Rest days are the bane of many a gym goers week, but they are a necessary part of becoming better at your chosen discipline. Regardless if you’re a gym veteran or just starting out, deciding how many rest days you need can be a tricky question to answer as there’s no “one size fits all” solution.
Whenever you hit the gym, whether its for a heavy barbell session or a long distance run, you are causing damage to your body through micro tears to your muscle tissue and putting stress on your Central Nervous System (CNS) and it is because of this damage that we need to rest. It is during your time away from the gym that we actually get stronger and fitter, and without this time to recover we can set ourselves up for effects of Overtraining Syndrome (1)
When looking at how many rest days is optimal for our goals there are a number of Important factors that need to be taken into consideration. These are the Frequency, Intensity and Duration of your sessions and it is these that are going to impact your training and how long you are going to need in order to fully recuperate.
What exactly is a rest day?
It would be Impossible to have a day completely dedicated to doing no physical activity whatsoever, so thankfully that’s not what is meant by a “rest day”. In fact, it can be beneficial to remain active on your rest days to ensure blood and nutrients are transported effectively around your body to help promote recovery. A rest day is in essence, a day away from the gym or training, so that the act of intense exercise is removed.
How many rest days do I need?
The number of days you need away from the gym can, in theory, change from week to week. As mentioned above it will depend on the frequency, intensity and duration of your sessions, but also on your sleeping habits, diet and other lifestyle factors.
In order to find out what this number is we need to establish our Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). This is essentially the maximum amount of work you can do in the gym that you’re body will recover from without any negative implications. Do more than this amount and you may find yourself suffering from the effects of over training such as fatigue and loss of motivation.
Establishing your MRV will take a little trial and error but the goal is to stop at a point where you wont be overly sore from DOMS the next day after your training, allowing you to fully recover within a day or two and return back to training feeling refreshed and strong.
The number of rest days required may also change depending on your goal.
It’s a common misconception that we build muscle in the gym, when in fact, we only create the stimulus for growth. (2) When your goal is to build muscle, you may find that you want to take an extra days rest each week. This will allow your body enough time to repair the micro tears created in the muscle tissue from lifting weights.
If Fat loss is your main priority then it may seem logical to up your days at the gym to increase overall calorie expenditure. You still need to use caution however, as without proper rest, not only will you reach a performance plateau, but you also will run the risk of injury, poor sleep and you may even experience a drop in motivation, (3) all of which would be detrimental to your overall goal.
How to have effective rest days
A day away from the gym, doesn’t mean a day away from working towards your goals. You might not be throwing any weights around or running a 10K but you still need to keep everything else on track to ensure you walk back onto the gym floor stronger and fitter than when you last left.
Nutrition plays a vital role in achieving your fitness goals and it needs the same attention on rest days as it does on your days at the gym. Make sure you still hit your calorie targets and get enough protein in your diet to continue muscle recovery and repair.
It’s also important to keep your water intake high to ensure you’re staying well hydrated to allow nutrients to be transported and absorbed for effective recovery.
Lastly, stay active and aim to get your 10,000 steps in. Whilst the feeling of DOMS may have you wanting to lay still all day long, moving around and staying active is a great way to flush any toxins and lactic acid out the muscle tissue, whilst getting the vital nutrients in.
- Kreher JB, Schwartz JB. Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports Health. 2012;4(2)
- Hedayatpour N, Falla D. Physiological and Neural Adaptations to Eccentric Exercise: Mechanisms and Considerations for Training. Biomed Res Int. 2015
- Milewski MD1, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, Pace JL, Ibrahim DA, Wren TA, Barzdukas A. Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. Journal of pediatric orthopedics. 2014 Mar;34(2)