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Fairytales from the gym: Rest days are for wimps

Busting those gym myths... one by one!

I've always been aware of the misconceptions and "bro-science" that dominates fitness. Sometimes it's amusing and ridiculous, but mostly it is unhelpful at least - it stops people from being able to reach their goals with poor, unproved advice. Sometimes it even hurts them. At the top end of things it stops our industry from being as effective as it should be - and it stops us being taken as seriously as we should be.

As fitness professionals we are the front line of preventative healthcare - we owe it to the world to put things straight.

Today I am going to finally cover the gym myth that triggered it all. I was reading through the comments of a fitness thread on social media. I tend to follow these, but don't often contribute - because arguing with people on the internet is a bit like mud wrestling with pigs most of the time, and I am always conscious of my commitment to be reasonable.

In this particular conversation, one person had contributed by saying something like: "one of the most common reasons people fail to make gains is that they train too much - often training less will get you more progress". The reply from another commenter was "that's stupid, you are such an idiot, that makes no sense".

And this people, is why we don't try and have sensible conversations in the comments section. The first commenter was not an idiot, they were absolutely spot on - but they were a lonely voice drowing in a sea of bravado.

Recovery is the most important part of your fitness programme.

Muscle growth (which is necessary for strength, definition, good posture - basically you can't do fitness without it) doesn't happen in the gym. Mostly it happens in bed. Thus it makes sense that if you want your muscles to grow, you need to spend a lot of time in bed, right?

Of course you have to spend some time in the gym, or your fitness arena of choice. Putting your muscles under pressure by exercising and gently overloading them is what tells your body that it needs to build more muscle. But it does this by creating damage, and not just to your muscle either, your bones suffer tiny microfractures on impact, your connective tissue gets tiny tears. All of this is normal and fine, this damage will be repaired, but recognising that the previous structure wasn't strong enough, your body repairs it stronger than before. Conversely, if you don't stress your tissue in this way, your body recognises it as superfluous and starts to break it down - which is why astronauts working in zero gravity lose bone and muscle mass, and why you start feeling weaker when you take a few weeks off your exercise routine.

After your training, your body starts repairing and rebuilding. Ideally, your body has the materials (like protein) available to build, the right hormone balance to promote growth and the time to do so. If you hit the gym again before the muscle has recovered, you have weaker tissues and you will be inflicting damage on them again. If you do this day after day with no recovery, your body won't have the time it needs to build muscle - you might gain less muscle than hoped, you might have no net gain at all, you might even regress.

Anabolic hormones (those are the ones that promote growth and repair) are released optimally when we are resting and well fed, so if you want maximum muscle growth, you need to eat well and rest well.

If fat loss is your goal - then leptin, one of the most important hormones for governing appetite, is released while you sleep. This is why we feel more inclined to snack when we've had a poor night's sleep. You can't appropriately manage your hunger cues and food intake if a lack of rest is messing with your hormone balance.

So where does this misconception come from? Well yet again it's that copycat effect. You want to get buff, you ask the buffest bodybuilder in the gym what he does. How he trains, what he eats. He probably trains for several hours 6 days a week. What he might not tell you is what gear he's on. Anabolic steroids speed up the repair process and allow for much shorter rest periods, between that and a well programmed split and a fair amount of supplements it is possible to train with that kind of intensity. But that's not likely to work out for the average dude, or natural (drug free) athlete.

Splitting the work

You don't have to dip your toe too far into fitness to hear terms like "leg day" and "chest day".

This refers to splits, where the exercises in the programme are broken up across different workouts. Whole body workouts are fine, but when your volume (sets and reps) gets high, fitting in exercises to cover all the major muscle groups can make a workout a bit long. More so if you want to isolate smaller muscle groups for definition. So it becomes necessary to break the exercises down into groups. 

Different people like different kinds of spits. A 2 way split could be lower body and upper body, or it might be pushes and pulls (where squats are a push and hip hinges are a pull). A 3 way split might go legs, back, chest. My powerlifting programme is split according to the lifts, so I have squat day, bench day and deadlift day (each with appropriate accessory movements).

The other good thing about splits is that it allows you to rest one part of the body, while you train another. For instance, if you did a whole body workout, 4 days a week, that would mean you would be doing squats, or some kind of quad-dominant exercise, 4 days a week. Train hard and you won't be able to climb the stairs for DOMS on any day of the week! 

But if you split that, to upper body and lower body, you will only squat 2 days a week. You can get the same amount of volume in (because you aren't sharing workout time with upper body), but you'll have at least 2 days to rest those legs in-between training them.

Making rest days work for you

My personal rule is not to train (cardio or resistance) for more than 2 successive days, day 3 is a rest day. Some people are happy to train for 3, some take light, moderate and heavy days to allow them to train without stressing the body with high intensity work day after day. Regardless, you need to take a day off training.

How you manage that day is up to you. I find that moving really helps with stiffness and soreness and I heartily recommend walking on rest days. Not hiking in the mountains, but a decent length, relaxing stroll. It gets blood into the muscles and warmth into the joints, but it's not going to put a lot of stress on your systems

I also dance on my rest days, not for long periods, but for me, 30 minutes of dance is not a particularly physically demanding task.

Whatever you choose to do, keep it relaxed, keep it low intensity, hydrate well and eat well. Get to bed early (do that every day anyway if you can, sleep is super important) and you will be in a much better place when you get back to training.

Deload - for when a rest DAY isn't enough.

A deload is a period of time where we choose to step back a little in our programme, so that we are fresh and ready to be at our best when we return. It's suggested that we do this every 4 weeks or so.

All of my programmes have deloads built in - in my mind it is absolutely essential. Personally, if I don't deload regularly I can feel myself flagging, I feel tired, sluggish, weak and I struggle to manage my pain levels. Our bodies, even super healthy bodies, need a break from the stress of regular training, especially if we are persistently increasing the load in pursuit of gains.

Deload week doesn't have to mean a complete break from training, although if you are just coming out of peaking for competition season it might do. I usually down regulate training for deload. If the programme is strength training, low reps, high weight, then deload week means dropping the weight right down and increasing the reps. I'm deloading this week and I dropped my squats from 4-6 reps at 60kg to 10-15 at 40kg. This is also an excellent time to focus on form and getting your head right into the movement without the pressure of a heavy weight. Stepping down in cardio might mean taking out your interval training and just doing some steady state, like jogging or swimming.

It might also mean cutting back the number of training sessions, or replacing a strength session with a mobility session.

A deload week of walking and yoga is a great way to get your mind and body reset and back into the game. Don't be afraid to step out of the fast lane for a week - you won't lose your gains that fast, in fact you might come back into it even stronger - it happens! Speak to competitive strength athletes and you will find that "meet week", the week approaching competition, is almost always a deload week, so they enter competition fresh and at their best.

For women, it can also be useful to time your deload to work with your menstrual cycle. Many women feel tired or weak when premenstrual or menstruating and stronger at other points in their cycle, so that's the perfect time to step back a little and work with, rather than against your body.

Rest is for gains

So don't let anyone try to tell you that you aren't pushing hard enough if you take a day, or more, off your training. Rest is where the progress happens and if you aren't thinking about how to do that right, then you aren't considering how to build your muscles to your best ability. 

Train smarter, not harder.

Do you struggle with knowing what to do in the gym, do you want to optimise your training and get more out of it? Why not sign up for one of my online training options? I can write you a training programme, and offer full support as an online personal trainer.


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