitations, and needs, and giving yourself grace.
One reason so many of us struggle with our health is the pervasive cultural belief that we can or should do it all. These days, everything seems to be about “crushing it:” career goals, relationship goals, financial goals. Do whatever it takes. Get up earlier. Go to bed later. Actually, just sleep when you’re dead.
What kind of life is that? Can we just stop?
And I mean stop in the most literal sense. Stop engaging in constant activity! Allow yourself some space to breathe. Sleep if you are tired. Let your mind wander. Be creative. Take a break. Do nothing!
Except you won’t be doing nothing. You’ll be growing. Remember, in order to grow, you must rest.
Don’t burn yourself out in pursuit of perfection. Perfection only exists in carefully cultivated Instagram feeds. Real life is about experience. Enjoy feeling your body get stronger, and enjoy letting it be at peace.
Rest with intent.
There are a few main points I hope you take away.
It’s important to:
- Rest during strength-training workouts: Make sure to rest 30 to 90 seconds between sets to replenish ATP and allow it to supply your cells with energy.
- Rest between strength-training workouts: Make sure to take at least one full day off between workouts. The exception to this is if you are exercising a completely different muscle group – in that case, you may work out two days in a row. But even if you alternate muscle groups, you probably shouldn’t train seven days a week. To get daily activity, include some lower-intensity activities like walking, hiking, or yoga.
- Always listen to your body. Some mild soreness is normal and a sign that your muscles were adequately worked. But be on the alert for more severe pain, delayed pain, and pain that lasts for more than 72 hours or becomes chronic. These are all signs of overtraining or a potential injury.
- Try to slow down. In exercise and in all aspects of life, stop to smell the roses. Take breaks and get adequate sleep. Give yourself permission to do less; you don’t have to do it all.
Happy resting. Happy growing!
Is it a struggle to take intentional rest days? Why or why not? Let us know in a comment!