There is this pre-conceived notion that rest days in a training program are for the weak. Won’t a day completely off slow down my gains? Set me back on my weight loss goals? Make me feel guilty for not going to the gym? It may all seem counterintuitive to take a break, but rest days are an essential part of any training program, just like sleep is.
First off, no gains or weight loss CAN be made without rest. We’re not getting any stronger in the gym, we are actually getting weaker. We’re breaking down our muscles through exercise and relying on the recovery process to repair us. When we strive to optimize our rest and recovery between training sessions, we can come back next sessions stronger and more resilient than before. High training volume, without proper rest, leads to elevated stress hormones which can actually make losing weight or leaning out harder. It also taxes our immune and adrenal systems. Think of rest as a battery charge. It’s like plugging in your phone at night and waking up to 100% battery, vs. only charging 30-50% at a time.
How do I know I need a rest day?
1. You’re always sore
2. You're warmed up and still not feeling it
3. Your muscles are cramping
4. You're sick, injured, or in pain
5. Your workout feels much harder than usual
6. You notice you’re not getting any stronger
7. You're struggling with a skill you normally crush.
How many rest days should I be taking?
One study (McLester, John R et al.) found that it took 72 hours of rest (or 3 days) between strength training sessions for full muscle recovery, while research from the ACE Scientific Advisory Panel says that a recovery period could be anywhere from two days up to a week depending on the type of exercise. For the average person, 2 rest days split throughout the week is sufficient enough to enhance recovery between sessions. We have to start thinking about a less is more approach. Unless you are a high level Crossfit games athlete, getting in 3-5 one hour workouts per week is more than enough. In addition to that, if you're getting 8-10k steps per day then you have your daily activity level where it should ideally be.
What should I be doing on rest days?
Foam rolling, stretching, walking, light aerobic activity and eating nutrient dense foods and hydrating on a rest day will enhance the benefits of recovery. Regardless, however you spend your day, it shouldn’t be strenuous on your body.
Recovery is what enables fitness and strength. Training and rest periods are complementary. You need both. The better your recovery, the more frequently and more intensely you can train.
McLester, John R et al. “A series of studies--a practical protocol for testing muscular endurance recovery.” Journal of strength and conditioning research vol. 17,2 (2003): 259-73. doi:10.1519/1533-4287(2003)017<0259:asospp>2.0.co;2