Give It a Rest- Why Rest Days and Recovery are Critical

When we’re beginning our journey to become healthier, it’s easy to get swept up in the hype of everyone pushing themselves in the gym, lifting weights, running on the treadmill, etc. It’s easy to go too hard and burnout in the first week or two of trying to achieve your goals. When you burn out on your goals, it’s like burning out at work: The thought of going to the gym is nauseating and you become stressed just thinking about doing a single squat.

We all know that pacing ourselves will help us succeed in the long term, and that’s for what I’m intensely advocating. To remain on track, it is important to not only match your intensity with current ability but to match your frequency in which you workout and rest. Without proper rest and recovery, your body won’t be able to sustain the training regimen.

The Results are in the Recovery

When we put in the work at the gym, the strain causes micro-tears in our muscles. Your body then needs nutrition and rest to repair these muscles. As your body repairs these muscles, it makes them just slightly stronger. The more we break them down and recover, the stronger we get. Gaining strength and putting up larger numbers in the gym is actually a result of the recovery, but we crush the work to make the recovery successful.

Think of your workouts like a demolition crew and the recovery the contractors. You can’t build a monument or a temple on an existing piece of land without tearing down the existing building first.

Rest Days vs Cheat Days

The difference between a rest day and a cheat day is that, on a rest day, you’re still in the mindset of progress and sticking to your plan. A rest day is strictly meant for recovery of the muscles your ripped up in the gym the day before and preparing for the next workout. Cheat days or cheat meals are reserved for special occasions and are most useful for maintaining your sanity by treating yourself for your hard work.

Plan Your Rest Days

Even if you’re not working out or have a planned activity (in the gym or otherwise), you should still do something, according to Steve from Nerd Fitness, whether that’s meal prepping, working on mobility or flexibility, or doing something that gets you moving.

On rest days, you shouldn’t be pushing yourself to exhaustion like you normally would on a training day. You should be operating at about 40-60% instead of 70-80%. By doing this, your body can get rid of some of the lactic acid and you won’t get as stiff or sore. Remember:

A body in motion tends to stay in motion.

Newton’s First Law of Motion

It can be tough to move when you’re feeling sore or stiff after a workout, but once you’re up and moving, the pain will diminish and you’ll find you can move normally.

If you find that physical activity just isn’t going to happen (it happens to all of us), then focusing on a healthy, less intensive activity, like cleaning, meal prepping, or taking the dog for a long walk are great alternatives.

What Do I Do on My Rest Days?

There’s a number of things you can do on a rest day. Here are just a few that I want to share with you.


Yoga is one of my favorite rest day activities. I typically do a Vinyasa flow, but Yin Yoga or Hot Yoga is also great for restoring your body. You can find an infinite number of Yoga flows on YouTube for free if you don’t want to pay for a class at a local studio.

One of my favorite YouTube Yogis is Yoga with Kassandra. She posts every Thursday on her channel and her flows are relaxing for the mind and body. I enjoy her quiet voice and positive vibe. If you’re looking for a shorter flow, she has some that are 15-30 minutes long and longer flows for full workouts at 45 minutes to over an hour.

Flexibility and Mobility Routine

When building muscle or just getting back in the gym, working your muscles will cause some tightness and reveal some weaknesses you didn’t know you previously had. Mobility and flexibility will enable you to keep moving in an ideal way.

One guided routine that I like (that only takes 20 minutes!) is by HASfit on YouTube. Their guided video covers mobility in the wrists, thoracic spine, shoulders, hips, and ankles. It’s designed for beginners, but will also benefit those who have been working on mobility for a while.

Another Mobility Option

Self- Myofascial Release (SMR) is great for stimulating blood flow back to the muscles and improving the range of motion. This is ideal for eliminating stiffness after a tough day of training. It’s almost like a self-massage.

You can use a lacrosse ball, foam roller, or PVC pipe to do some basic mobility movements and SMR. REI has some great foam rolling techniques in this article.

Just Move Your Body

This can be any variety of activities. You’re not limited to a specific regimen (unless you want to be) for active recovery. Simply moving around more than you would on a cheat day, but less intensely than you would for training, will suffice here. In no particular order, you can:

  • Hike
  • Swim
  • Go for a jog
  • Chase your kids around
  • Play ball with the dog
  • Walk through the mall or another major establishment
  • Work on a home project you’ve been wanting to finish
  • Bike on the trails or in town
  • Play a recreational sport (I personally like ultimate Frisbee; some of my friends prefer soccer)
  • Gentle Pilates
  • Lift lighter weights
  • Go grocery shopping and then meal prep
  • Find a friend and go for a long walk (take the pup too!)
  • Dance party!!!

If You’ve had a Particularly Rough Time…

Then maybe you want to challenge yourself mentally. Did you know your brain burns approximately 330 calories per day, depending on weight and activity? Based on your calorie intake, nearly 15% could be just from your brain.

But more than that, keeping your brain fit will help you combat stress, solve problems more creatively, and keep boredom at bay. If you’re too sore to do any amount of extra movement (it happens to all of us), then try this:

  • Meditation
  • Puzzles (New York Times Crossword anyone?)
  • Reading a fitness or health related articler
  • Taking music or art lessons
  • Learn a new skill (this can be anything: SEO, wine-making, flower arranging, iron smithing, whatever is in your area)
  • Join a book club
  • Volunteering with a local organization (I’m a big fan of “Foster for a Day” Programs at local shelters or helping out a local church you attend)
  • Get together for brunch with a friend
  • Go see your family

Whatever You Decide

You should align your rest days with your goals. Plan them as if they’re training days (because they are). Discipline is key when your motivation runs out. Your rest days are as important, if not more important than, as training days.

Your muscle recovery is what makes you stronger. The work is in the gym, but the results are in the rest. Giving your body time to repair those micro-tears you made in the gym is the key to getting stronger. If you don’t give your body time to recover (24-48 hours, depending on intensity, frequency, and other factors), then your body will quit on you.

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