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How Much Recovery Is Needed Betweeen Resistance Workouts?

I received a question this morning via email from a reader who wanted to know my opinion on how much rest and recovery should be incorporated in between resistance workouts.

My reply was along the lines of “well it depends,” and I asked for more information about what their current routine consisted of.

You see recovery periods with strength training and resistance workouts is another one of those topics that has lots of varying opinions. My position is that there is no one set in stone rule or set of guidelines that’s best for everyone.

In today’s post I’ll discuss factors to consider when selecting the most appropriate rest and recovery periods.

More after the jump…

Here are the factors that I would look at when making a recommendation to someone on recovery periods:

  • the individual’s age
  • their training goals and objectives
  • the type of resistance training be utilized (body weight, free weights, etc)
  • their stress levels outside of the gym
  • their dietary habits
  • their sleep habits
  • their frequency and duration of training sessions

You see all these factors really should be looked at before just assuming that you need to have “X” number of days off from resistance training before completing your next workout.

Far too often people will assume a particular rotation is best simply because that’s what they read somewhere or because that’s what a trainer at the local gym told them.

Here’s the bottom line…

Resistance training is only effective when two things happen:

  1. The muscles have been provided with an overload stimulus in some way.
  2. The muscles have been provided with adequate time for recovery and supportive nutrition to rebuild and repair.

There is a third factor here I should mention. It involves the frequency or consistency in which the muscle was provided with an overload stimulus.

As you can imagine, doing a resistance workout once a week won’t provide much of an adaptive response. As a general rule you need to be doing resistance training a minimum of 2-3 times a week to see much in the way of results.

On the other side, there’s a maximum of 5 days a week most individuals would even want to consider doing resistance workouts.

So what do you pick?

How many days do you workout and when should you incorporate rest and recovery?

To best answer these questions we’ll want to look at some of the factors I listed earlier.

Age of individual

While there’s no hard rules here, it should be pretty obvious that the older we get the more recovery is needed from intense resistance training workouts. While you may be able to get away with 5 x week routines hitting the iron when you’re in your twenties, this won’t work so hot when you’re in your forties and beyond.

As a general rule, if free weight training is involved you’ll want to listen to your body when determining the most appropriate rotation. Being constantly sore is an indication that you need to lengthen your recovery periods between workouts.

On the other hand if you’re doing split routines and hitting different muscle groups on different days and your sleep and nutrition is solid, you may find that 4-5 times a week is feasible.

Again 2-5 times a week will be the range.

Training goals and objectives

Are you looking to add a significant amount of lean muscle, lose body fat, get lean and defined, bulk up, etc?

Generally speaking if adding a decent amount of muscle is a primary goal you’ll want to apply longer rest and recover periods. In this case 3-4 workouts a week is plenty. Again this is assuming that free weight training is being utilized.

I’d caution against doing heavy resistance training much more than 3 times a week as recovery is going to be compromised in most cases.

Either way you’d want to look at 1-2 days or more of recovery before repeating high volume or heavy workloads on individual muscle groups.

Type of resistance being utilized during the workouts

This is one of the most important variables of all. You see I’ve personally found that doing body weight resistance workouts can be effective without rest days in between if the individual’s stress levels, sleep, and nutrition are all in line.

The reason is you don’t have the same eccentric workload being applied to the muscles like you’d have with heavy free weight training.

If bodyweight training is how you’ll be getting in resistance work, there’s nothing to keep you from doing push-up’s, sit-up’s, bodyweight squats, etc, on a daily basis. Herschel Walker is a prime example of someone now into his fifties who has stayed in incredible shape with doing daily bodyweight exercises.

Stress, dietary habits, and sleep

These three factors can all be lumped in together as they all factor into to how quickly your muscles can rebuild and repair themselves. The better you are with managing stress, eating nutritious foods that support muscle, and getting 7-8 hours of sleep each night, the faster you’ll recover and vice-versa.

For those individuals who have to manage busy lifestyles and hectic schedules, trying to train with resistance work any more than 3-4 times a week is likely going to be counterproductive.

The recovery simply won’t be there and this will just result in higher stress levels (and thus more cortisol secretion) which in turn makes it harder to lose fat and gain muscle.

Making a plan that’s best for you taking all the above into consideration…

Here’s the thing, I’ve found that resistance or strength training is the most effective form of exercise to help promote a change in body composition. This is true regardless of whether you want to lose a lot of fat or add a lot of muscle, or anything in between.

Granted cardiovascular work certainly has it’s place for fat loss, but if I had to rank in order of importance I’d put resistance training first.

If anything, I see people who are working really hard at a body transformation relying too much on cardio and not enough on resistance training. I don’t know if this comes from a fear of getting “big and bulky” muscles or if there’s just the assumption that cardio will be better since it burns more calories.

All I can tell you is that I’ve found far more success over the years working with personal training clients by increasing the frequency in which resistance training is being done over their cardio.

If someone is doing resistance training 2 x week and cardio 5 x week, but yet struggling to see a change in their shape, the last thing I’ll tell them to do is MORE cardio.

Let me just say that good things happen the more you work your muscles.

Maybe this means cutting back on the duration of your cardio workouts and incorporating some body weight exercises on the days in between your regular resistance training workouts.

Maybe it’s increasing to 3-4 days a week with resistance training instead of two, regardless of where you did the workouts and what you used for equipment.

What I’m trying to get at is I’d be LESS concerned with over-training and not getting enough recovery and MORE concerned with getting sufficient levels of resistance training to promote an adaptive response by your body.

Do you need to have a day in between each resistance workout like some bodybuilders follow and recommend? Not necessarily, there again it all depends on what you’re doing for your workouts, the total frequency of sessions for the week, and the duration.

As you may know I’m a big proponent of doing shorter duration “burst training” workouts that typically last 30 minutes or less. With these types of workouts you can see significant results with three sessions per week, barring your nutrition, etc, is on point.

On the other two days you could be doing Yoga, stretching routines, bodyweight exercises, recreational physical activity, interval training, low-intensity aerobic exercise, you name it. Again it all goes back to your goals, personal preferences, and individual needs.

I just wanted you to see that there’s no hard and fast rule that you must do “X” number of days of resistance training per week or have “X” number of days rest in between.

If anything there are guidelines for minimums and maximums. Just doing 1-2 resistance workouts per week, especially when they’re of shorter duration and not really high intensity, will likely not be enough to produce change.

On the other hand doing more than 5 x week with resistance training  is overkill and likely a recipe for over-training.

The answer for most individuals lies somewhere in between.

Personally I’ve found that I see the best results with doing resistance workouts 3-4 times a week. This was true in my 20-30′s and even more so now that I’m in my 40′s.

Yeah, you can “maintain” with a couple of resistance workouts a week, but the improvements really seem to come with 3-4 times per week. Trying to do more than four days is tough on a lot of levels and there seems to be a point of diminished returns.

Granted this might be different if I were doing body weight resistance workouts only, but I typically incorporate quite a bit of free weight training.

While I wish I could give you a handy little chart to show you the best rotation of days to train and days to rest, it’s just not that simple.

Listen to your body and assess things by measuring your progress. If you’re not seeing the desired gains perhaps you need to increase your frequency or scale things back.

In conclusion I can tell you that unless you’re doing really heavy and intense weight training workouts you’re not going to want have more than a couple days of rest between resistance training sessions.

Simply put, you won’t need that much recovery and you could benefit from overloading your muscles with more frequency.

After all we have to remember how the body adapts and muscle is developed in the first place. It’s because of stress and overload. Don’t apply enough stress or often enough and there’s no need for adaptation.

You don’t have to spend hours upon hours each week with training, but there does need to be sufficient frequency with the application of resistance to the muscles.

The final thing I’ll say on this subject is make sure you’re taking into consideration the intensity of your workouts. What you do during your workouts and how hard you do it, is just as much if not more important than the frequency.

There’s plenty of folks going through the motions in health clubs 5 x week and getting nowhere fast. Then there’s the individual who trains 3 x week, but goes really hard and sees results because of it.

As it is with most things in life you’ve got to find the right balance.

If you’re struggling with your current workout routine and not sure how to switch things up, seek the guidance of a knowledgeable fitness professional. If I can be of assistance please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Shane Doll CPT, CSCS is a certified personal trainer, fat loss expert, speaker, and founder of Shaping Concepts Fitness Training Studios. If you’re looking for a personal trainer in Charleston, you can receive a no-obligations personal training trial and consultation without risking a dime. Over 1000 Charleston area residents have transformed their bodies following our unique burst training workouts and simplified nutrition programs. Experience the Shaping Concepts difference today.

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Category: Fitness Training.