If you’re first starting out on your fitness journey you’re probably in one of two places. You might still be a little reluctant, and it feels like an effort to go to the gym, so you will want to use lots of days as excuses for rest days. Or you’ll be on the other end of the spectrum and be so stoked and raring to go, that you are thinking “I don’t need rest days, I just want to work out all the time – day and night!”.
Both of these ways of thinking are pretty unsustainable! If you’re wanting to use rest days as excuses, then you’ll end up never going, and if you’re wanting no rest days, you’ll burn out.
Rest days ARE important. However, the way you spend your rest day is equally important.
As the title suggests, this is JUST for beginners. Elite athletes will need very specific guidance on rest days, how and when to spend them. However, for someone just starting out on your fitness journey, you won’t need to worry about that for a few years yet!
Why are rest days important?
When you are “feeling the burn” or struggling to lift a weight, that feeling is in fact you causing damage to your muscles. I know – it sounds pretty worrying doesn’t it! This is, however, how you strengthen you muscles and create bigger muscles. Whatever sport you are trying to get good in, or whether it’s just general fitness, the way you improve is by damaging the muscle cells. Your body then repairs these muscles and makes them stronger and better at performing that task.
That’s why rest days are important. Whilst the body is a wonderful thing, you need to give it the time to repair.
Think about a bruise for example. If you had a bruise and left it alone for a week say, then it would go. Then if you accidentally hit it in the same place again, a normal bruise would reappear. If you were so accident prone that this happened consistently for a few weeks, the final week’s bruise would be the same as the first, because your body has had time to repair and mend in between.
Now in the same example, imagine you’re even more accident prone and you hit that same spot everyday for a week, that bruise would be horrendous, and it would take ages for your body to be able to heal that, you may even have done lasting damage! Your body won’t have had time to mend itself!
This process is the same for muscle fibres. If you keep damaging and damaging the muscle fibres, you will just weaken and weaken them without them begin able to build up stronger, so the process of muscle growth and performance increase will either be stunted or not happen at all!
As I said at the beginning, the two mentalities will see rest days differently. A person not loving exercise will see rest days as a godsend, where as the all or nothing type mindset will see them as failing. Now that I’ve convinced you that you need them, the latter person should see them as essential parts of their exercise routine. They will also be able to still be active on those rest days (as I will explain later).
Now the first person, now be thinking well I’ve got even more of an excuse to take all the rest days in the world! No. Rest days are important, but only if you are actually working out. I take two rest days a week. As a beginner, you may want to be taking 4 or even 5 to start with, as you ease yourself into regular exercise. However, use them as rewards, not excuses. You need rest days to stay consistent with your programme, because you’d just find it too much to do 5 days of exercise a week, but use them strategically. Start your week with a day of exercise. Then take two rest days, then do another day of exercise. If you find yourself taking 4 consecutive days of rest, that’s no longer rest days – that’s simply just not exercising.
How many rest days and when?
In terms of exercise, the ideal would be to do two days of exercise, take a rest day, three days of exercise then rest – if you are doing 5 days a week. Or time them strategically, so if you are doing a full body workout, it’s best to rest the day after that, to give your muscles a bit of time before using those muscles again. Basically, you want to break up the exercise week, and not front load, or back load the rest days.
As a beginner however, if you are doing say 3 full body exercise days a week, then you would want to do exercise, rest 2 days, exercise, rest 1 day, exercise, rest 1 day. Or any combination (it doesn’t really matter where the extra day of rest goes), as long as the days of exercise are broken up by rest days.
The number of rest days are dictated by the number of exercise days. If you are at the very beginning, then you will want to be exercising a minimum of 2 days a week (so resting 5) and probably a maximum of 4 days a week (so resting 3). If you are a few weeks in however, and really loving the exercise and sustaining a 5 day exercise week, then this is great, but I wouldn’t advise you do more than that. As I say, rest days ARE important!
That being said, sometimes life dictates when your rest days are. If you know you are going to not be able to work out on specific days, then plan your rest days to coincide with these. We did this last week/ this week as we were visiting my brother in Munich for the long bank holiday weekend. Whilst we managed to stay active by going to the gym, hiking up a mountain and going for a run, our usual gym routine was disrupted. We knew it would be though, so on this occasion we used the weekend as our rest days, and got straight back onto our gym routine when we got back.
What should I do on my rest day?
A rest day is for recovery. That does not mean you should use these days to be sedentary, drink excessively, get to bed at 3am and eat crap. You want to be fuelling your body with essential nutrients and giving it the best chance of recovery. So that’s healthy eating and good sleeping pattern.
You also want to avoid doing nothing. Me and Jenny take rest days as active rest days (yes you knew there would be a catch to rest days, didn’t you!). This simply means we remain active, but don’t exert ourselves. So, for example, we will go for a nice medium length walk at a slow pace. Or find an activity that isn’t strenuous, but keeps us off of that sofa. Maybe one of the examples from our article on getting exercise into your daily routine. It doesn’t have to be all day, but you definitely don’t want to be sedentary. By doing a bit of light movement on your rest days, it improves the blood flow to the muscles, which in turn helps them repair faster.