Most people are well aware of the fact that muscle growth doesn't occur during a tough workout. Muscle growth happens long after your last rep and what you do during the post-workout period can be just as important as what you did for exercise. Since getting sufficient rest in between bouts of activity is proven to be essential in the success of fitness programs there has been no end to the vast information released in regards to the best ways to spend time outside the gym. There are plenty of questions to answer: "What should I eat?" "What should I drink?" "How should I stretch?" "How many days per week should I strength train?" "Should I do aerobic training on non-lifting days?" "How much sleep do I need?" Even though everyone has their unique wishes and concerns, you can begin to respond to your own by learning more about the science behind about how the body responds to exercise.
One of the first puzzles involves figuring out when to train and when not to train. It is important for us to engage in some physical activity every day, such as walking, gardening, or general labor. We can run into a problem when we push ourselves past comfort zones in more demanding activities such as running and weight lifting. It's not that trying pushing ourselves past physical limits does more harm than good. It's that when we put ourselves through the same "recreational stressors" (e.g. chronic cardio, bodybuilding, digging holes) over and over again, without enough rest in between, we begin to lower the bar. We want training to raise the bar and it can when we work with our bodies, not against them.
After a workout the body doesn't just repair damaged and torn fibers to their former condition. It actually takes extra precautions during the repair process so it will be better able to handle similar stress in the future. In other words, there is a certain period of time after you've fully recovered from a workout that you're stronger than you were before. Some fitness professionals refer to this as thesupercompensation period. Learning how to balance work, rest, and everything else in your life is key to getting the most benefit from your workouts thanks to this physiological phenomenon.
We can't benefit from supercompensation until we fully recover from a workout and the body is ready for more stress. One of the general signs for telling when you're sufficiently recovered is when delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) has subsided. Muscle soreness from activity usually last anywhere from 24 to 72 hours. It can last longer but this all depends on the volume and intensity of an activity. Working around DOMS is one of the reasons many strength training programs follow a 2-3 day schedule where rest is taken at least a day or two in between workouts. This gives muscles ample time to rebuild completely so they aren't broken down again while they are still in a weakened condition. For many people, taking 24 to 48 hours off in between workouts is an easy to follow rule-of-thumb, yet does that leave us with 24 to 48 hours to completely ignore a fitness program? No, and learning what to do with that time in between can help keep you from missing out on any gains that can be made from your workouts.
In some cases, we may really need to completely take a load off. Yet, in others, participating in other forms of physical and healthy activity may help reduce DOMS and speed up recovery. Gentle stretching, massage, and mobility work will help because those activities are intended to lengthen the tissue surrounding muscles which has a tendency to contract into defensive knots after receiving too much damage. The knots restrict range of motion (ROM) for the sake of protecting the body from further damage. Even though this response is intended to help the body adjust to its environment it cannot tell when it is doing more harm than good, perpetuating a vicious cycle where muscle damage restricts ROM making us more vulnerable to injury than we were before.
The other thought of simply going cold turkey from activity in order to recover may be good when a lot of pain and inflammation is present. However, complete avoidance of activity may not be recommended if soreness from a workout is manageable because muscles have tendency to repair themselves where they are left off. If they're left in a highly contracted and shortened position, then that will be the starting point for the following workout granted nothing is done to maintain their length. To put it briefly, it is important to keep moving during the days in between workouts because it will keep your muscles from turning to stone.
Finding a balance between what you do inside and outside of the gym is an on-going process that will always change. Some days you may just need some yoga. Some days you may feel more suited for a jog. Some days it's nice to not have to bear any weight at all. It's your choice but variety helps. It also depends on what all you do during the week. As an example, going for a 3 to 5 mile road-run every day in between workouts may not be the best plan if you want to develop lower body strength and power. Taking it down to just one or two runs a week with sufficient rest in between may be more manageable and just as beneficial.
We know there is a lot more that can be said about organizing a weekly fitness program. We hope that some of this information may at least push you to sit back and think about what all you're doing during the week and reflect on why you're doing it. If the activities don't correspond to your goals then you need to change them. If they do, but you're still not seeing results, then you may need to take a look at what else you're doing that could potentially interfere with your results, such as not taking a break.
Noel L. Poff, CSCS, CPT, LMT, TMI