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Like me, you may have been searching for an answer to this question for a while. It's not easy to find a straight answer and if you start looking at opinions on the topic, you will end up even more confused than where you started!
There is a good reason for that.
Don't you just hate an answer like that? Well, hang tight.
Some research suggests a minimum of 48 hours of rest is optimal to allow recovery and prevent injury. Other experts suggest resting up to 72 hours between workouts if you are new to exercise, whereas for power lifters and bodybuilders at an elite level it can take a whole week before their muscles are fully recovered. Finally some people argue that eight hours of good sleep is enough for your body to recover.
What do you do with that? It's all over the place and does not really give you a guideline.
A physiology study has found that the short-term increase in protein synthesis that occurs subsequent to resistance training returns to normal after approximately 28 hours in normal young adult males with an adequate intake of food. Protein synthesis is the process that helps grow your muscles.
So let's round that number down and you have a simple guideline: 24 hours.
If you train in such a way that you fully exhaust your muscles such as lifting heavy weights, performing a high number of reps, or doing high-intensity interval training (HIIT) you should allow your muscles at least 24 hours to recover to stimulate muscle growth.
So why is resting and recovery time so important for muscle growth?
When you are strength training you are effectively causing tiny damage to the muscle fibers also known as microtrauma. The actual growth of your muscles - also known as muscle hypertrophy - happens after your workout when your muscles are recovering. The brain signals the body to repair the damage caused to the muscle fibers during training. In fact the brain instructs the body to overcompensate for this damage to make the muscle stronger and better prepared for the next 'attack'. This is basically how your muscles grow.
Does this mean you should consistently train and rest on alternating days? Not necessarily.
Again, it really depends on different factors such as your age, weight, current fitness level, how intensely you work out, how often you work out, what you eat and the duration of your exercise. It also depends on whether you do a full body workout or train individual muscle groups on different days. There are no hard and fast rules. Probably the best thing you can do is to 'listen to your body'.
A little word of caution here. Once the fitness virus gets hold of you and you start noticing the results of your hard work, it can actually be quite difficult to stop up and take a rest day. I have personally fallen into this scenario which is exactly why I decided to research this topic and write this article based on my findings.
Not taking an occasional rest day can lead to over training, which can result in decreased performance levels, a variety of injuries, elevated blood pressure, decreased immunity and disturbed sleep. If you train hard, you need to rest up.
Here is one suggestion to a general guideline you can follow:
- Beginner (you have just started strength training - less than 3 months)
- Train on one day followed by 48 hours rest. Repeat.
- Intermediate (you have been strength training for 3-6 months)
- Train on one day followed by 24 hours rest. Repeat.
- Advanced (you have been strength training more than 6 months)
- Train on two consecutive days followed by 24 hours rest. Repeat.
What is a rest day?
Well, if you're really bitten by the fitness bug remember your muscles may not need a total break in order to fully recover. Recovery does not necessarily mean lying on the couch all day long.
oga, Pilates, stretching, light jogging or swimming can be considered 'rest day' activities, depending on your fitness level. In fact some research suggests that low-intensity exercise such as swimming or walking can increase muscle relaxation, which benefits recovery.
So train hard and then see your muscles grow while you rest!