You don’t get bigger or stronger in the gym. You get bigger and stronger when resting and recovering, especially during sleep.
This can be hard to accept, especially if you really want to lose fat or build muscle. Surely doing more workouts will get you more results? Up to a point, but rest is an absolute necessity for growth to occur.
When you lift weights, or do in any kind of resistance training with the right intensity, you create microscopic tears in your muscles. During rest, cells called fibroblasts come along and repair the tissue. So long as your protein and calorie intake is on point, these repairs will make you stronger and more resilient for future workouts. However, if you are not eating healthy food or resting enough, then you may just be damaging your muscles.
Skipping rest and recovery can not only interfere with the repair of your tissue, it can cause various health issues such as inflammation, lactate build up, overuse injuries and over-training. This goes for resting between sets, resting specific muscle groups between workouts, having days where you avoid training altogether, scheduling deload weeks and optimizing the most powerful aspect of your recovery toolbox: sleep.
Resting Between Sets
While no growth or repair is actually occurring in these bouts of 2-5 minutes, they’re essential to allow the relative energy systems to replenish, in order to provide you with the energy to safely and effectively work the next set. They’re also a great way to gauge your current intensity level and understand if you’re working hard enough, or too hard. If you try to do one full set of 45 reps instead of 3 sets of 15, you will struggle. A lot. If you don’t struggle, the load is certainly WAY too low to stimulate the stress response that will lead to hypertrophy or strength.
As you work through your sets and reps, you will become more fatigued. This makes logical and intuitive sense. For example, when you go on a hike or bike ride, you are more tired by the end than you are at the beginning, even if you’ve stopped for a lot of rest and food along the way. But regular rest periods will help ensure you can at least maintain a certain level of intensity and volume for the period of your workout, instead of burning out after 1-2 exercises.
If you’re training max strength with reps of 1-3 or 1RM’s, you may need to rest up to 5 minutes for your ATP-PC system to fully replenish.
If you’re training for hypertrophy with 8-20 reps, 90 seconds to 2 minutes will probably be adequate rest.
Can you rest too much between sets?
With strength focused training, its less of an issue. Slightly longer rest periods can even allow your ATP-PC system to be even more replenished. However, you don’t want to cool down too much either so this is only true to an extent.
With hypertrophy training, maintaining intensity and blood flow to the target areas seems to stimulate greater gains, so do try to stick to your set rest periods of 90 seconds to 2 minutes.
For some, these days are cherished and looked forward to. For others, it can be a real struggle to not do any exercise and skip the gym. The good news it while taking entire days off training is advised at least once or twice a week, the primary aim with rest days is to rest the specific muscles that have just been worked, not necessarily the whole body. So you could still go to the gym multiple days in a row.
For example, if you trained your lower body on Monday, you could train your upper body on Tuesday.
Or, if you trained most days of the week you may train your “push” muscles — chest, shoulders and triceps - on Monday, then your pull muscles — upper back and biceps — on Tuesday.
The old school approach, still utilized by many today, is the full “body part split” where you train just one muscle group per day. Chest, shoulders, back, biceps, triceps, legs and glutes…
The pros and cons of this approach are constantly in debate. Studies seem to show that splitting the volume into two workouts seems to produce better mass gains, probably due to the extra activation of MPS. However, if you have the time to train like this, you enjoy it, and you get results, carry on!
The key in any program is allowing your muscle groups to have at least 48-72 hours of rest before directly training them again.
What should you do on days when you’re intentionally not training?
Sit on the couch and avoid all movement? Not at all.
Active recovery refers to light exercise or movement that is performed at a very low intensity, and it can stimulate blood flow to muscles in a way that actually aids recovery. While making time to kick back and chill is also important, movement is medicine, and we’re designed to be mobile throughout the day, every day. Modern life has us sedentary enough as it is, and research tells us that one hour in the gym is not enough to off-set the damage done by sitting down all day. Move as much as you can, get up every hour, take stairs instead of elevators and sit in different positions.
But beyond this, you can use days without actual training to…
- Go for walks in nature
- Light cardio in the gym
- Hit a yoga class
- Do some light stretching
- Work on your mobility
- Go swimming
- Ride bikes with family or friends
If your training program is especially intense, and you have certain strength or performance goals, then you may need to be more careful as to what muscles get worked with active recovery, but you can just apply the logic of resting muscle groups for 48-72 hours after training and adjust accordingly.
For example, if you had a big leg day on Friday or Saturday and you had a competition on Monday or Tuesday, perhaps don’t go for a bike ride on Sunday…
The ultimate state of rest. When we sleep, our brain stores and sorts new information from the day, neurons rearrange themselves, and our body releases hormones and proteins that repair cells and replenish energy. Muscle repair, tissue growth and protein synthesis is at its most powerful and active while we sleep.
It’s also a key process when it comes to controlling crucial hunger hormones. When you sleep, ghrelin, the hunger hormone that increases appetite, decreases, but a lack of sleep causes ghrelin to increase, while leptin, responsible for appetite suppression, decreases. You can imagine the havoc this can play on any kind of diet plan, whether you’re trying to build muscle in a controlled surplus, or lose body fat!
However, despite all this, so often we’re looking for what supplements to take to improve our gym gains, concentration, focus or anxiety, while surviving on 4-5 hours of bad quality sleep most nights. Supplements have their place, but get the basics - diet, training and sleep - right first, then see where you do or don’t need to optimize with pills and powders.
What can you do to help improve your sleep?
1. Start building consistent habits around when you sleep. Don’t try to change too much too soon. If you currently fall asleep at 12.30am most nights, try to build a habit around 12.15am. Build that habit for a good 2-3 weeks before perhaps trying for 12am - if you feel ready.
2. Think about when you want to wake up, and try to set a realistic time that you can stick to. If you are falling asleep in the early hours every night, perhaps don’t make this too early to begin - it will take time to build habits and sleep quantity is also important - but see if you can work toward a time that allows 7-9 hours of sleep a night, with consistent sleep and wake times. Ultimately, getting into bed 9 hours before you plan to wake is a good habit to work toward.
3. Try to have around an hour before sleep, where you start to go through the motions of a bedtime routine. Ideally, put all tech down and turn the TV off. Modern screens emit a blue light that interferes with our production of melatonin amongst other things. If this is not possible, smart phones should have a blue light filter option, and you can buy blue light blocking glasses too.
4. Have fun crafting your optimal bedtime routine. What would you like to do to wind down? Stretch? Yoga? Meditate? Hot shower? Read? Set a cut off time for the evenings you are not out socialising, and at this time, your bedtime routine begins. Ideally, around an hour or 90 minutes before sleep.
For getting results from all your hard work with exercising and eating, sleeping well each night and resting each muscle group sufficiently between workouts is important.
See if you can imagine yourself getting stronger as you chill out or do some active recovery. If your training and nutrition is good, then you can rest safe in the knowledge that physiological changes are taking place even as you sleep.
The short term result will be more strength for the next workout, but the long term results will also be more muscle, more strength, more motivation and more confidence.