spotlight Muscles

Why Rest Days Are Important for Muscle Building

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey
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Rest is an aspect of recovery that focuses on improving daily sleep amount and quality, limiting stress, and increasing physical and psychological relaxation. Of course, your body needs to rest after a tough workout, but how can rest help you achieve a muscle-building goal?

A well-rounded training plan incorporates intentional rest and recovery to allow you to see the fruit of all your hard work without burning out, seeing diminishing progress, or worse yet, getting injured. If you've been doing all the right things (like training consistently and eating well), but not seeing the results that you want, then rest might just be the "secret sauce" your plan has been lacking.

Read on to learn why rest is just as important as lifting when trying to build muscle.

Want to learn more about the importance of rest and how it’s beneficial to your wellbeing? Look into our Certified Wellness Coach course course for more information.

Prevents Injury

Nothing puts a damper on your fitness goals like an injury. The good news is that there are many ways to avoid injuring yourself in your quest to achieve your goals, and rest is one of them. Prioritizing rest can help you avoid injury in two big ways:

  • Rest can help you prevent injury by ensuring that you're not too sore to lift with good form. Lifting weights is supposed to help improve movement and posture, but have you ever tried working out when you were sore? If you've ever been there, then you know how painful it can be to get into good form when your muscles are screaming at you.

  • Adequate rest can help you avoid overtraining. Overtraining syndrome is the body's response to excessive exercise without adequate rest. Some common symptoms of overtraining syndrome are fatigue, depression, insomnia or waking up not feeling refreshed, irritability, hypertension, restlessness, and heavy, sore, and stiff muscles (Kreher & Schwartz 2012). Overtraining can lead to overuse injuries since the body is not getting enough rest to properly recover between training sessions. 

If you've got a training plan that has you training back-to-back days, make sure you're alternating the muscle group(s) being worked each day so that you have at least 48-72 hours of rest for each muscle group between training sessions.

 

Promotes Muscle Growth

A large portion of muscle regeneration and cell "cleaning" happens in the brain and body while we're sleeping. When you lift weights, especially if you reach muscle fatigue, microscopic muscle tears can occur.

This is a good thing when you're trying to build muscle mass because these tears essentially tell your body that the tissue needs to be stronger to be able to overcome the force that caused the damage. As you rest, fibroblasts repair the microscopic tears resulting in stronger muscles and increased muscle mass. 

Without the right training intensity, the muscles won't be challenged adequately to see results, and without rest, the muscle repair needed to see results is inhibited. Both rest and work are equally important when it comes to seeing muscle gain. 

Boosts Recovery

Recovery is a systematic physiological and psychological process in which the body and brain require replenishment and rejuvenation to prepare for the next training or competition. Recovery can be broken down into three phases: rest, refuel, and regenerate. Each phase supports the other, and without one of these phases, recovery is incomplete.

Proper rest allows the body to digest and utilize nutrition and hydration from the refuel phase. Movement strategies are also more effective when you are well-rested and able to focus on form in the regeneration phase. Each of these phases works together to help you recover well. 

Encourages Better Sleep

Sleep is one of the most important elements of rest since it plays such an important role in cellular repair and regeneration and hormone regulation. All of these are critical when it comes to muscle building. 

Training without adequate rest is often linked with sleep issues, which creates a vicious cycle of breakdown within the body leading to diminished performance and a compromised immune system. In addition, no one likes to toss and turn in bed, worry about something, or wake up in pain from soreness. Improving stress management and physical and psychological relaxation (the other key components of rest) can lead to better sleep. 

What does adequate rest look like? 

Rest is more than just taking time away from exercise. Rest includes improving daily sleep amount and quality, limiting stress, and increasing physical and psychological relaxation.

  • Sleep: The National Sleep Foundation (2015) recommends that adults get between 7-9 hours of sleep that is the right length, deep enough to enter all sleep cycles, uninterrupted, and consistent from night to night. Try limiting screen time 1-2 hours before bedtime and developing a consistent sleep/wake schedule to reap the most benefits from your zzz's.

  • Stress management: Stress can come in the form of physical stress (i.e., a tough workout), or psychological stress (i.e., a stressful work situation). Figuring out the amount of stress that is sustainable and manageable for you is a personal journey, but recognizing the stressors you face in your everyday life can help you narrow down the type of recovery that is needed (i.e., mental, emotional, or physical).

  • Physical relaxation: Having a good exercise preparation routine (i.e., corrective exercise) and a muscle recovery plan are a must when you want to build muscle. Using recovery tools (like percussion instruments, foam rolling, or compression boots) can be an effective way to help your muscles relax and recover after a tough workout.

  • Psychological relaxation: Taking a break from exercise can help you mentally as much as it can physically. Taking a break to enjoy time with friends can help you feel mentally refreshed and refocused when you return to training. In addition to taking breaks from training, adopting mindfulness or meditation practice can enhance psychological recovery and lead to better performance. 

Summary

No muscle building training plan is complete without a strategy for rest. Rest includes getting adequate sleep, limiting stress, and finding ways to relax mentally and physically.

Getting enough rest can help you to avoid injury, promote muscle growth, sleep better, and enhance your overall recovery. If you want to build muscle, consider making rest a priority in your training strategy to see the best results.


References:

• Hirshkowitz, M., et. al. (2015). National Sleep Foundation's updated sleep duration recommendations: final report. Sleep health, 1(4), 233–243. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2015.10.004

• Kreher, J. B., Schwartz, J. B. (2012). Overtraining syndrome. Sports Health, 4(2), 128-138. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738111434406/2012

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The Author

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach who developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM. You can follow her on LinkedIn here.