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Improve Your Workout Regimen With a Rest Day

February 15, 2014

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It probably seems like the more often you work out, the better, but spending seven days a week at the gym means missing out on one of the most critical parts of a fitness plan – the rest day. To understand how the rest cycle fits into a comprehensive fitness plan, one must know more about how exercise affects the human body.

Breaking Down Muscle

The goal of exercise is to damage muscle. That sounds counterproductive, but muscle must break down in order to rebuild. This is known as an adaptive response. Working out challenges muscles to the point of fatigue, depleting muscle glycogen. Think of glycogen as the fuel that allows muscles to move. As muscle fatigue occurs, tears form in the structure of the tissue. The body responds to this by looking for a way to avoid tissue damage in the future.


From generation to generation, animals have evolved based on environmental challenges. That is the basis of muscle building, as well. The body senses damage from exercise. In response, it breaks down the torn tissue and rebuilds it stronger. This recovery process occurs during the rest cycle, starting with the restoration of muscle glycogen to fuel the repair work. By rebuilding damaged muscle, the body is attempting to adapt to an external stressor – exercise.

That is how muscles become stronger through strength training. A person lifting weights causes damage to the tissue by stressing the muscle. The body detects that problem, breaks down the muscle, and then rebuilds it stronger. That happens over and over until the muscle can comfortably manage the weight. At that point, the lifter must increase the weight in order to continue to evolve.

About the Rest Day

Rest days are critical, whether you're just beginning or a veteran athlete, because downtime is when the magic happens. Rest represents healing, and healing means growth. Rest also allows the body to restore glycogen. Without sufficient rest, muscles break down, but they are never effectively rebuilt, so you are actually slowing down the progress.

Short-Term and Long-Term Recovery

Rest comes in two categories: short-term and long-term. Immediate repair occurs during short-term recovery – the hours between day-to-day workouts. This rest immediately after intense exercise is known as active recovery. Long-term recovery includes rest days in a workout schedule. Without incorporating both types of recovery into a fitness plan, you may develop a condition called overtraining syndrome.

Overtraining Syndrome

Overtraining syndrome occurs when a person fails to include enough rest into a fitness program, and is common among athletes training hard for a specific event. Symptoms of overtraining syndrome include:

  • Mild muscle aches
  • Joint pain
  • Drop in performance
  • Insomnia
  • Depression

Proper exercise is a balance between exertion and recovery. It's important to remember to incorporate the needed rest day into your workout schedule, both to decrease your risk of injury and to gain the most benefit from your workouts. 

Are you allowing for at least one rest day a week? What are some ways to ensure you take your rest day?