If you don’t make time to rest, you won’t have time to grow. That’s the long and short of it. Most gym goers, and especially first time beginners, place most of their emphasis on their workouts. Huge sets, super sets, and ten exercises per bodypart are just some examples of how many in the gym world try to take their workouts to the next most extreme level. More work must equal greater results, right? Over time, yes, but work is only half of the equation here, the other half is rest.
When you are training in the gym, what you are doing is introducing a stress to your body, a stress that in turn provokes a stress adaptation. That stress could be in the form of breaking down muscle tissue (bodybuilding), in turn causing your body to respond by building that muscle tissue up bigger. It could be in the form of introducing progressively heavier weights (powerlifting), making your body respond by getting stronger.
Or it could be in the form of running longer distances (endurance training), which makes your body more efficient at using oxygen. In all three of these scenarios the ultimate goal for the trainee isn’t the stress, it’s the adaptation. If every day we spent 2, 3, 4 hours breaking down muscle tissue or lifting heavier weights or perpetually running ungodly distances, we would be completely exhausted with no energy reserved for growth.
What we would instead be left with is greater and greater amounts of accumulating fatigue. That’s why marathon workout sessions spent training your arms for hours don’t pay off. In the short term (day to day), time spent training is not proportional to growth.
However, in the short term, time spent training is proportional to the rest required to recover from it. If there is no time reserved for adaptation, then there is no adaptation, there is no growth. So it becomes absolutely essential to facilitate periods of rest so that our bodies can adapt to and overcome the demands placed on it, and not make those demands so great that there isn’t enough time to recover.
Time-wise, stressing our bodies is easy. It might take at most 3-4 consecutive hours in the gym to brutalize ourselves to the point of complete physical and emotional submission (not that I’m recommending that), but comparatively it takes much, much longer for our bodies to recover and repair.
You can easily force yourself to fatigue faster by training at higher and higher intensities, but you can’t really force yourself to rest any faster. Rest pretty much happens at its own pace, so the best variable we can control is volume of rest, ie. time spent resting. That’s why I recommend training, at most, five days per week, or alternatively, no more than three days in a row (3 on, 1 off, etc).
For average, non-genetically gifted people, training beyond that is stressing your body faster than it can adapt, essentially causing you to first plateau and often leading to injury second. Even training at that point could be too much for many trainees.
For the majority of beginners and intermediates I think 3 solid days of intense training per week is plenty (eg. M-W-F); both plenty of opportunity to stress your body and plenty of time for your body to adapt through growth. And on days that you train, I suggest shooting between 45 min. and 1.5 hours. Beyond that point you’ll get diminishing returns on your investments. This might sound like too little to many of you, but your focus must stay deeply rooted on growth, not fatigue. Nobody ever got to Memphis on one tank of gas.
Another important consideration is sleep. The majority of your body’s regenerative processes occur during sleep, so the more the better. Average Joe’s should be getting 8-9 hours of sleep, but for someone who is constantly exposing their body to extreme physical demands, that number becomes the minimum. Shoot for 9-10 hours if you can manage, and if you can sneak in some nap time too, all the better. Again, you can only increase the quality of your sleep so far, so we must really stay focused on volume.
Even with all of these considerations taken into account, fatigue still builds up over time. So take a full week off after every 8-12 weeks of consecutive training.
Don’t think of rest as merely pertaining to your body either, it should give your mind a rest from training too. When I say rest I don’t mean that you should park your ass in front of the television for the duration. Rest is anything that isn’t work. It could be spending time with friends and family, playing a pick-up game of basketball, building something, going camping, or reading a book.
If you can, try to apply your training in the gym to something besides just training in the gym. Take full advantage of your training through your recreation. Resting is not an excuse to be lazy. If you want to spend your time being lazy, go have a spa day with mom.
Will you always have to devote so much time to rest? Yes and no. You will always have to rest harder than you train, but over time your body will adapt to work capacity as well. This means that as you accumulate fitness, you will be able to increasingly either, train the same and rest less, or, train harder and rest the same. It takes time to increase work capacity, so think of it in terms of years, not months. So what are you waiting for? Get busy resting!