Want to keep making muscle gains? Give it a rest!

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach, is a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. She is also a member of the St. Louis Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

By Cathleen Kronemer

Recently I had an opportunity to join my husband in Florida at the end of one of his business trips.  While the weather wasn’t quite as warm as we would have liked, the getaway did me worlds of good, on many levels.  We spent quality time together, I caught up on my sleep, and…I did not work out in the hotel gym.  Walks on the beach were plenty for me!

Those of you who are familiar with my lifestyle already know that I am dedicated to my workouts.  Okay, fair enough, that truly is an understatement!  However, I have come to observe that occasional downtime almost always renders me stronger upon returning to my challenging strength-training regimen.  

I’m not saying this is always easy to accomplish.  That little inner voice does tend to chastise me for being what I consider lazy, and I do have some flashes of guilt. Through the years, however, I have learned how to appropriately manage this inner need to constantly push myself, and it turns out that I am not alone.  According to Lance C. Dalleck, Ph.D., author of fitness essays for the American Council on Exercise, “While proper rest days and rest periods between exercise sets are essential to prevent overtraining, muscles require rest days to restore their force generation….” 

The nervous system, which along with glycogen provides fuel and energy for resistance training, has similar needs to our musculoskeletal system. If rest days are not planned as part of a current training program, it will soon become depleted and training will become negatively affected. Perhaps not surprisingly, overtraining can lead to injury and muscle deterioration, the exact opposite of most athletes’ original goals.  Rest periods, whether they are between exercise sets in the gym or actual workouts, have become recognized as one of the most essential considerations when designing a training protocol.

A typical concern when trying to incorporate a rest regimen is the loss of one’s current level of strength and conditioning. Muscle loss is not going to occur overnight, especially if the body is accustomed to a pattern of regular and prudent training.  Granted, a break of much more than 14 days might dictate the need to incorporate somewhat lighter weight loads when returning to the gym.  A few days off, however, will enable the muscle tissue to repair itself and grow, and likewise the nervous system to shift gears, especially if adequate nutrition is being supplied during this rest period.  If your fear is boredom, consider an alternative type of exercise, such as recreational cycling, hiking, or an easy swim.  Utilizing different neural pathways will keep the body active while not overtaxing the muscles.