The importance of rest days

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It can sometimes be hard, at the end of a long day, when the sun is going down and you just want to put your feet up, to motivate yourself to get to your gym in Motor City and exercise. We have all been there: every trick in the book is out there, and many of us have employed most of them, just to get ourselves in gear.


However, the opposite is often true as well: as pumped as you’re feeling, as ready to hit your gym in Motor City for an epic weightlifting session, you have to try and talk yourself down. It’s a rest day and you need to honour it.


Many people still cling to it. Perhaps you are indeed over-enthusiastic, perhaps you feel guilty for not getting into the gym to exercise every day, perhaps you think that the more you put in, the more you’ll get out. Well, not so. The idea that training needs to be 24/7 has long since been debunked. 


Many people who follow either inappropriate or poorly made weightlifting programmes- or programs in any athletic discipline, come to think of it- will not have adequate rest. Many who don’t follow programs, or think they are ready to write their own, do not schedule in rest days. But let’s make it clear from the start: rest days are as important to your success as your gym days.


There are two ways to look at the benefits of rest days. First, viewing the dangers of not taking them, we can see how fully necessary they are. Second, looking at the benefits of taking them, we can see how useful they are for progressing towards your goals.


The dangers of doing too much


Many programs either deliberately or unwittingly make use of excessive bouts of stress- either too much stress, or too many overly stressful sessions in close proximity- which can lead very quickly to burn-out.


Aside from the fatigue experienced (which cannot be underestimated), there are numerous physiological dangers this kind of burn-out can present. It can lead to overuse injuries such as muscle strains, joint pain, soft tissue inflammation and degradation, and even stress fractures over time. It can also completely erode the body’s immune system, opening you up to infection and illness, and the fatigue can bring about some nasty mental health side-effects like insomnia and depression.


The benefits of taking rest days


Of course, the main benefit of taking rest days is in avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above- no fatigue, no joint pain, no depleted immune system, and so on.


Aside from this, we need to respect how the body responds to exercise stimulation. You do not get fitter or build muscle in the gym. You do so as you sleep and rest, as your body adapts to the stimuli.


Working out, especially resistance training, breaks your body tissues down. In fact, resistance training breaks down muscles causing microscopic tears: weightlifting breaks down muscle and forces your body to change. The change happens as you rest. Muscles, nerves, bones and connective tissues are rebuilt outside the gym.


In addition, you will be weak immediately after weightlifting- this can last up to 48 hours. You should never train twice within the same 24-hour period for this reason, meaning that rest days are inevitable. Not taking them will simply erode your athleticism.


There is a balancing act involved in scheduling training and rest. You want to rest enough that you recover properly between training sessions, but not so much that you are lacking in stimuli. With this in mind, there are some recommendations laid out by the American College of Sports Medicine to govern how much exercise you should be taking.


Adults should be aiming to get at least 2.5 hours of moderate cardio per week, which can be split up however you see fit. For strength training and weightlifting, each major muscle group should be trained 2-3 days per week, with at least 48 hours between each training session. There should always be a day’s rest between training similar muscle groups, and there should be a couple of days of complete rest, where you do little by way of resistance training.


There are different factors that will come into play, here, however. These include the intensity level of your workout, the total volume of your weekly training, your training experience, and your age: the greater the intensity and/or volume, the older you are, the less experienced you are, the more rest will be needed, and vice versa.


Sleep is also vital to recovery. Your body rebuilds itself during sleeps: during sleep, your body’s production of growth hormone increases, which aids in the repairing and rebuilding of muscles post-workout. Aim for between 7-9 hours per night, with occasional naps if you find yourself succumbing to fatigue. If you find yourself unable to sleep for whatever reason, you will need to dial back intensity in the gym, and likely take more frequent rest days.