THE IDEA THAT you need a “no days off” mentality to accomplish your fitness goals is an antiquated concept of old-school gym culture as useful these days as a rusty barbell. You can try to use it, but you’ll probably wind up getting hurt after too many reps.
Rest days are not for the weak. But how many rest days do you really need to optimize your recovery? What if you’re training for a race or pushing for a PR? Taking time off when you have a goal staring back at you can be difficult—so how long should you break before you get back into your workout plan? How many rest days are needed in a week of training?
Here, Kurt Ellis, C.S.C.S., owner and coach at Beyond Numbers Performance, shares how to maximize your rest days so you can plan a balanced routine and come back from your days off feeling stronger.
Should You Take a Rest Day?
“The ideal answer is yes,” says Ellis. While it’s possible to train every day—“as long as you’re managing intensity and the impact that each workout has on your joints, nervous system, etc,” he adds—there’s a difference between can and should.
There might be weeks when you feel energized by and enthused about your training plan. You’re supposed to rest, but you don’t want to take a break. That might make actually following this guidance an obstacle. Still, you should remember: Rest days are a must.
When you’re faced with these types of situations, remember that a “rest day” doesn’t mean that you’re laying around on your couch, totally sedentary. You’re just not pushing yourself to the extent that you would during your typical training program. “Rest days are not dedicated to strenuous exercise [or] training,” he says. “It’s a day [or days] that focuses on decompressing from stressors and ‘filling your cup’ in different facets—physically, mentally, socially.” In other words, you don’t have to stay supine for the whole day—just take your foot off the gas a bit.
How Many Rest Days Do You Need?
Generally speaking, everyone should take at least one rest day a week, says Ellis. But, as with anything in fitness, it depends on your individual training program.
The key is to vary your “intensity throughout the week in a way that allows for adequate recovery—i.e. a high-intensity [day], low-intensity [day], high-intensity [day], low-intensity [day], moderate-intensity [day], high-intensity [day], and rest [day],” he says.
For some people, a rest day might fall at the end of a string of consecutive training days. But your own practice might look different. “If I’m someone who likes to keep my foot on the gas throughout the week, then I would think about resting every other day in order to keep myself fresh, and also to make sure that I’m allowing my body to adapt to my workouts,” says Ellis. So, keeping your goals and exercise mentality in mind will help you determine when to slot rest days into your weekly workout routine.
The Benefits of Taking a Rest Day
Here are some of the biggest reasons not to skip your rest days.
You can have too much of a good thing when it comes to exercise, says Ellis. Without necessary rest days, the benefits of exercise—improved mood, sharper memory, and increased energy just to name a few—risk being overshadowed by fatigue, reduced reaction time, and other hallmarks of overtraining.
Reduce Injury Risk
Speaking of overtraining, “incorporating rest days can help to mitigate injuries,” says Ellis. “The accumulation of stress, and/or overuse can lead to injury. Being strategic about rest days can help to reduce the amount of strain you accumulate, while allowing you to recover from the strain.”
Improve Gains and Overall Performance
During exercise, the exertion you put on your body causes micro-tears in the muscle fibers. Giving those fibers time to repair is “key to making gains,” says Ellis. “For those who have aesthetic goals, allowing muscle groups to repair and rebuild after intense workouts is key for growth.”
What’s more, resting actually improves your overall performance, since regular rest days gives your body adequate time to recover from training more broadly. “So, whether you’re training for a marathon or for the upcoming football season, including rest days will be key to recovery, which is key for creating adaptations,” says Ellis. Translation: You cannot make gains and get better without rest.
Allow for Mental Recharging
Rest days prevent burnout. Whether you’ve been running the same route over and over while clocking training miles, or you feel uninspired at the gym, taking a rest day is just as much about your mental game as your physical goals.
“As much as rest is encouraged because of the toll it takes on the body, the same can be said for the mind,” says Ellis. Use rest days as a way to recharge and refocus your training to come back mentally ready, he adds.
How to Recover On Your Rest Day
You know that you need to take rest days, but what are you supposed to do to maximize your recovery? The key is understanding what a rest day is, but also what it isn’t. Rest days are not the same as active recovery days, says Ellis. Activity is at a minimum on rest days, whereas active recovery could include lower intensity, non-strenuous movement.
Ellis says that rest days will be largely spent without dedicated activity, but adds that it’s great if you can still try to get a minimum of 4,000 steps in on these days. “Going for a walk can be a great way to promote blood flow, and delivery of nutrients for recovery,” he says. You may also opt for focused recovery like meditation, breathwork, getting a massage, or light stretching during your rest days.
What you shouldn’t be doing during your rest days? Things that don’t seem like exercise but are still super active, says Ellis. Basically, you don’t want to mow the lawn, play pickleball, and run around with the kids all day. These might be fun, but you’ll still accumulate too much stress on your body for it to be considered true rest. Take it easy, and the gains will come.
Alyssa Sparacino is an ACE-certified personal trainer, former Shape editorial director, as well as an editor, and writer with a focus on fitness, health, and wellness. Her work has been published online and in print for brands including Shape, Health, Fortune, What to Expect, Men’s Journal, Ask Men, Travel & Leisure, Chewy, and more. When she’s not writing or lifting weights, you can find her hiking, exploring, and eating with her husband and rescue dog.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.
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