In other words, what you do outside the gym for your recovery is just as important as what you do in the gym when it comes to changing your body. Another thing you need to realize is that your body operates as a system, not just as a collection of unrelated parts. If you apply stress to just one group of muscles, your entire system still takes an impact. Even if you provide enough rest and recovery for each individual muscle group, if you do too much work overall your central nervous system will become overloaded. And if you don’t allow your body sufficient time for repair and rebuilding, you will fail to recover and become stronger--every time. You will also place yourself at high risk for developing chronic injuries, chronic fatigue, and eventually, overtraining syndrome if you don't allow for enough recovery.
The other problem with neglecting recovery is the fact that training too much with too little rest and recuperation leads to elevated cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases fat levels in the body and destroys muscle tissue. Cortisol particularly increases the level of abdominal fat in the body. Therefore, by training too much and not resting enough, you can actually gain fat and lose muscle--the exact opposite of what you're probably trying to achieve!
Everyone varies in the amount of rest and recovery they need, and the amount of days' rest they need after exercise. You’ll discover the amount that’s best for you by trial and error--but always keep the general recommendations in mind.
General Recommendation for Rest: Perform high-intensity workouts no more than four times per week, with one day of light exercise or no exercise in between most of those workouts. Interval training and weight training both constitute high-intensity workouts. So, it would be better to perform interval training on the same day as weight training so you could then have a light exercise day (just steady cardio, or a light sports practice or aerobics class) or a no exercise day on the days in between. Even if you work out twice per day during the high-intensity day, that is much better than trying to do six days per week high-intensity. Be sure to take at least one day per week completely off from any exercise except walking.
The amount of rest and recovery you require will depend partly on how much you have going on in your life that is stressful besides your workouts. For example, Olympic athletes train many sessions per week, but many of them don't have full time jobs or families to take care of, and they are also genetically gifted to be able to handle that amount of work without breaking down (and some of them do break down, as you see in the stories on the injured athletes during the Olympics!) Be aware that a beginner will not be able to handle the same workload as an experienced exerciser--but also that an experienced exerciser oftentimes works out HARDER than a beginner and in some cases needs even MORE rest to recover from those hard training sessions.
A beginner can make progress training as infrequently as twice per week, performing one set per exercise for all the major muscle groups. This type of routine might consist of 6-12 exercises, or 12-24 sets per week. At the opposite extreme, many elite athletes train nearly every day, and sometimes multiple times per day (using split workouts for the most part). The average person who has been working out regularly will fall somewhere in between, opting to train weights and hard interval-type cardio 2-4 times a week for about 30 minutes each. Lighter cardio or fun sports training can be performed on the "off" days.
A good rule of thumb is that, as frequency of workouts goes up, volume of each workout should go down. For example, if you train twice per week, it makes sense to use a full body routine with about 20 sets in total at a high average intensity. If you train 5-6 times per week, you’ll need to use a shorter workout and target different muscles on different days. No matter how many days per week you work out, for best results you should work each major muscle group 2-3 times per week, and do not exceed four hard training days per week. This is the most effective way to train as a natural lifter (the rules are different for people using andro or steroids). That means, if you lift four days per week, you’ll want to hit half of your body on day 1 and the other half on day 2, and then repeat day 1 and day 2 during your workout week for a total of four training sessions per week.
When you follow the recommendation to hit the same muscle multiple times per week, it’s important that you vary the intensity of your workouts. For instance, if you perform the squat for your lower body three days per week, train with heavy weight and low reps one day, use medium weight and medium reps another day, and go light with higher reps on the third day to maximize recovery and still reap the benefits of exercising frequently. In addition to varying the intensity, it helps with recovery and promotes complete muscle development to use different exercises and hit the muscle from different angles within your workout week. For instance, if you’re targeting your chest twice per week, it makes sense to do the flat bench press and the incline dumbbell press one day, and push-ups and the high-pulley cable chest fly another day.
Now that I’ve covered rest and recovery within your workout schedule, you might be wondering if time off from exercise is necessary. The answer is yes! You should take at least 7-10 days off from lifting every 8-12 weeks. If you are a total beginner you may not need to take time off until after your first 3 months of training, because your first month or so is more about learning the movements than about causing stress to your body. On the other hand, if you are an experienced lifter and work out with heavy weights, your best bet is to take 10-14 days off every eight weeks.
You may think, 'But I don't want to lose all my progress!' It actually takes about 4 weeks away from the gym to lose a significant amount of muscle tissue, and about that time to gain a pound of actual fat from not working out, so these 1 to 2-week rests won’t cause you to lose muscle or gain any appreciable amount of fat. On the contrary, by allowing for full system recovery you will actually set yourself up to make faster progress than you would if you trained straight through. Besides, there is a psychological benefit to taking time off. You will enjoy having more free time to do other things while you are "resting." It's something to look forward to as a reward for training hard. And when it's time to get back into your workout routine, you will enjoy newfound vigor for what seemed monotonous before. If you like, you may continue some easy cardio during your "off" weeks, although you should refrain from sprints, hills or other high-intensity cardio sessions.
The Ultimate Rest and Recovery Tool
Sleep is also fundamental to fitness success. Expect your performance in the gym to be impaired after a few nights of poor sleep. In addition to reduced performance, your body’s hormonal makeup shifts when you haven’t had enough rest. This means the work you do get done in the gym won’t be as effective. The stress hormones your body releases when you’re sleep-deprived leads to a loss of lean tissue, a gain in fat mass, a sluggish metabolism, and slow recovery. Also, your immune system is compromised when you don’t sleep enough, meaning that whatever viruses are lurking in your environment will be accepted more easily by your body when you're sleep-deprived. The good news is that you'll generally sleep better after a day you've exercised--as long as you don't exercise within a couple hours of bedtime.
The critical importance of sleep to your progress is another reason why it might not be in your best interest to use any type of stimulant, including those found in most diet pills. Watch the medications you’re taking too, because many over-the-counter and prescription drugs list insomnia as a side effect. Not taking any pills or drinking coffee? The root of insomnia quite often lies in poor sleep habits.
Here are "Ten Tips for Better Sleep" from the Better Sleep Council:
1. Give yourself "permission" to go to bed when it’s getting late.
2. Unwind early in the evening.
3. Develop a sleep ritual.
4. Keep regular sleeping hours.
5. Create a restful place to sleep.
6. Sleep on a comfortable, supportive mattress and foundation.
7. Exercise regularly.
8. Cut down on stimulants. If you must have coffee, limit it to one or two cups in the morning.
9. Don't smoke.
10. Reduce alcohol intake.
· Warm/hot baths, or periods of warm/hot immersion alternated with cool/cold immersion, such as going from a hot tub to a pool
· Various types of stretching, including active mobility such as tai chi and yoga
· Supplementation geared toward improving recovery and maintaining good health, such as a basic multivitamin/mineral, EFA supplementation (fish oils), extra antioxidants, extra zinc/magnesium/calcium, glucosamine chondroitin, green tea extract, and ginseng. Click here for our supplement brand recommendations.
· Attention to psychological needs in training, such as variety, fun, and setting realistic goals
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