When it comes to training, the "Go hard or go home," mentality rises about the rest. To see results, people believe they must trainer harder, longer, and more diligently.
But for many people, the missing piece to their training program isn't more weight on the bar — it's the right recovery mechanism at the right time; especially a day off.
Rest and recovery are vital components to any training regime, yet they are often overlooked. In fact, one of the most common discrepancies I see in new clients' workout routines is consistent recovery — which is why I made it one of the four pillars of 4 Legs Fitness.
But just how much recovery time do you need, exactly? How long does your body need to rest between muscle training workouts? And does the amount of rest needed vary depending upon your workouts?
Below, I dive deeper into the logistics of rest and recovery. I'll explain why rest days are a vital component of your training, and the amount of time I recommend to recover from your workouts.
Please note: This post is meant for informational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice.
Why Rest Is Vital To Any Strength Training Program
To understand why rest is so important (and completely undervalued in the wellness industry) allow me to walk you through an analogy.
Imagine the last time you experienced a cut or scrape that broke skin. Perhaps you sliced your finger while chopping vegetables, got a nasty paper cut while opening the mail, or scraped the barbell along your shin while deadlifting. In order for that cut to heal properly, it needed one thing above all else: time. Yes, a good cleaning and a sturdy bandage helps in the healing process, but if you don't rest your injured body part, you run the very likely risk of ripping that wound right open. In that regard, you delay the healing process and risk experiencing an additional injury.
The same goes for your muscles following a strength workout.
During an intense training session, your muscle fibers experience small microtears. To experience muscle growth or add muscle mass, these muscle fibers need time to fuse themselves back together. Sure, your muscle tissue also needs hydration and adequate nutrition (with plenty of protein), but — just like the cut described above — they need time. If you don't give yourself enough rest between workouts, you run the risk of 1) stalling your progress or 2) ripping those muscle fibers apart all over again, causing a larger injury.
How Long Does Your Body Need To Rest Between Muscle Training Workouts?
Typically, I recommend a minimum of 24 hours of rest between intense weight training workouts to help your muscles recover. For incredibly rigorous workouts, you may need a full two days.
Like most things in fitness, there is no set rule on how much rest you need between muscle training workouts. Instead, your optimal rest period will depend on a number of factors, including:
1. How Do You Split Up Your Workouts?
People choose to split up their workouts differently. For example, if you are someone who only taxes one to two muscle groups per workout, you may be able to work out as often as six times per week. However, if you do full-body workouts every single strength session, you need more rest days between workouts.
Here are a number of ways to split up your workouts, and how it will impact your muscle recovery:
- Muscle splits: As stated above, only working one to two muscle groups per workout allows you to work out more in a given week. For example, Monday could be back and chest, Tuesday glutes and quads, and Wednesday core and hamstrings — ensuring you give one muscle group adequate time to recover.
- Body part splits: Some people prefer to split their strength training sessions between upper and lower body. This way, you get a full 48 hours between your workouts.
- Interval training vs. steady state cardio: If you are a runner, biker, or other distance athlete, your "splits" will be based on intensity, rather than muscle group. For instance, you could reserve your interval training (high intensity) workouts for Tuesdays and Thursdays, and compete on Saturday; this allows Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to be reserved for steady runs or bike rides (low intensity).
- Strength vs. cardio: Balancing a strength and cardio split is one of the most difficult training plans to manage, and should be done under the supervision of an experienced personal trainer (like yours truly). When balancing strength and cardio, you have a number of variables to manage — including muscle groups and intensity. For example, if you perform a heavy leg lift on Monday, then go for a long, 10K run on Tuesday. These are two very different workouts, yet both heavily tax your legs.
2. What's Your Current Fitness Level?
Your level of fitness will certainly play a role in how much recovery time you need. For example, if you are just getting back into shape, you will experience increased muscle soreness and fatigue, and therefore may need more rest between workouts. On the other hand, if you've been working out consistently for a year or longer, you can probably handle working out 5-6 days a week.
Here are a few examples (note: These are extreme generalizations, but can help you form a schedule that works for you):
- Beginner: You will probably need a full 48-hour period post-exercise to recover from your workouts. Therefore, you might try working out Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
- Moderate to advanced: Depending on your workout schedule, you probably need 24 hours between each workout. Throughout the week, try to fit in one to two rest days. For example, work out Monday and Tuesday, rest Wednesday, work out Thursday through Saturday, rest Sunday.
- Training for an event or competition: Under extreme conditions, some competitive and bodybuilding athletes will work out with less than 24 hours of rest between workouts. For example, a professional runner may perform a resistance training workout Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, and run in the afternoons Monday through Saturday (thereby completing two-a-day workouts three times a week).
3. Are You Battling an Injury?
When we get hurt, we need more rest. Period.
Think about it: When you're home sick with a cold or flu, the smallest, everyday tasks use up all your energy. The same is true for a nagging injury.
When you experience a chronic sports- or fitness-related injury, your body needs to reserve more time and resources to fighting that injury. Therefore, you will need more time post-workout to recover. And while it can be extremely frustrating (particularly if you've been working out consistently for years), it will benefit you in the long run.
4. Have You Hit a Plateau?
If weight loss, muscle gains, or increased power and explosiveness is a goal, the recovery process must be a central part of your training regimen. However, when pursuing a goal you must remember that progress is not linear — bursts of results can easily be followed by setbacks and plateaus.
During these times, it's easy to succumb to the pressures of overtraining. Sometimes, I see athletes turn to two-a-day training sessions trying to break through a plateau, only to lose muscle or gain weight — or even worse impact their motivation.
In my article Take a Step Back: Avoid Injuries Due To Overuse or Overtraining I describe how to use the WHOOP system to objectively measure your level of recovery. Based on this you can determine the optimal level of training intensity without the risk of overtraining or injury. Use my WHOOP link and we both get one month of WHOOP for free.
While we already went over how rest helps build muscle (repairing microtears from the previous day's workout), there's one more piece to the puzzle: hormones. Workouts are a type of stress, and under most circumstances, stress can be a good thing. However, when you stress the body too much (through overtraining), you put your body under a state of alarm. Your body will actually think it's under attack, and start hoarding resources (like fat and calories) to survive.
Overtraining syndrome is a very real thing impacting a number of athletes. When you overtrain, your body goes into "fight mode," causing your cortisol hormone to spike. Luckily, the remedy is very simple: rest. Take several days off, or even instate a rest week to tell your body it's no longer under attack.
Make the Most of Your Rest Days: What To Do on Your Day Off
Many people think of rest days as an opportunity to lay on the couch, surf through Hulu, and gorge on a pint of ice cream.
While I'm an advocate of enjoying life to the fullest, I believe rest days can be productive. On your off days, take the time you usually reserve for the gym to do everything you should do, but often skip. Stretch, grab a foam roller, or do a quick yoga flow in your living room so you feel ready to tackle your next workout. Or go shopping for healthy (recovery) ingredients, cook and eat a nice meal, be out in nature, go for a long walk, read a book, or meet friends and family — anything that helps you replenish your energy stores.
Here are a few ways to make the most of your rest day:
- Foam roll: When your muscle fibers heal post-workout, sometimes they can fuse together in irregular patterns, creating physical knots. Foam rolling helps break up this knotted tissue, decreasing muscle soreness and tightness.
- Take an ice bath: Taking an ice bath or a cold shower are two forms of zero-cost, at-home cryotherapy. The cold water will wake up your central nervous system, while decreasing soreness.
- Stretch: Stretching is one aspect of our fitness routine that's often overlooked. Stretch the muscles that you worked in your last workout to help them recover.
- Perform mobility work: Mobility work increases your range of motion in your joints, helping you sit lower in a squat, jump over a hurdle, or do a perfect bear crawl. In other words, mobility work helps you increase your range of motion so you can get more from your workouts. Try some hip mobility or ankle mobility exercises to start.
- Get your blood moving: Sometimes, the best way to decrease soreness is to do some light movement. Depending on the type of training you did in your last workout, you could go for a hike, do a few easy miles on the bike, or swim a few laps.
- Book a PT appointment: Sometimes, you will need to book a physical therapist appointment to help heal a chronic injury. A PT will conduct assessments to understand faulty movement patterns which could lead to injury, perform dry needling, and conduct ART (active release therapy).
- Get a massage: A rest day is the perfect time to treat yourself — but a "treat" doesn't have to mean a bowl of ice cream. Instead, book yourself a massage to alleviate some of that muscle soreness.
Don't Forget: You Should Always Listen To Your Body
While I'm happy to provide tips on rest, recovery, and how to balance a rigorous training schedule, everybody is different. Therefore, I want to leave you with this one final tip: Above all else, listen to your body.
There will be weeks when you feel great — you'll set a PR in your bench press, crush a CrossFit class, and barely break a sweat on your long run. Other weeks, you'll struggle to complete an easy workout. And while an "off week" can be fitness related (fighting a chronic injury or barely recovering from a grueling sweat session), it could be influenced by a number of factors.
Stress, nutrition habits, family and work demands, and many other lifestyle factors influence your energy levels. You could be worn down from a late night at the office, fighting a nagging cold, or simply having too many to-dos on your task list. In these times, don't get caught up in the overtraining mindset — instead, accept the fact that you simply need more rest, and take it.
So, How Long Does Your Body Need To Rest Between Workouts?
The answer is ultimately up to you.
While I encourage people to rest 24-48 hours between workouts, this is not a perfect science. If you are just getting back in shape, you may need 2-3 days between each workout. As you increase your fitness level, you will feel more comfortable tackling a workout every 24 hours.
I encourage each of you to run a well-balanced fitness routine, encompassing strength, cardio, nutrition, and rest and recovery — like the Build Bullet-Proof Health program. After each workout, consume a high-quality protein source to begin the recovery process. Maintain an even balance between strength and cardio so you don't burn yourself out. And lastly, take advantage of your rest days, stretching, foam rolling, icing, and ultimately preparing to bounce back in your next workout.
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