So you’re on a strength training kick, hitting the gym 4 days a week, and enjoying your workout routine. But then you start to think…what happens if you work out every day? Could you get even better results? There’s a whole 3 days of workouts each week being missed out! Working out every day = more weight loss and muscle gain, right? Riiiiight? Who even needs rest days?! So you start training 7 days a week. 1 hour lifting, 15 mins of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), then 30 mins jogging on the treadmill.
At first, you feel great. You lose some weight, you feel strong, you’re crushing it! But as the weeks go by you start to feel tired all the time, and you aren’t sleeping well. Your progress in the gym starts to slow down and even slip back a little. Your weight starts to plateau. You start to feel sore and stiff constantly, and you seem to pull muscles each week. What’s going on?
Why more HIIT is not a…HIIT
High-intensity cardiovascular training is very good for you. It’s a great way to increase your physical fitness, burn a bunch of calories in a short time, and has health benefits such as:
- Lowered insulin resistance.
- Lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Increased aerobic and anaerobic capacity.
- Increased vo2 max.
- Increased growth hormone.
- Lower resting heart rate.
- Lower blood glucose.
- Increased bone density.
- Mental benefits such as stress reduction.
However, high-intensity exercise puts your body under a lot of stress, releasing the stress hormone cortisol – more so than lower-intensity exercise. While some cortisol is good for us, stimulating physical adaptations such as strength and fitness increases, reductions in inflammation levels, and can even improve the immune system, too much intense exercise can lead to over-stressing the body.
There is a diminishing point of returns for high-intensity exercise, and around 30-40 mins per week over 90% max heart rate, spread over 2-3 days is optimal for recovery and performance, ideally with a 48-hour rest period between workouts.
Beyond that, the physical benefits of HIIT start to diminish, and you become more at risk of overuse injuries, and likely to experience fatigue, problems sleeping, stagnation in training progress, and maybe even negative emotional effects such as feelings of depression.
Incorporating moderate aerobic exercise into your fitness routine
Physical activity guidelines suggest that the average adult should do 150-300 mins per week of moderate exercise (on the lower end of the scale if you are also incorporating high-intensity workouts).
This could be a vigorous walk, doing an active hobby, a weightlifting session, or a fitness class. Multiple modalities should be chosen rather than only doing one type of activity. These activities are less stressful to the body than HIIT and can be done much more often, depending on one’s physical ability. You can reasonably perform moderate intensity exercise 4-6 days a week, making sure you still have one full rest day – ideally at least two.
Strength training – less is more
Fun fact: When you’re pumping iron in the gym, you aren’t building your muscles, you’re tearing them down, generating an adaption for them to rebuild bigger and stronger. Guess when that adaptation occurs? You got it! On rest days! Muscles grow and strengthen while resting, and training them day after day hampers this process and means you don’t get as many gainz.
Research shows that a muscle is mostly recovered and almost back to full strength 48 hours after lifting, and fully recovered or even stronger 72 hours after. So to maximize performance and growth you want at least 48 hours between lifting sessions.
3 x full body workouts per week generally allow for this, however, you can train more often by splitting up your major muscle groups into different workouts, for example training upper body, lower body, rest, upper body, lower body, rest, etc – totaling 4-6 workouts per week. This allows you to work out more but also rest muscle groups and reap the benefits of growth and recovery.
Walking for physical fitness
Low-intensity exercise such as walking is great for working towards physical fitness goals. It’s low intensity (unless you’re climbing a mountain or live somewhere really hilly), low impact, great for the cardiovascular system, and recovery is faster than higher intensity exercise alternatives.
Walking is one of the few things you CAN and should do every day to boost your overall health (within reason, let’s not go crazy with the distances now). While the trend in 10k+ step counts is a bit of a fitness watch fad, they are a great goal to work towards to make sure you are getting enough movement in each day.
Walking has a myriad of benefits. A brisk walk can help curb cravings – if you’re craving sweets or ‘junk’ food, go for a 15-minute walk and then decide if you still want it. It can also reduce breast cancer risk, improve cognitive function, relieve joint pain, and promote immune function. It may also help counter the effects of weight gain-promoting genes.
A reasonably paced walk will put your heart rate into zone 2, which is a great training zone for improving mitochondrial function, aerobic capacity, endurance, heart health, and overall fitness. In general, most people should spend much more time training in zone 2 than pushing into higher-intensity workouts.
So what CAN I do on my rest days?
While you shouldn’t be going HAM on your workouts 7 days a week, your weekly routine should comprise of some active rest days to promote blood flow to worked body parts, maintain mobility, reduce muscle soreness, and remove waste products from muscles.
Some ideas for active rest are brisk walking, some yoga or stretching, playing a round of golf, dancing, going for a gentle swim or bike ride, whatever takes your fancy that isn’t too strenuous and promotes low-impact movement.
It is, however, still beneficial to have the odd day lounging on the sofa watching Netflix and doing absolutely nothing!
What if I have an active job? Do I need more rest days? Should I train less?
While it is quite hard to over-train (we tend to under-recover), if you have an active job or lifestyle, you should be aiming for 2-3 proper rest days each week to optimize progress IN the gym. You can still train as much as anyone else, but try and get some of your workouts in on the days you do other active activities. While this may seem counter-productive, it is better to do more activity one day, then have a rest than to spread all your activities out and not have a rest day.
So if I’m mostly sedentary, should I rest less?
We’ve all heard that sitting is the new smoking, if you are mostly sedentary, regular exercise is important and you should lean more towards active rest days instead of Netflix rest days, and try to move as much as you can during each day. Aiming for a step count is a great way to achieve this.
Ismana is a true clichéd ‘gym bunny’ and loves crossfit and powerlifting, which enable her to enjoy an active and adventurous lifestyle – the body will never be an obstacle before the mind is! Ismana loves to share her skills and knowledge with others, and is an experienced strength and performance coach, with a strong belief in keeping things simple when it comes to training.