How to Approach Rest Days

May 29, 2021 5 min read

How to Approach Rest Days

When you’re on a mission towards your goals, it can be tough to want to take rest days.  They feel a bit like you’re ‘slacking’, or not working as hard as you could, right?  We totally get the mental component of rest days being hard, but we want to back up with some science of why rest days are actually just as important as your workout days to accomplish your goals. 

The crazy thing is, rest days are important for pretty much any goals you may have: 

Looking to purely look good and lose body-fat?  Yup...take rest days. 

Looking to perform at your peak and get to your strongest potential?  Definitely take rest days! 

Looking to just be healthy and increase longevity?  Obviously we need rest days!  

Rest days are not only important for muscle growth, but also for reducing inflammation levels within the body and allowing cellular repair to happen.  So read on for do’s and don’ts of rest days and why your body needs them! 

Importance of Rest Days for Muscle Growth and Strength

What do you think would happen if you exercised every hour of every day?  Many people would probably think - I’d be in the best shape of my life! And for maybe a period of time, you’d be in pretty good shape, but beneath the surface, the body would be slowly deteriorating.  Eventually, things would break down, and this is why many ex-CrossFit Games athletes or extreme exercisers often become burned out and suffer from auto-immune conditions down the line. 

When we train, if we are exercising properly, there is inflammation that should occur.  Some degree of inflammation is necessary for you to get anything beneficial out of your workout including hypertrophy, increased strength, higher work capacity, etc.  This inflammatory response comes from challenging exercises that cause microscopic tears in the muscle tissue.  When we rest, our body recovers by rebuilding this muscle tissue stronger to adapt to being able to tolerate more weight, more reps, etc.  

There is a great saying that depicts this - your workout is only as good as your recovery.  

The thing about inflammation is that it needs time to calm down and be an adaptive process versus a detrimental chronic condition.  Without rest periods and recovery, the muscles cannot rebuild, they will simply continue to be broken down.  This can be a big driver as to why individuals fail to see strength development or are constantly dealing with soreness and injuries. 

Obviously getting in adequate nutrition and protein is pivotal for recovery as well, so ensuring your eating enough should always be a consideration.  

Importance of Rest Days for Fat Loss

It can be hard to wrap our head around if we are not ‘burning calories’ at the gym, how we are possibly going to lose adequate fat to reach our goals.  The reasoning behind rest days improving fat loss is kind of a round-about way, but hear us out!  For the body to ‘burn’ at a higher rate, a few things have to be managed - muscle mass and stress.  Most of us know that muscle burns calories at a higher rate, at rest, compared to fat tissue, and the reason being is because muscle just requires more energy at rest to maintain itself (SOURCE). 

So we want to take rest days in between our workout days for our muscles to have time to repair themselves and grow stronger, because the higher levels of muscle mass we have, the higher our metabolic rate will be and the more calories we will burn without even lifting a finger!  

The other area that rest days can help us with fat loss is stress reduction.  Unfortunately, when we end up with chronic inflammation within the body, the body experiences heightened levels of our stress hormone, cortisol.  We’ve talked many times on here about how stress can cause weight gain, and physical stress from lack of rest is one of those ways!  This is because chronically high cortisol levels will lead to more fat storage (SOURCE).  We often see individuals who over-train seem almost ‘puffy’ in appearance. It’s like they are walking around with a layer of inflammation, or water, just under their skin, and as soon as we implement an extra rest day or two, we immediately see inflammation drop, muscles pop more, and often weight even goes down! 

So although you may not see the calories on your Apple Watch as high, the rest days may have you waking up way leaner than that extra workout does. 

How Much Should You Train? 

This is a tough question to answer, and will obviously be individualized for each person, but we don’t recommend taking any less than 2 rest days per week.  If you are training with intent, and following a great program, 3-5 days a week of workouts should be plenty to see progress both in the gym and out of the gym.  

A great structure for this is to train 2 days on, 1 day rest and repeat that throughout the week, but we usually recommend no more than 3 days in a row of strenuous exercise. Again, this will depend on how good you are at putting in recovery techniques, but for the general population, 45-60 minutes of training 3-5x/week should be plenty to see progress and long-term health! 

Also, when you do take your rest days, get rid of the ‘super active rest day’ situation. Going for a 5k ‘jog’, or doing a super intense yoga class stresses out our system more than we realize.  We love mobility sessions, getting 10-12k steps on rest days, or going for a nice easy hike, but your rest day should be restful and refreshing, not just a ‘lighter’ workout day.  

Nutrition on Rest Days 

The whole eating less because your burning less is a recipe for disaster on rest days.  We also don’t recommend going totally YOLO on the day off.  If you workout consistently, your nutrition should not look that different on rest days.  Rest days should be used for rest and recovery, and the nourishment of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats all contribute to helping the body recover.  

Training is a stress, as we’ve discussed, and when the body is stressed, our central nervous system signals to our adrenals to produce that adrenaline and cortisol.  Adequate nourishment, especially carbohydrates, helps to lower cortisol levels and manage all of the stress our body works to recover from.  

Remember, workouts are only about an hour of our day, the other 23 hours our body is still burning quite a lot of calories keeping us alive and moving (per the graph below).  Our resting metabolic rate and our non-exercise activity thermogenesis burn way more than our exercise.  

Hopefully we now realize the importance of resting our bodies to get the most out of them. We especially emphasize this for those of you who find that you are struggling with chronic fatigue, constant aches and pains, or haven’t been seeing progress that you want with body-composition or performance in the gym.  It’s amazing what a couple of rest days can do for our body and its ability to work how we want. 

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