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March 26, 2021 10 min read
We all have a love-hate relationship with rest days. They’re disruptive to a good routine, it feels like we’re missing out on progress, and if you’re somebody that loves hitting the gym, you’re just missing out on a good time by taking a rest day. But these things couldn’t be further from the truth. Rest days are the key to a strong routine, and they’re instrumental to encouraging muscle growth. A good rest day can be the same opportunity to improve your health and work away the stress of the day as a regular workout day. If you’re trying to figure out how to get the most out of your rest days there are few things you can do, from getting in a good stretch to prepping your meals for later in the week when you get a good sense of how to spend your downtime, you’ll see that it’s not really downtime at all.
A rest day is going to make or break your progress to your goals. Rest days are the one thing standing in between you and the gains you’re looking for. When your body is asking for rest it’s asking for the opportunity to improve itself, and you’d be stupid to ignore that. We all know that when you’re working out you’re creating tiny tears in your muscles that your body is rebuilding in order to create more optimized energy storage and longer, thicker fibers to lift with.
Your body needs the chance to do that, though. If you’re starving your body of rest then you’re starving your body of a chance to get stronger, so rest days should be taken just as seriously as your gym days. Getting effective rest, loading up on nutrients, and continuing to stimulate blood flow to your starving muscles is going to be what separates you from the novices, so take the time to listen to your body’s needs and use that as an opportunity to treat your body with the respect and diligence it deserves.
If you’re trying to build muscle then you know the secrets of hypertrophy. Your body needs time and materials to build that new muscle. A good rest day can be as simple as making sure you’re feeding yourself the nutrients your body needs to get the work done.
Take an honest assessment of your intake throughout the week, have you been eating enough? Have you provided your system with the protein and vitamins it needs to run a tight ship? A rest day can be the day that you treat yourself to something rich in protein. This is the chance you’ve been looking for to get the right amount of fiber onto your plate. A good meal is going to turn into good muscles, giving you the strength the go on the next time you’re pushing yourself to the limits. Make sure you’re getting in your leafy green veggies and other iron-rich foods so that your bloodstream is running at maximum capacity. Fruits and vegetables are just as important as your protein-dense entrees.
Sleep is your body’s single most important function. Without it, our brains start to shut down. Sleep deprivation immediately tanks your ability to think, your thresholds of pain, and saps your willpower. If you’re missing out on sleep because of your workout routine then taking the opportunity to sleep in will skyrocket your ability to achieve your goals later. If you’re hitting the gym regularly, then you’re probably already getting more work in than the average population. You shouldn’t take that for granted, getting some sleep is a basic human need, and we’re constantly being told that we need to work harder and stay up longer, but the best thing you can do to uphold a healthy lifestyle is getting some rest in.
The benefits of getting a good amount of sleep are hard to overstate, but to put that in perspective we need to talk about how damaging it is to your body when you don’t get enough sleep.
Starting with your brain and your central nervous system, a lack of sleep is going to be wrecking havoc on your neurons. Your body uses sleep as an opportunity to sort out to your memories and restore your brain to a baseline working order. When we neglect our rest it becomes harder to regulate moods, keep track of the information we’ve learned, and creates more opportunities for impulsive decision making. In health terms, this means forgetting to keep up with our diets, making it harder to stick to a routine, and skipping out on gym days because we don’t have the willpower to get out of bed on time.
On the more physical side of things, a lack of sleep is going to be impacting our immune systems, negating the body’s ability to repair damage (like the kind of damage done to your muscles in pursuit of bigger gains), and it screws with our digestive systems. A good health routine is mostly monitoring the food we eat, right? So what good is keeping up a healthy diet if your body doesn’t get the chance to pull out all of the nutrients we’ve been putting into ourselves?
So what does getting the right amount of sleep mean for us?
Getting the right amount of sleep is key to keeping up your health. When you sleep in on a rest day, you’re still getting work done, it’s just much less conscious. Your body is taking all of your nutrients and applying them to every single inch of your body, maximizing the repairs to your muscles, neurons, and your immune system, leaving you ready to tackle your next workout.
It’s going to leave you with more willpower, you can stare down the doughnuts in the office without blinking an eye, and you’ll be able to internalize the information you processed during your last workout. If you’re learning how to tighten up your form, you’re going to be encoding those memories better and applying them more readily in the future, and if you’re tracking your progression, you can do the math more reliably and you’ll have the presence of mind to honestly pick out the right amount of weight and maximizing your body’s growth.
Your muscles are incredible. They work together to enable your body to move massive amounts of weight and run at amazing speeds. They’re dense and powerful, and if you’re not careful they can pull your joints out of alignment. When you build up a lot of muscle, you’re adding a lot of rigid material to your skeletal joints, and if you’re neglecting your flexibility, then you’re putting yourself at an incredible disadvantage and exposing yourself to a potential source of injury.
Stretching is one of the best ways to avoid this injury and increase your ability to lift more weight in the future. When you’re lifting, you want to take full advantage of your body’s full range of motion, but if your muscles don’t have the flexibility to move all the way through their range of motion comfortably, you’re coming into your workouts with a severe disadvantage.
Taking the time to stretch or foam roll the tension out of your muscles during your rest days is a great way to invest in the future of your workout routine. You want your muscles in peak condition, and that’s what stretching is all about. When you’re stretching during your rest days, you’ll be easing the load on your ligaments and tendons, while loosening up the naturally tight and dense muscle fibers in your body. Stretching and foam rolling also stimulates blood flow, when your body is rebuilding your muscles during a rest day, they’re begging for nutrients from your diet. This is how you’re going to be maximizing the amount of hypertrophy taking place in between workouts.
When you’re working out, you’re making a choice with how you spend your time. Rest days can be a good way to catch up with your responsibilities or make your future workouts more efficient. Things like meal prepping, laying out your clothes, or reorganizing your gym bag don’t take very long, and you can get them done in about the same amount of time as a workout, so if you feel like you’re scrambling to get your routine right in the mornings, then using your rest days to tackle some administrative problems is going to completely restructure your life.
Prepping meals will take the mental load off of yourself when it’s time to stick to your diet, it’s hard to think about your macros and your carbohydrate intake when you’re hungry and tired after a workout, but if you take the time to set up meals and snacks for yourself ahead of time then you’re going to be cutting out the decision process later. A good rest day can be spent loading up some containers with your meals and snacks so you can stick to your plan without having to remember anything or cook after you’ve just kicked your own butt at the gym.
You’re already setting aside time in your day to knock out an exercise routine, so you might as well use that same block of time to catch up with any of the things that have been piling up on your to-do list. If you can knock out an item or two, even if it’s as simple as making a grocery list or planning out your next week of meals, you’ll be lowering your stress levels throughout the week and you’ll have more mental energy to point towards your weights and your personal record.
Using your rest days like this has the added benefit of forcing you to keep your activity levels low. If you’re filling your workout time with errand time, then you’re going to be giving your body the opportunity to work on reconstructing your damaged muscles. Redirecting your energy towards tidying up your life, is going to have the secondary effect of increasing your gains simply by moving you out of your own way.
Of course, if none of this is your cup of tea, then you can take on some active recovery days. If sitting still in one place doesn’t sit right with you then there’s always the option of taking on active recovery. Active recoveries are exactly what they sound like, they’re recovery days where you still take the bull by the horns, just with recovery in mind. Your body needs time to recover more than anything if you’re trying to build muscle. When you work out, you’re tearing your body apart on a microscopic scale. Your muscle fibers are tearing, and your body wants to repair them in order to grow. Active recovery days are a useful way to get your body to hurry that process along. You’re going to be stimulating your muscles and urging blood flow and nutrients to your starved muscles.
How do you get in a good active rest day? They’re going to consist of light exercise, especially in the areas that need attention. So if you’ve had a hard leg day, then you’re going to want to go on a brisk walk, or if you’ve been hitting your upper body hard, then some light low-rep weight lifting is going to do the trick. The key here is keeping the exercise light, you’re not going to be beating any records or pushing yourself too far, if you’re short of breath and fighting for the last rep on an active recovery day, then you’re going to be stunting your growth.
If you’re looking for some good active recovery day activities a simple rule of thumb is to just roll back your previous exercise. If you’re weight lifting, then practice with some extremely light weights, if you’re running, then go for a walk, if you’re doing laps in the pool, then take a leisurely swim. But if you want some more specific exercises to build your active rest day around then here are a couple to integrate into your off days.
Yoga: Yoga is often underrated in its usefulness. Yoga is all about increasing your flexibility with repeated active stretches and calisthenic isometric exercise. When you’re doing yoga, you can think about it like slow push-ups that increase your flexibility. You’re using your body to hold up your body and engaging in isometric exercise that’s still going to strengthen your muscles and stimulate blood flow without the impact that something like an intense run or heavy weight lighting will direct towards your body.
This makes yoga on your rest days a resource that far outweighs a lot of other rest day activities like simple stretches.
A Lengthy Walk: Going on a walk is a great way to recenter yourself. You’re giving your brain and body the space to reconnect with the world around you, and your only real worry is putting one foot in front of the next one. When you’re going on a good walk for a mile or two, then you’re getting your heart rate up just a touch, and stimulating blood flow all around your body.
It’s a simple activity that’s great for rest days. It encourages physical recovery and has the benefit of mental recovery as well. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health when you’re trying to push yourself in the gym. The effects your attitude has on your ability to believe in your body enough to accomplish the tasks you’ve set out in front of yourself become obvious when you’re struggling, so take this chance on your rest days to reset yourself and you’ll have fewer struggle sessions in the future.
Bike Rides: A good bike ride is just like a good walk, but you’ll be able to squeeze a little more utility out of a bike ride. If the terrain around you is flat and you don’t have to push yourself too hard, then a brisk bike ride has all of the benefits of a decent jog or a long walk, but you’ll be able to get yourself much further with less effort. You can use a bike ride to cut down on your car time or see more of your community while also keeping your cardiovascular health in tip-top shape.
Your rest days are going to be key players in your path to progress. Without them you’ll plateau pretty much immediately, you’re going to burn out quickly, and you’ll never really reach any of your goals no matter how hard you try. Rest to the human body is up there with water and oxygen, without it you’ll suffer, and eventually you’ll probably just die. Take your rest days seriously and you’ll literally be building muscle in your sleep, and you’ll be progressing much faster than you could have ever imagined. A good rest day take the same kind of discipline that getting under the squat rack, and the most successful lifters take that to heart. Take care of your body and you’ll be surprised by the kinds of results you’ll draw out of yourself in a much shorter amount of time.