When you scroll through Instagram, it’s easy to believe that the truly dedicated never—ever—take a day off from strength training. But don’t let those super-styled, pristine photos keep you from giving your body the time it needs to heal. Rest is more important than you might realize, and if you’re not giving your muscles enough downtime, you could end up slowing your progress (or worse).
“Recovery is one of the most important aspects of a successful training regimen, but for some reason, it’s commonly overlooked,” John Gallucci, Jr., D.P.T., president of JAG Physical Therapy, tells SELF. “Especially after intense or prolonged training, your body needs time to repair tissues that have broken down.” That’s how your muscles change, adapt, and ultimately, get stronger. Simply put, when you ask your body to jump right back into performance mode too soon, it interrupts its natural rebuilding process, and can prevent you from reaching your goals.
We’ve all heard some rumors, though, that suggest the contrary—so before we go any further, we’d like to bust a few rest and recovery myths.
Myth #1: You’ll lose progress if you take a rest day.
Anyone who has ever worked out really hard and seen some true progress (A new muscle! A visible one!) can relate to this, but it’s just fear talking.
“If you think taking one day off a week will make you lose all the progress you’ve made, remember that the results you’ve achieved so far have been a result of consistent efforts made over weeks, months…even years,” certified personal trainer Jen Jewell tells SELF. “Do you really think all of your hard work will be negated by taking one day off from the gym? You didn’t achieve those results overnight, and you won’t lose them overnight. It’s what we do on a consistent basis that adds up to big-time results.”
Myth #2: Rest is a waste of time.
Nope. When your body rests, it’s actually being super productive. “During recovery periods, your body isn’t really at rest,” Michele Olson, Ph.D., a professor of sports science at Huntingdon College, tells SELF. “It’s working to recover. So pushing another workout onto your body when it’s trying to reload its glucose stores and lay down more muscle can cause overtraining, difficulty sleeping, or even lead to injury,” she says. “If you rob your body of the energy it needs for recovery by doing extra workouts, all of your efforts backfire.” If you’re someone who gets fidgety during downtime because you feel like you should be doing something, remember that your body is doing something—recovering. How long to rest between workouts depends on how much time your body needs to recover, which depends on many factors (more on that later).
Myth #3: Off days should be for totally chilling out.
“Sometimes we equate ‘rest days’ with hanging out on the couch all day, binging on Netflix, and eating unhealthy foods,” Jewell says. (Um, is she reading our minds?) But the truth is, while down time can be good for us and you should absolutely take time to lie on the couch and just relax when you need it, a completely sedentary day isn’t usually necessary.
“We can be active without hitting the gym, and this is something I’m always reminding my clients of,” Jewell says. “Do something fun! Get involved in some sort of activity your schedule doesn’t normally allow.” She suggests options that provide some low-intensity cardio, like hiking, going for a casual bike ride, grabbing a friend for a power walk around the neighborhood, easy kayaking, or trying stand-up paddleboard. A change of scenery can help mix things up, too—and keep you from getting bored.
And if you do want a low-key day off, stretching out is still always a good idea. “Yoga sessions or mobility work such as foam rolling are great for rest days,” Jewell says. “Flexibility and mobility are all part of the fitness process, too, and help make us stronger for when we’re in the gym lifting.”
There are physiological reasons that your body requires rest after workouts. For one, your muscles need rest so they can repair themselves and get stronger.
You’ve probably heard before that when we exercise, we actually actually weaken our bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments in order to make them stronger. But how does this work, exactly?
During a training session, your muscle tissues break down, your muscles’ energy stores get depleted, and you lose fluids. “[During strength training] your muscles experience micro-tears,” Olson says. Those micro-tears have to heal and require more protein so that they can come back stronger, she adds. When muscles experience these tiny tears, they send a signal that they are injured and in response, special cells that are involved in growing and regenerating muscle cells come to the rescue. This process ultimately increases the muscles’ size and strength.
Rest (in conjunction with proper nutrition, of course) is required to rebuild the broken-down tissue properly. As Gallucci says, “During the recovery process, blood carries the nutrients needed to repair these muscles, and rest allows the fibers to heal stronger than they were before the physical activity.”
How how long to rest between strength workouts depends on your specific routine.
“Recovery time will vary depending on how your workouts are split up,” Jewell explains. “So if you’re someone who likes to split their training days to really hone in on one to two muscle groups per session, you can get away with training five or six days in a row, and then take one day to rest.” That’s because you’re giving some muscle groups a break throughout the week, even though you’re still hitting the gym.
However, this advice works only if you’re really rotating through weight training very specific muscle groups in your upper and lower body throughout the week—like if you do shoulders on Monday, chest on Tuesday, etc. If you’re someone who simply divides your training into upper and lower body, Jewell says you can do those days back to back, then have a rest day before starting the process over again. This should give your muscle groups sufficient recovery time between workouts.
When it comes to cardio workouts and high-intensity interval training, how long to rest between workouts depends a lot on intensity.
If you opt for those totally draining, full-body high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts, you should limit yourself to performing them every other day, since you’re really challenging the major muscle groups in your body. This doesn’t necessarily apply to a slow run or other lighter intensity cardiovascular activity. Olson confirms that doing light-to-moderate cardio every day of the week is usually fine—your cardiovascular system doesn’t need extended recovery time like your muscles do—so those types of activities are great for your days “off” from weight training.
But in some cardio workouts, there’s a bit of a crossover. For example, a cycling class does do some damage to the muscles in your legs, so depending on how intense your workout was, you might not want to do a leg workout the next day. You’ll likely need a little more recovery time than if you had just gone for a light jog.
Since your required rest can really vary, Jewell’s basic rule of thumb is to give yourself 24 to 48 hours of rest between training the same muscle groups. So if you train your lower body on Monday morning before work (say, with an intense Spinning session), you can strength train your upper body on Tuesday, then strength train your lower body on Wednesday.
And if your body tells you it needs a break, listen to it.
The amount of time your body needs varies on your workouts and their intensity. But typically, if you’re overtraining, you’ll feel it. According to Olson, the signs that you might be overdoing it include profound soreness (like, every step causes you pain), trouble sleeping, feeling winded when you’re doing normal activities, and that “rubbery” feeling in your muscles.
“You have to remember to listen to your body,” Jewell says. “If your calendar says it’s time to train lower body again and you’re still having a hard time walking up and down a flight of stairs, wait an extra day before working your lower body again.” You’ll come back refreshed and feeling even stronger the next day, so you can really get the most out of your workout.