The subject of rest and recovery is one of fundamental importance to anyone interested in fitness, and particularly so for the strength trainer.
To understand why, a short and grossly simplified description of what happens during exertion is necessary. When muscles contract, their tiny fibres slide over one another. With sufficient amount of muscular stimulus, such as that which occurs when lifting a weight, these fibres pull apart, causing trauma at the microlevel.
The body responds to this stress by rebuilding the bridges between the fibres, because the body doesn’t much like to be disturbed. You see, the body is a funny combo of industrious and lazy. It likes to stay occupied with rebuilding things, digesting things etc. but it also likes things to stay the way they are. It’s like a busy little bee that nevertheless has its favourite flower route. The body’s goal is homeostasis — keeping everything running on an even keel. The body repairs itself to be slightly stronger than it was before, so that next time it will be able to manage the stimulus more effectively.
You don’t really need to remember this; but what you do need to remember is that the building-up and recovering from trauma part happens between, not during workouts.
In other words, what you do outside the gym is as important as what you do inside.
In addition, the body is a system, not just a collection of unrelated parts. Stress on one part becomes stress felt all over. You know how you get a stomach upset when you’re nervous, or a headache after being tense? Same idea. The body operates as a dynamic system that responds to a stimulus holistically. In other words, all for one and one for all. If your body is not allowed sufficient time for repair and rebuilding, you will not recover and become stronger. You will be at risk for chronic injuries, minor (or major) illnesses, and eventually, overtraining.
Overtraining is the result of long-term training with too much work and/or too little recovery. In the short term, this is known as overreaching. Overreaching may be something as simple as pushing it just a little too much during one workout, or it may be not getting enough rest over a week of training.
Very few recreational athletes ever accomplish true overtraining. Overtraining is usually restricted to high-level athletes who train for hours a day, and it’s a product of over-reaching for a long, long time. Symptoms of overtraining include:
- Elevated morning heart rate
- Aches and pains
- Chronic joint injuries (e.g. tendonitis) and illnesses (e.g. viruses)
- Degraded technique on complex movements (missing reps, can’t find the “groove”)
- Problems focusing and concentrating
- Decreased gym performance: getting weaker, inability to tolerate formerly manageable workouts
- Anxiety and worry over workouts
- Loss of interest in training; giving up easily
- Irritability and mood swings
- Disrupted sleep
True overtraining takes time to occur, but unfortunately, by the time it gets serious, it will require some bigtime recovery. So try to work within your limits as much as possible, and err on the side of a little extra R ‘n’ R.
how much rest?
How do you know what’s enough rest? Well, partly trial and error, and partly informed guessing. By and large, a beginner cannot handle the workload that an experienced trainer can. Nor does a beginner need the workload of an experienced trainer. A beginner can make gains training as infrequently as twice weekly, with one set per exercise. Many elite trainers train nearly every day, or even twice a day. Most people fall somewhere in between that, opting to train with weights around 3-4 times weekly, for somewhere around 30-60 minutes.
A good rule to go by is that as frequency of workouts increases, the workload of each individual workout should decrease. So, if you train twice weekly, you can do a full body workout with fairly high intensity or a lot of volume. If you train 5-6 times weekly, you should have a shorter workout that may only consist of a few sets of a single lift. Or you need to rotate your exercises and the demands of each workout.
In general terms gains can often be superior with more frequent training, but you have to be very careful to keep each workout reasonably short, and the intensity moderate.
Most experienced folks make some kind of allowance for frequent training. Either they put lots of rest between heavy sessions, or they work different bodyparts on different days, or they vary the intensity of their workout sessions, or all of the above. You can indeed train a body part more than once a week, perhaps even several times a week, if you use a manageable or varied intensity. So, for example, you can squat without consequence 3 times a week if you use heavy, medium, and light squat workouts. You could even squat daily if you include unweighted work. Or you could train the chest area twice weekly, once with heavier bench presses and dips, and once with pushups. As long as workload is carefully controlled, there is no reason why you cannot work body parts more often than once a week. You may even find that depending on your goals, more frequent, less intense training can be more beneficial and yield more progress than less frequent, more intense training.
See my program page to see suggestions for possible splits that you can use. A well designed program gives all your 2000 parts sufficient time to recover and be ready to get the crap beaten out of them again. In addition, every 2-3 months give yourself a full week off. Don’t worry, all your hard-won gains won’t disappear in such a short time, and when it’s time to get back into it, you will leap once more into the breach with newfound vigour.
Rest is not confined to merely abstaining from working out three times a day. Sleep is also fundamental to fitness success. Yeah, I know, it sort of seems like a waste of time to just lie there for eight hours a night, but your body does it for a reason. You might find that after a few nights of crappy sleep that your performance in the gym is impaired. Your immune system will also be compromised with a lack of rest, meaning that whatever gross viruses are smeared on the machines and floating happily in the humidity of the locker room will be more eagerly accepted by your exhausted and apathetic body.
In addition to straightforward resting, both in the form of sensible program design with days off, and lots of sleep, there are many things you can do to improve your overall recovery. These may be known as “active recovery” or “restoration” tools. They include:
- Light to moderate cardio either after weights or on non-weights days
- Warm/hot baths, or periods of warm/hot immersion alternated with cool/cold immersion, such as going from a hot tub to a pool
- Various types of stretching, active mobility such as tai chi and yoga
- Good nutrition with sufficient caloric intake
- Supplementation geared at improving recovery and maintaining good health, such as a basic multivitamin, glucosamine sulfate, ginseng, antioxidants, etc.
- Attention to psychological needs in training, such as variety, fun, and manageable, relevant goals
Remember, more isn’t better. Better is better. If you train hard, you have to rest hard too!