Are you resting properly in between your workouts?
Or have you fallen into the common trap, of assuming that 'more' exercise equals 'better' and/or faster results?
Especially when you have an ambitious fitness goal...
And you are riding a wave of motivation...
Perhaps before a holiday, for example...
It's easy to think that fitting in more workouts (or even more reps, more sets, more weight, more miles etc within every workout)...
Automatically means a proportionate improvement in the end result.
Sadly, that is not always the case.
In fact, your end result may even be reduced if you are truly crossing the line into 'overtraining' or 'under-resting'.
So how much rest do you need, when should you be taking it, and how do you rest properly?
Quality Vs Quantity...
When it comes to exercise levels...
The fitness "industry", the media, social media etc, even common sense, to an extent, has probably given you the impression that 'more' equals 'better'.
Even the NHS guidelines for physical activity recommends exercise in terms that largely refer to time.
And it's largely true that if you are including a lot of low intensity exercise in particular, such as walking, in your routine, that quantity will be providing a lot of increased physical and psychological benefits.
But when it comes to more intense exercise, you will need to start thinking more about the quality of your exercise, rather than just the quantity.
One good example of this, is weight/resistance training, with the aim of strengthening and/or building muscle.
Consider the process of getting stronger and/or building new muscle as three stages...
the 'stimulus' (your workout)
the 'physical response' (what happens to your body immediately during/after the workout)
and the 'physical adaptation' (what happens to your body in the days/weeks/months that you are following your programme)
The 'stimulus' causes the 'response'...
And the 'response', if you are following your programme correctly (including the prescribed rest, and required repetition of workouts), causes the longer term 'adaptation'.
So in our resistance training example...
An individual weight training workout (the stimulus), when done correctly, causes stress and inflammation to the muscle (the response)
and then the body adapts, over time, by repairing, increasing the strength, and possibly increasing the amount of muscle (the long-term adaptation)
Note that this process is triggered only when the workout is optimised for muscle building. This does rely on reaching the required exercise intensity. Lifting 10kg for 8 reps is not the same as lifting 5kg for 16 reps (even thought the total weight lifted over the course of the set would be 80kg in both cases)...
The 10kg option is heavier, shorter (in terms of time) and therefore more 'intense'.
Assuming that you have reached your own personal intensity threshold for muscle growth, you will, by default, need more rest in order for the desired changes (adaptations) to take place.
In other words, the tougher your exercise programme is, the more rest you are likely to need. Otherwise you are at risk of a lack of progress/results (best case), or more serious consequences including injury.
The key things to re-emphasise for that long-term adaptation to occur... is that;
It takes time (significant fitness results never occur overnight, they are always a slow, gradual process)
It takes place after the workout (not during)
And that gradual adaptation is only possible...
If you are resting in between your workouts!
If you turn up to the gym 24 hours later and repeat the same workout as yesterday...
You have not given yourself an adequate window to recover from the first workout (minimum 48 hours for 'intense' exercise).
Analogy: Think of the process outlined above as a blister on your foot...
If you wear a new pair of shoes and get a blister... you have temporarily damaged the skin (think of this as the physical stress and inflammation that a workout causes to your muscle)...
If you continue to wear the same pair of shoes every day (without a plaster), you will make the blister worse and worse as you will not be giving the skin time to heal. Eventually the pain becomes unbearable and you would eventually be unable to walk in any pair of shoes (the equivalent of a training injury).
If on the other hand, after the blister initially appears, you take off the shoes and allow the skin to heal (equivalent of your rest day)... not only does the skin grow back, but it grows back slightly thicker than it was in the first place (the equivalent of your muscles getting stronger/bigger).
Obviously in real life you can work around a blister by changing your shoes and wearing plasters...
But there is no such work-around with your muscle tissue.
It needs rest.
That is your only option if you want to see progress.
When You Need To Rest
Calculating how much rest you need and when to take it relies on two factors...
In fact, based on these two factors, 'rest' can mean two different things;
1. Consider what you have done in each individual workout and how this fits in to your overall schedule...
If you have completed a full body, heavy weight training session on Monday (example), you should be allowing a full 48 hours for all of your muscles to recover. That would completely remove any possibility of doing another lifting session on Tuesday.
(Remember, just because you feel like you can do a similar workout the next day, doesn't mean that you should!)
This makes things fairly simple... take a day off on Tuesday... get back into the gym on Wednesday.
If, for whatever reason, you feel that you must do something, keep the intensity very low. Very light cardio such as walking or a steady speed jog, cycle etc should be ok.
But no more than that!
That would be considered active recovery... which when done correctly, at the right time, may be more useful than simply resting "properly".
Things get a little more flexible/complicated if you schedule your workouts differently.
For example, instead of a full body workout, that weight training session on the Monday could have been a more specific workout such as a 'leg day'.
Now the rules regarding rest/recovery for 48 hours, apply to your lower body only (think carefully about the muscles that need rest... there may be secondary/supporting muscles/joints involved in exercises that you are not aware of eg. lower back)... so you technically have the freedom to train however you like on Tuesday as long as you leave your legs alone.
While this obviously allows a lot more flexibility, don't assume that this means you could/should be training every day (see below). You'll also still need to look out for any possible overlaps between workouts that appear to be different on the surface. 'Leg day', followed by a day that includes a variety of core exercises could mean that your lower back muscles are working relatively hard for two days in a row, if you don't select your exercises carefully. The same could apply to your shoulders if you are using a push/pull split on the upper body on consecutive days. Then you also need to consider the overall strain on your body as a whole (see below regarding 'overtraining'), even if you are 'splitting' your workouts. EVEN A WELL THOUGHT OUT TRAINING SPLIT STILL REQUIRES THE SCHEDULING OF REST DAYS!
A lot of people train with a "split" routine like this to allow a higher total number of workouts to be completed every week. So while it might appear that they are repeating workouts daily, assuming that they have planned their programme correctly, they should be alternating workouts throughout the week to allow each muscle the minimum 48 hours rest.
The same applies to cardio/aerobic training too.
You can't/shouldn't be doing intense intervals (including HIIT) daily. But again, instead of only being able to train 'hard' every other day, you could mix up the types of exercise, and the intensity of each workout, to allow time for recovery while continuing to fit some extra training in...
The point is... when trying to figure out how much rest you need, or when to rest, consider what you are actually doing. Anything with high intensity, using the whole body, is obviously going to require more rest than a 30 minute walk, for example. (Again... that doesn't mean that "low intensity" means you can train every single day!)
2. Consider the bigger picture of your whole body (and mind), regardless of what you might be doing in individual workouts...
Even a perfectly planned programme requires some "proper" rest. And that does mean fully taking a day or two off every week, not just changing up your exercise routine.
Not only will your body appreciate the opportunity to fully recover physically (muscles, ligaments etc), but you will also benefit from the other important benefits of 'proper' rest days;
avoid/reverse nervous system fatigue
avoid a possible weakening of your immune system due to overtraining
feel refreshed psychologically (you're more likely to 'attack' the next workout after a rest)
maintain greater training consistency by maintaining a 'healthy' balance between your exercise routine and your other hobbies/commitments
How Do You Rest Properly?
So in most cases it would be unrealistic to literally rest for 48 hours...
You are not required to sit down or spend 48 hours in bed!
But there are a number of things to consider which could affect the quality of your rest, and therefore whether or not the recovery and adaptations that you are expecting/hoping for are actually going to take place.
This is where your lifestyle choices come into play...
Think about what you are eating and drinking, for example...
Consider the muscle building/repair process from earlier...
You probably know already that protein is a key nutrient for that process to work effectively. What do you think happens if you trigger the stimulus for muscle growth and then fail to provide your muscles with the main nutrient that they need to physically complete the adaptation?
And if you have a huge drinking session in the middle of your 48+ hour window... is that going to help or hinder your body's recovery processes?
Consider your other types of physical activity... just because you take a day or two off from the gym doesn't automatically mean you're not doing intense exercise... gardening or other heavy lifting could interrupt your recovery too.
So not only do you need to make sure you are getting the right amount of rest, but also make an effort to ensure that the rest you are getting is actually serving it's purpose. Remember... we advise a MINIMUM of 48 hours in between similar, intense workouts. You may need more.
Having said that... not all rest 'needs' to be stationary... far from it...
In fact, on most rest days, for most people, you should probably still be making a conscious effort to move around a little... get your muscles and joints moving to promote some blood flow to and from the relevant areas and reduce stiffness. Some gentle stretching, massage, foam rolling etc is probably also going to be more useful than simply sitting around watching TV.
What Happens if You "Overtrain"?
The risk of overtraining should be taken seriously...
Pushing your body to a point where you are repeatedly placing more and more physical stress* on it, faster than you are able to recover and rebuild, can have consequences for your overall health... not just your fitness!
*this applies to psychological stress too, which is worth considering if you are also experiencing significant stress elsewhere eg at work. The effects of emotional stress AND physical overtraining together, which could be the result of exercising hard, and too often, to 'release your stress', could magnify the negative outcomes!
Serious longer-term effects of overtraining might include;
a weakened immune system
symptoms of depression
long-term injuries to muscles, ligaments, tendons
The more immediate effects, which you should treat as serious 'warning signs', showing that you should back off for a few days, include;
lower motivation to exercise
poor quality sleep
constant muscle soreness (or an obvious increase in the time that it takes for your muscle soreness to go away)
an otherwise unexplained reduction in muscle strength and/or power
Learn To Value Your Rest Days...
A successful health & fitness programme relies heavily on the right amount and quality of rest...
That includes a mixture of;
fully resting (which means doing pretty much nothing, other than incidental movement such as walking and stretching)
active rest (recovery runs, mobility work, massages etc)
and mixing up the intensity of your workouts (while that obviously isn't technically "rest", it's nonetheless important to keep in mind that you don't have to train as 'hard' as possible every time you exercise... think more along the lines of long-term consistency rather than battering your body as much as possible to try to achieve overnight results).
It can be hard to overcome the mindset of assuming that 'more equals better'...
Your body doesn't make positive physical progress DURING your workouts...
The processes, that bring the positive changes you ultimately want, take place BETWEEN those workouts.
So whatever you do... respect your rest days!