You know what’s really good for achieving your training and fitness goals? Not training.
No really. Giving it 110% every single day of the week, is bad math and (IMO) bad training.
In case you haven’t heard me preach about it before, rest and recovery are top of my list for getting hella strong, so let’s talk about how training less, lighter, or not at all can help improve your long-term progress.
How Does Recovery Work?
Recovery is one of the 3 steps of the adaptation process that rules any kind of physical progress – you know, the whole reason you’re in the gym in the first place.
This 3-step process, known as the ‘stress-recovery-adaptation’ cycle, is pretty straightforward:
You are stressing your muscles by making them do actual physical work, obv. But in the process, by placing muscles under mechanical stress, you also create *chemical stresses* that disrupt the structure of the muscle, which is the very first step to getting stronger.
This disruption sends a signal to your brain that your system needs repair; more specifically, repair to your muscles, joints and nervous system that have likely taken a beating from a solid workout.
Once your body has signalled for repair your metabolism snaps into action. With adequate rest and nutrient intake, your body will direct the necessary resources to help repair the damaged tissues.
Putting yourself into an optimal state of recovery will allow your body to heal and replenish itself. If you neglect your recovery, it will be more difficult for your body to rebuild efficiently (see *chemical stresses* above) and stay resilient to injury. Your body won’t have the optimal environment necessary to re-synthesize muscle, which is key for making adaptations to your training capacity. You’ll end up spinning your wheels in the gym and wind up in a plateau, even if you feel like your workouts are amped right up and tougher than ever.
As your body struggles to recover and regain homeostasis, it will supercompensate. Supercompensation is when the body prepares itself for future workout-stresses by improving the strength of muscles and joints. With adequate nutrition and rest, you can optimize supercompensation. You will improve the ability for muscles, tendons and ligaments to synthesize stronger, more abundant fibres which will help you bounce back faster, avoid injury and handle greater loads in future.
Rest Days: What, How and When?
Rest days might be difficult to wrap your head around if you’re a serious fitness enthusiast or professional athlete, but for most of us its going to be nice to take a day off and enjoy some R&R. If you are someone who obsessively trains 6 days a week and you are seeing plateaus in performance (guilty of this often enough over here), more time in the gym isn’t the answer. YOU. NEED. REST.
What is a Rest Day and How Should You Go About it?
Rest days are simply days when you don’t engage in your regular training regimen – you might exercise lightly here and there, which can actually help your recovery, but you’re not going to be busting your ass in the squat rack.
Rest days are all about winding down from training. If you’re reeeeeally good, you will take rest days as your opportunity to do your other training homework: putting dedicated time and effort into the things that improve your recovery and prepare you for more training. Think mobility, activation, and other more passive movement. Spending your rest day on the sofa watching re-runs is a perfectly acceptable way to spend your rest day, however it might not drive your recovery as well as it could. By contrast, spending that time stretching, foam rolling, taking a long walk or even a gentle run / swim can all be amazing forms of active recovery.
Rest days are most definitely about relaxing, but they’re not meant to be a full stop. You’re a human – you’re not designed to be totally sedentary even when you’re resting. Try and find some simple, casual movement that you enjoy on these days. Rest days are also great opportunities for yoga!
When is a Rest Day Necessary?
One of the most important lessons here will come from just listening to your body. If you have a good coach, they will be able to recognize when you are ready or in need of some added rest and/or even a de-load in your training plan, but it is important to be able to recognize the signs yourself so you can take action.
Above and beyond the whole “listen to your body” there is real science behind rest when it comes to avoiding injury, illness and dips in performance. When you’re applying too much stress (either through training or uhhhh y’know… life!), you run the risk of chronically high cortisol or becoming cortisol dominant – a state where you’re chronically more stressed than you are able to recover from.
The signs of cortisol-dominance are pretty easy to spot and they are the ones you should look out for as markers that you’re over-trained or need more recovery:
Suppressed immune system: feeling ill, struggling to sleep or disruptive digestive issues
Feeling run-down, depressed, irritable or unable to shake a shitty mood
Soreness in your joints (not the muscles) or general creakiness beyond your ‘normal’ level
Going backwards in your training or unable to crank workouts out with the same intensity
Feeling tired all the time, even when you eat, sleep and caffeinate excessively
Lack of motivation in the gym and a fizzling desire to achieve your goals
If you’re experiencing any/all of these then its probably going to be time to look at your recovery and focus more energy into the things that make you stronger out of the gym.
Maximize Your Rest Days with Active Recovery
Here are a few ideas for boosting recovery on days when you need to catch up and recuperate.
Sleep more: 8-10 hours + naps are the BEST and are my FAVOURITE for obvious reasons
Eat more: don’t decrease your calories on rest days – keep your intake consistent. Eat plenty of protein and nutrient dense carbohydrates. This is not the time to reduce your carb intake!
Stretch and/or foam roll: let’s be real - we both know you’re not doing enough
Make an appointment with your massage therapist or your chiropractor to get nagging pain or discomfort under control before it becomes a chronic injury
Drink more water: metabolic reactions, nutrient delivery and removal of toxins depend on it
Try active relaxation: everything from yoga to meditation to candle-lit reading will help you relax, reduce stress and recover more effectively
Ice sore joints: the science is still out on this, but reducing inflammation in a joint before it becomes chronic makes sense. It also just feels good and can help break the pain cycle
Take a bath: add some Epsom salts to help reduce DOMS. Also… this will help you RELAX!!
Take your fish oil & vitamin D: supplementing key nutrients during rest days is just as important as it is any other day of the week!
You don’t need to complete everything on this list, however the more you do, the better you’ll feel. Channelling quality time and effort into recovery might not be glamorous, but it is an important step to keeping yourself healthy and maximizing your results in and out of the gym.
Seriously Over-Trained or Consistently Training at High Intensities: Build in a De-load
Rest days should be scheduled into your training program deliberately and are an effective method of controlling your training response, but sometimes you can get so worn down that one or two days simply isn’t enough to get you back on track.
When you’re over-trained and experiencing performance issues, a more targeted measure is to implement a de-load week. A de-load is a series of workouts where you plan your weight loads and overall intensity to be lighter than a regular training week, allowing you some additional recovery time so you can effectively get back to beast mode.
De-load weeks should aim to reduce the training volume you perform more than just the intensity: if you’re doing 5 sets of 5 at 100 lbs, you might decrease that to 2 or 3 sets of 5 at the same weight, rather than 5 sets of 5 at 70 lbs. This will keep you ready to return to your regular lifting weight, without the mental hurdle of getting back to lifting heavier when the de-load is over. With the decreased number of work sets, your overall volume will decrease, allowing plenty of rest for your muscles, joints, and nervous system.
Try dropping your sets to approximately half for a de-load week – this will give you time to recover and get stronger. If you are really struggling with achy joints and an inability to recover effectively, it might be worth dropping your sets and backing off some of your reps as well or in this case it might be worth considering taking some weight off the bar. There’s no point training hard if you’re just digging yourself into a deeper and deeper hole of poor recovery, injury and over-training. Take your de-loads and your rest days just as seriously as you take even your toughest workouts.
Recovery doesn’t need to be radical. You don’t need to jump into a cryogenic chamber or an ice bath, but you do need to put some thought into your recovery and where it can improve.
Build your rest days into your training schedule and stick to your plan. Plan some light activity, massage therapy, or an appointment with your chiropractor if you’ve got some tweaks you just can’t get rid of. If you’re more seriously over trained then it’s time to put your ego aside and get on a de-load week so you can bring your best self back to the gym sooner than you would struggling through illness and injuries that can sideline you for weeks!
Your time in the gym is only 1/3 of the process and its important to remember that 2/3 of the effects you’re chasing are determined by what you do when you’re resting: dialling things in with your diet and optimizing your recovery.
What’s your favourite recovery day activity? Shoot me an email and let me know!