By Jonathan Thompson
Recently, “rest” has become something of a four-letter-word in the fitness world. Well… it’s always been a literal four-letter word, of course. Just now, for many people, it’s a bad one.
From the perspective of plenty of fitness enthusiasts, taking any time away from the gym is a waste. In the “no pain, no gain” fitness culture that’s so prevalent now, even famous athletes like Crossfit’s Rich Froning often forgo rest days all together.
But, is this actually a wise strategy? Sure, you’re in a hurry to see results from your workouts. You might even have a deadline – like a wedding or vacation – that you’re preparing for. How can you spare any time away from the gym? In reality, though, the rest day is a vital part of any well-designed fitness routine. And, even if you’re trying to accomplish a lot in a short span of time, you actually can’t afford not to take some time off. Why not, though? Why are rest days so important?
How Muscles Grow
A common misconception that often leads to poorly made workout programs is the idea that muscles grow while you’re at the gym. They most certainly do not. In fact, the truth is almost exactly the opposite.
When you exercise, the working muscles endure tons of stress. As a result, the fibers that make up those muscles tear. Your fuel stores are also depleted, leaving your muscles damaged, hungry and full of metabolic waste. It’s a very sad situation.
So, how can exercise possibly be good for you? Once you brain realizes what’s going on in the affected muscle, a cascade of systems gets underway in an effort to both repair and clean up the damaged fibers. To make sure that you don’t have the same reaction next time, your body also makes the muscles bigger, stronger and just generally better prepared.
Exercise, then, simply provides the stimulus for improvement – not the improvement itself. The actual changes, happen after your workout is complete and your muscles are able to rest.
The primary reason to take a rest day, therefore, is to make sure that you’re able to get the full benefits of all that hard work in the gym.
Rest Is Not Inactivity
It’s important to realize, though, that a rest day is not necessarily a 24-hour stretch in which you do absolutely nothing but sit on the couch. In fact, this actually a really bad way to spend your rest day.
The success of those complex recovery processes occurring in your sore muscles depends largely on blood flow – trucking nutrients in and waste out of the area. When you’re simply inactive, the movement of blood is limited and your recovery is reduced. In a 2012 study, for example, women who performed a 20-minute “recovery workout” after a more intense program experienced less soreness and greater improvements in strength.
Granted, these recovery workouts were done immediately following the other exercises. Still, the principle remains the same: Light movement enhances blood flow which, in turn, improves recovery.
Your rest days, then, might simply be a time for lighter activity. And this approach to rest brings us neatly to the next major revelation on the topic.
Local Rest, Global Activity
If you don’t need to – and actually shouldn’t – be totally still for an entire day following each workout, then a whole world of program design is now open to you. You only need to rest the affected muscle. And, really, it only needs time off from the activity that caused the damage to begin with.
For example, maybe you worked your chest on Monday and woke up with sore pecs on Tuesday. This is not an excuse to do nothing. Instead, you could work another muscle group. Or, take the opportunity to play a sport like basketball that uses your pecs without placing any major resistance on them. The movement will reduce any soreness you’re experiencing and could even enhance the benefits of your strength training.
Maybe you went for a run, though. What should your rest day look like then? Again, the idea is to avoid overworking the affect muscles. So, you could strength train or even perform a different type of cardio – like swimming or cycling – that relies of other muscles groups for movement.
The Bigger Picture
Rest, though, is really only part of recovery. In order for that rebuilding and renovation work to really be done properly, your body also needs a variety of raw materials. Protein, which is literally the thing that muscles are made of, is particularly important.
By providing your body with a quick burst of protein – either from a shake or otherwise – you ensure that everything is present for a successful recovery. One 2003 study of 387 US Marines found that the participants who took whey protein after their workouts saw greater improvements in their performance, experienced less soreness and were overall less likely to get sick then those who skipped the shakes.
It’s About Routine
In order to really benefit from your workouts, though, regularity is key. When designing your program – and incorporating rest days – then, it’s important that you consider anything that might upset your routine.
For example, each time you exercise, you strengthen a healthy habit and build a more beneficial lifestyle. And you might absolutely love exercising. Some type of workout every day might be perfect for you.
Other people, though, might find the opposite is true. For individuals who aren’t drawn to exercise, challenging and exhausting activity can be discouraging and even depressing. If that sounds like you, building a regular rest day into your program could be exactly what you need to stay motivated.
In short, rest is about listening to your body and allowing your muscles to fully recover from the challenges of exercise. Depending on your needs, fitness level and workout style, this could mean a day where you skip the gym completely or simply do something else. However you chose to rest, remember to view this as an important part of your fit lifestyle and not a sign of weakness.
However you chose to rest, remember to view this as an important part of your fit lifestyle and not a sign of weakness.
About the Author:
Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist who has written extensively on health and fitness since 2009. Thompson is also the author of Weighted Vest Workouts and two science-fiction novels. Additionally, Jonathan has been able to apply his love of storytelling and journalism into the realm of film-making as the director and co-founder of Signal Film Company.