Is there anything more important than your workout when it comes to getting fit? Yes, there is. And it’s called: Get some rest! We all struggle with it— we want to keep lifting heavy every day, we don’t know what to do with our hands on rest day, “active” rest, etc.
So, what DO we do on rest day and WHY do we NEED to make it part of our weekly training split?
Why You and Your Body Need Rest and Recovery
I know it FEELS like magic when you’re in the gym lifting hard, but the real magic happens after you walk out of the gym and go home. When you lift weights, you are creating tiny tears in your muscle tissue— once you are done with your workout, those tears begin healing and your body begins to learn how to adapt itself to this kind of damage so that you don’t get “hurt” again. The recovery and healing process is when your muscles get stronger and grow. And, eventually, if you keep lifting the same weight with the same reps, the same amount of sets and the same exercises, adaptation will set in and you will stop tearing the muscle tissue. This is why it is SO important to mix up all of those elements (exercises, weight, sets and rest) occasionally.
During the healing process, your muscle fibers grow thicker and stronger— which is how the actual muscle becomes stronger and increases in size slowly. It’s all in the healing process!
Imagine if you never gave your body and muscles a chance to go through this healing process. It is no different than you scraping your knee and then re-scraping it over and over again before it heals or has a chance to get better at all.
Don’t let me discourage you from having magical lifting sessions, though! The pump you get while you lift is also very important. As you lift and your muscles contract, you are increasing blood flow into the muscle being worked and your muscles are temporarily larger (to make room for the excess blood flow) during and shortly after your lifting session. This is why we keep coming back to the weight room, right?!
When you continually stretch the fascia of your muscles in this fashion during your weight training sessions, you are creating more room for muscle growth so keep pumping!
What does rest day look like?
You have two major jobs to do on rest day.
1. Let your muscles and body recover— this means not lifting that muscle group or putting your body through a strenuous activity.
We talked about job 1, but what’s with job 2?
You need to eat after your workouts and on rest day in order to replenish the muscle glycogen you burned up during your workout. After you work out, your muscles are prepped and ready to turn glucose (carbs/sugar— the main source of fuel for your cells) into glycogen— a stored form of glucose that your muscles need to refuel— and start protein synthesis (building muscle). When you don’t replenish muscle glycogen, protein breakdown can occur faster than protein synthesis and you run the risk of losing muscle.
The main goal is to give your muscles a break and allow them to repair and recover. Additionally, you want to make sure you don’t burn out as well. Keep in mind that not including enough rest days and sleep during the week can elevate your cortisol (stress) levels, cause other injuries, decrease immune system, and so much more.
Can you get some light activity in on rest day? Absolutely! Just make sure you are eating, drinking plenty of fluids and taking a break. I use rest days to catch up on a few missed hours of sleep (mom duty calls!), to schedule a massage, foam roll in my living room, go for a bike ride or a light/moderate hike, or take my favorite yoga class. One of my favorite yoga classes to take on rest days is the Yin Yoga class at my gym. Yin Yoga is the perfect balance for intense lifting (hey, that means YOU!)— it works the ligaments, connective tissues and joints, and keeps the hips open, hip flexors healthy, chest and back open and more— all so important to what you’re trying to accomplish while growing muscle and building strength. Yin Yoga is for ALL levels (even if you’ve never done yoga before). If you can’t find a class, you can find really great yoga DVDs, streaming videos or apps that will guide you.
How many rest days to take varies depending on the individual. For example, older lifters may have a slower rate of muscle recovery, which should increase the amount of rest they incorporate into their weekly split. If you have injuries, that will come into play, too. Beginner lifters or those starting a brand new lifting routine will experience more muscle soreness and damage, so you may need to incorporate more rest days at the beginning of a brand new program.
I recommend assessing the intensity of the program and then building in your rest days from there. For example, in my most advanced Jessie’s Girls training program (jessiefitness.com/jessiesgirls), Muscle Building 2, I incorporate two rest days each week. Many of my Jessie’s Girls following that program ask why my most advanced lifting program has the most rest days. I designed it that way because of the advanced lifting techniques (tempo training, etc.) that I incorporate into that program. These techniques are brand new to most women and, especially in the first several weeks, their bodies and muscle need as much recovery as possible in order to make it through the full 12 weeks successfully, build an insane physique and avoid a burnout!