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The Importance of Rest Days & How Many You Need (2020)

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Wondering why the fitness fanatics around you are always talking about the importance of rest days?

Perhaps you’re a beginner to exercise questioning how many rest days per week should I have?, especially if you’ve heard a lot of conflicting info online. Or, maybe you’ve been exercising for a while and you’ve hit a plateau.

Whatever you’re looking for, we have everything you need to know about what taking rest days can do for your exercise routine.

We’ll also give you some guidance on how many rest days a week you should be taking, based on your individual fitness goals.

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#1 - Prevents Injury

This is one of the most obvious yet vitally important reasons that taking gym rest days is important.

Ever tried to exercise with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)? If so, you’ll know exactly what we mean. Not only do rest days allow this feeling to go away, but they also take away the added strain that DOMS and muscle fatigue place upon the body.

If you’ve ever exercised with DOMS, you’ll probably know that some of the most basic movements become almost impossible to push through.

This fact is dangerous as well as inconvenient, as you run the risk of either exposing your body to repetitive strain injuries, or worse, dropping a weight or piece of gym equipment on yourself! It’s bad enough not feeling as though you’ve been able to perform at your best, but sustaining a potentially serious injury will set you back much further than taking a rest day in the long-run.

Another thing to note is that your form during workouts can be compromised when you have sore muscles.

It doesn’t take an expert to know that when you let your form slip, especially during free weights sessions, things can take a turn for the worst in seconds. You can check out OriGym’s guide to weightlifting injuries here for more detail, but for now be sure to avoid exercise at all costs if you can’t uphold the correct form!

 

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One failure to take this advice could easily lead to a trip to the hospital…

As well as the previously mentioned injuries caused by skipping rest days between workouts, there is another type of injury that is prevalent in those that choose to do so.

While being less common than other overtraining-induced injuries, it’s still something to be aware of when deciding whether you should take a rest day or not.

OTS (Overtraining Syndrome) is summed up by Jeffrey B. Kreher in his study on overtraining:

Symptoms of OTS are multisystem and result from underlying hormonal, immunologic, neurologic, and psychologic disturbances in response to excessive exercise without adequate rest.

This gives us an insight into just how much damage overtraining can do. Rather than just causing minor sprains or strains in the body, it can also impact on the central nervous system and psychological wellness, as well as a whole host of other things.

#2 - Promotes Muscle Growth

Leading on from the importance of rest days when it comes to preventing injuries, it’s also great to know that they promote muscle growth in the body.

It is a common misconception that muscle mass is created during training. Contrary to popular belief, your muscles grow in the rest period between sessions, which may give you an incentive to take more rest days between workouts (if preventing injury isn’t good enough for you!).

When we perform strength training exercises, our muscles are essentially damaged in the process.

They sustain microscopic injuries and tears, which then need rest to restore themselves. Once the muscles have been given adequate rest, they then grow in mass.

We have no doubt that muscle growth is one of the primary fitness goals of those who visit the gym, and that you’ll be happy to learn this if you didn’t know it already!

However, we can’t stress the importance of rest days enough when it comes to this aspect of fitness. While they will undoubtedly aid the process, a lack of rest will cause you to hit a plateau.

If you train the same muscles every day, you’ll see significantly less growth in muscle mass than the person next to you, who trains those muscles 2-3 times per week.

That’s not to say that training on most days of the week is bad for your progress, however. It’s more about the muscles that you work when you train.

You may be asking; how come bodybuilders are so muscular? They train every day!

The simple answer to this is that bodybuilders are extremely cautious of overtraining, and therefore monitor the exercises that they do. They will have a ‘leg day’, ‘chest day’, ‘arm day’ etc. to ensure that their workouts are well-rounded, and that one area of the body is worked at a time while another is rested!

Bodybuilders and fitness fanatics will also make sure that they’re topped up with protein on rest days, as this:

  • Speeds up muscle recovery
  • Aids muscle growth
  • Allows you to return to training faster (by alleviating muscle pain!)

From this, we can conclude that rest days certainly aid muscle growth, even if that means training separate muscles every day of the week. If this section hasn’t tempted you to give gym rest days a try, we don’t know what will!

#3 - Aids Recovery

As well aiding the recovery and subsequent growth of your muscles, gym rest days are also incredibly important when recovering from more obvious injuries.

Let’s face it, if you sustain a physical injury such as a sprain or a break, it would be careless to jump straight back into training unless you’ve been given the all-clear from your doctor.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking some time out to properly recuperate when you’ve sustained a physical injury, as overworking an injury could do much more damage than taking a break from training.  

Ultimately, you’ll lose more progress if this happens and potentially be forced into taking even more time off to rest the injury if it becomes worse!

As well as helping the recovery of obviously physical injuries, this will also help with the negative effects of constant exercise on your CNS and immune system.

The immune system is partially responsible for removing pain from the joints and muscles within your body post-exercise and is prevented from fulfilling this task properly when it isn’t given the chance.

Exercise rest days allow your body to recover in every aspect, as well as preventing injuries that occur when your immune system is overloaded.

#4 - Encourages Better Sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep is an overlooked priority of many gym goers, but we’re here to tell you that it shouldn’t be!

Without going into a huge lecture on why sleep is important for your overall health, we can at least state that it is important for those who exercise regularly.

The first reason for this is that it allows exercise enthusiasts to give their peak performance during physical activity. Without an adequate amount of sleep, you run the risk of missing out on hitting a new personal best, or worse, injuring yourself due to lack of concentration.

Does this sound familiar? Don’t worry, we’ve all been there. It’s easy to zone out in the gym, especially if you’re trying to work off extra calories after a weekend of eating and drinking more than you normally would (hungover gym sessions are a nightmare).

Next time you’re tempted to hit the gym on an occasion like this, think twice. It’s okay to have a rest, which can be beneficial to your training. Rest up, re-hydrate, and try again once you’re fully recuperated!

Another reason that sleep is important for regular gym goers and athletes is that a lot of muscle growth and overall recovery happens during the night.

Think about it this way; if gym rest days are important for repairing the microscopic tears in muscle fibres, a night of sleep will only exaggerate these effects. You can’t get much more rest than a night of sleep!

Not only will sleep improve your performance and enable you to hit your goals, it will also aid the muscle recovery and growth you’ve been waiting for.

When a study was conducted on how sleep affected athletic performance in a group of college basketball players, Cheri D. Mah et al stated the following (as part of the conclusion):

Improvements in shooting percentage, sprint times, reaction time, mood, fatigue, and vigour were all observed with increased total sleep time. These improvements following sleep extension suggest that peak performance can only occur when an athlete’s overall sleep and sleep habits are optimal.

From this and our own research, we can draw the fact that exercise and sleep go hand in hand. Sleeps aids exercise performance and boosts the positive effects that it has on the body, while exercise burns of excess energy and allows the body to sleep easier in turn.

#5 - Prevents Mental Burnout

Let’s face it, how well you perform during exercise isn’t just down to the state that your body is in at a given time. It also has a lot to do with your mental state.

When you experience mental fatigue, it’s incredibly easy to either talk yourself out of exercise, or to at least talk yourself out of putting in maximum effort during a workout.

We recently read a study concerning how mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans, conducted by Samuele M. Marcora, et al. The study involved 16 participants, who performed the same exercise of ‘cycling to exhaustion’, after either viewing ‘emotionally neutral’ documentaries or performing a ‘demanding cognitive task’.

The group that were in a state of mental fatigue at the beginning of the exercise had the following reaction:

Mentally fatigued subjects rated perception of effort during exercise to be significantly higher compared with the control condition.

In a nutshell, the group that began the exercise after completing a task that was mentally challenging felt as though they had exerted significantly more effort than the group that were in a relaxed or neutral state.

The study was concluded with the following statement:

Our study provides experimental evidence that mental fatigue limits exercise tolerance in humans through higher perception of effort rather than cardiorespiratory and musculoenergetic mechanisms.

From this we can deduce that people who experience mental fatigue prior to exercise are likely to find the experience more taxing in terms of effort. Additionally, taking our own knowledge and experience of how mental state comes into play when attempting intense exercise, this points to the idea that people are more likely to give up or exert less effort during exercise when they experience mental fatigue.

See what we’re getting at here?

Believe it or not, mental fatigue can be brought about by exercising too frequently, just like physical injuries. Not only this, but if you’re working full-time or have other strong commitments with family or friends, this can make you mentally fatigued and ready to throw in the towel with exercise.

The obvious way to reduce the likelihood of underperforming during exercise or steering clear of it all together when you’re experiencing this is, you guessed it, having more exercise rest days!

If you overwork yourself, your mental state could be affected just as much as your body. Take rest days and exercise less frequently so that you can make the most of your workouts by mentally recharging between them.

#6 - Makes Working Out More Sustainable

It’s surprisingly rare for those who begin exercising to keep it up consistently for life.

Many people stagger their time at the gym and go through alternate bouts of exercise and inactivity, which is fine (as life gets complicated and busy at times), but also not ideal. In a perfect world, we would all be able to sustain our exercise routines…

While it’s unrealistic to expect that we’ll be able to keep up an intense exercise routine during every period of our lives, it becomes easier to picture and execute a regular routine when it requires less hours out of our week.

What we mean by this is that if you workout 3-4 times a week as opposed to 6-7 times, it naturally becomes much easier to commit to a regular routine.

In their study on creating habits for health, which you can view here, Benjamin Gardner et al state the following:

Initiation requires the patient to be sufficiently motivated to begin a habit formation attempt, but many patients would like to eat healthier diets or take more exercise, for example, if doing so were easy.

This supports the point that we have already made, and gives us some food for thought; why not make it easier for ourselves? That way, we’ll be more likely to stick to new exercise habits in the long run.

The importance of rest days in this context is that they make working out easier, and therefore more sustainable for the general population who struggle with this ‘initiation’ phase.

If we view exercise as something habitual without exposing ourselves to overtraining over a short period of time (like binging on exercise to reach a desired weight for an upcoming holiday, for example), we will be able to push through the ‘initiation phase’.

Gym rest days are what allow us to do this, as not only they benefit us by preventing overtraining (which is enough to deter anyone from exercise), but they also allow us to continue with the other parts of life without too much sacrifice.

Enjoy a Netflix binge on the weekend? This approach to exercise will ensure that you don’t have to give this up!

How many rest days per week?

When it comes to the importance of rest days for your individual exercise routine, it truly depends on your fitness goals as an individual. To make things easier, were going to give you some quick-fire tips on how you should structure your routine based on these goals!

How many rest days per week for weight loss?

If your primary fitness goals include weight loss, which is the case with most people either beginning or returning to a regular exercise programme, then you’ll find that 3-5 sessions per week is perfectly adequate for reaching and sticking to your goals.

If you can only commit to 3 days per week, then that’s no issue! You should just up the intensity of the exercises so that you don’t have to worry about slowing down your progress.

However, if you prefer low-intensity exercise or shorter, high-intensity sessions, 4-5 sessions per week is may suit you more.

Therefore, when it comes to considering how many rest days per week for weight loss?, you should go with however many rest days you are left with after deciding on the right amount of sessions for you, and space them out as much as you can.

If you choose 3 high-intensity sessions, then it’s perfectly fine to have 4 rest days. Or, you could make some of these days into active rest days, where you perform an exercise such as yoga or swimming to boost physical activity.

How many rest days per week for running?

As with those who wish to lose weight, the amount of rest days per week for running that you will need depends on how intense the runs that you complete are, whether you have any events coming up (marathon, etc.) or how much time you want to devote to running.

If you’re running with no other goal in mind than just wanting to get or stay in shape, the best way to answer the question of how many rest days per week for running? would be to have a holistic approach.

This would typically involve 1-2 short, but high-intensity runs mixed with a longer yet easier run per week, or 3 longer runs, or 4-5 shorter but high-intensity runs. The possibilities are endless with running, but these are some of the most common routines we’ve seen that are sustainable and allow time for rest days!

However, if you’re preparing for a marathon, you may do 1-2 long runs per week with plenty of rest days in between (to allow for adequate recovery).

How many rest days per week for cycling?

Cycling can be viewed in a similar way to running when it comes to how many rest days you should be taking per week. It also heavily depends on whether you’re coming up to a big competition or you’re solely doing it for fitness.

So, exactly how manty rest days per week for cycling should there be?

  • If you’re looking to get fit, do around 3-4 shorter yet more intense rides per week or a mixture of 1-2 shorter rides mixed with a longer ride
  • Have an event coming up? Go for a 1-2 long-distance rides per week working towards the total distance of the race you’re entering – you may even cut it down to 1 ride depending on the distance or whether you’re doing any other exercises simultaneously!

How many rest days per week for bodybuilding?

It’s no secret that bodybuilders must be super committed to their exercise routines to make significant progress. However, there seems to be a misconception that training more = more muscle mass growth…

This is false. It can actually make your progress slower if you train this way, as your muscles aren’t given enough time to heal, which is essential for growth.

The ideal training routine for those asking how many rest days between workouts bodybuilders should take is 4-5 times per week (as opposed to 6 or 7). Rest days are essentially growth days and allow you to reach your goals much faster.

Having protein on rest days maximises the recovery and growth of your muscles too, so these are the best days to stock up on it!

Before you go!

Hopefully now you have a much better idea of the importance of rest days, as well how many you should be taking week in week out.

Here at OriGym, we’re incredibly grateful for our rest days, and would probably never be able to stick to our workouts without them.

Interested in turning your passion for fitness into an exciting new career? Go ahead and check out OriGym's Personal Training Diploma or download our FREE prospectus for more information on what you could be learning!

References

  1. Kreher, Jeffrey B. Diagnosis and prevention of overtraining syndrome: an opinion on education Open Access J Sports Med. 2016;7:115–122. Published 2016 Sep 8.
  2. Mah, Cheri D. et al. The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players. Sleep, Volume 34, Issue 7, (2011) P. 943-950.
  3. Marcora, S.M., Staiano, W., Manning, V. Mental Fatigue Impairs Physical Performance in Humans. American Physiological Society. (2009). 
  4. Gardner, B. Lally, P. Wardle, J. Making Health Habitual: The Psychology of ‘Habit-Formation’ and General Practice. British Journal of General Practice. (2012). P. 665.

 

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Written by Chloe Twist

Fitness Content Manager, OriGym

Chloe graduated with a BA (Hons) English and Creative Writing from Liverpool John Moores University and prior to OriGym worked at J&R Digital Marketing Agency on the Liverpool 'Female Founders' series. Since joining the company, she has become a qualified Personal Trainer with a particular interest in circuit training. Chloe’s professional interests intersect content-development and the world of online fitness, especially across social media and YouTube, and Chloe has herself contributed pieces on fitness and weight loss to sites including the Daily Star and The Express. Outside her day-to-day role, Chloe enjoys playing the guitar, gaming and kettlebell training.