Building a strong, lean body requires dedication, motivation, and consistency, but how you train is important. For example, you won’t make gains for long unless you use progressive overload and perfect your form. More isn’t always better, though. Your muscles also need recovery time and breaks from rigorous training. You’re already familiar with the general rules, like wait before training the same muscle group again. Your muscles need at least 48 hours between intense training sessions. When you train, you create microtears in muscle fibers and those tears must repair by laying down new muscle proteins. During this process, the muscle fibers become thicker and capable of contracting against more force. That’s how you gain strength and size!
But sometimes you need a longer period of recovery, a short-term respite from your daily training sessions. It’s tempting to grind through workouts even when you’re tired, lift hard, and never take a break. However, that could be counterproductive. Studies show that taking a break can strengthen you. In one 3-month study, researchers discovered that men who cut their training by half for one week each month boosted their strength by 29%. Who wouldn’t enjoy those benefits! Plus, rest weeks are a good mental break too. If you’re training hard, your brain can use a respite too. After a reboot, you’ll come back even stronger.
How to Take a Rest Week
You don’t have to stop training during a rest week. Instead, cut the intensity of your workouts. You could do this by cutting your training volume by 30 to 50% for seven days. Another approach is to lighten up on the weights and do more repetitions. ‘
Should you worry that you’ll lose some strength if you take rest weeks? You don’t lose significant strength until you stop training for at least 3 weeks. In fact, you hold on to strength gains longer when you don’t train than you do aerobic fitness. Therefore, there’s no need to worry about losing your hard-earned gains. As the above study showed, men who cut their training in half came back stronger! It’s likely that they felt more mentally ready to tackle a workout too.
Another alternative is to take a rest week only every 6 weeks and do no weight training during that time. In other words, take a complete break from strength training. It’s clear that you won’t lose significant strength after only a week and you’ll be ready to tackle your workout again with renewed vigor. Taking a complete rest week doesn’t mean you have to sit on the couch. Use that week to do exercise that relaxes you and makes you feel good. It’s your chance to do yoga, walk in nature, or stretch.
As you can see, there isn’t a single formula for how to take a rest week or how often. How often you take one depends on factors like:
- How hard you train and intensely you lift
- How many days of the week you train
- Your age
- How much other stress you have in your life
- Your physical state and level of fatigue
- Your mental state. Are you feeling burned out?
- Whether you’re having a decrease in performance
Another way to know whether you’re recovering enough after your workouts is to monitor your first morning heart rate. Check your pulse rate first thing in the morning before getting out of bed. Write it down. If you notice a 7 or greater jump in heart rate for more than a day or two, your body needs rest.
The approach you take will depend on you, not a pre-determined timetable or formula. Some people need more breaks than others and need them more often. The only way to know is to listen to your body. Keeping a training journal will help you see how often you need to take a rest week and be aware of signs you’re pushing too hard.
Scheduling regular rest or deload weeks is also good for prevention. The goal is to prevent exhaustion and overtraining while maximizing your gains and avoiding plateaus. Sometimes, a rest is what you need to break out of a plateau and restart growth.
What Happens When You Take a Rest?
When you take a few rest days or a week, your muscles have more time to repair but your tendons and ligaments get some downtime too. Plus, your muscles build up their glycogen stores so they’re ready again for some serious training. If you were training hard before the break, your cortisol level may come down too. Cortisol is a catabolic hormone released in response to stress. It counters the effect of growth hormone on muscle tissue and promotes muscle breakdown. When cortisol is chronically elevated, it can lead to a cycle of muscle loss and fat gain. That’s not what you want! It’s even more important that you take breaks from training if you do endurance exercise. Studies show that endurance athletes have higher levels of cortisol, based on hair samples.
The Bottom Line
No matter how you train or how often, your muscles and brain can benefit from training breaks. Scheduling a rest week every month, or every 6 weeks, gives your muscles that recovery time and helps both muscles and brain “reboot.” You may discover that you come back stronger and your gains increase too if you do this. Taking regular breaks will also help you avoid the overtraining syndrome, the mental and physical effects of pushing your body too hard. If you develop true overtraining, you may need weeks off from working out to recover. Taking breaks preemptively can help you avoid the overtraining syndrome. If you reach that point, it can take weeks to months to recover. Regular rest can help you avoid this fate.
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