How to train smarter and rest harder
Are your gains stagnant? Are you not making the progress that you want? It might not be your exercise. It may be your rest days… or lack thereof. Here’s why.
On Off Days, Build More Muscle
How you manage your off days can have a huge impact on your ability to build muscle mass and become stronger. For the dedicated lifter, the problem isn’t that you take an occasional rest day. The problem is that you don’t take ENOUGH rest days, and you don’t time them wisely in your training week.
Iron addicts may find the off days a torture. For many, a rest day makes them feel like they’re slacking off, so they train six or even seven days per week. However, the most common training day for the best strength athletes or bodybuilders is four days per week. Sometimes, it’s five. (An every-other-day split may even be better.)
Those training six or seven days a week tend to progress at a slower pace than those hitting the gym four to five days a week. There are exceptions, but unless you’re genetically gifted, you should base your training decisions on the most widely successful approach, not on the exception.
It’s a Growth Day, Not an Off Day
Change your thinking like this:
- Think “stimulation days” instead of training days.
- Think “growth days” instead of rest days.
When you take a rest/growth day, you build more muscle, replenish glycogen stores more easily, and let the nervous system get back to its optimal working state. This will help you grow faster, but it’ll also improve your performance on the day you get back to the gym.
During your off days, crucial things happen that make it easier to grow and get stronger. Your body has limited resources. And if you invest more resources in a workout instead of resting, you’ll have fewer available to fuel adaptation and growth.
During rest days, you devote more of your resources to growth and repair. Your nervous, immune, and hormonal systems also get back to a situation conducive to growth and performance. If you’re well rested, you’ll be able to perform at a higher level and do more volume, both of which will make the session more effective.
“Growth days” make you grow directly by allowing you to recover. They make you grow indirectly by allowing you to put a greater stimulation on your body during your workouts.
A Big Nutrition Mistake
Ask people what they do for nutrition during their off days and most will tell you they lower calorie or carb intake. (Heck, I’ve even recommended it in the past.) It’s a common recommendation, but it’s wrong.
People think that since they won’t be training and burning as much fuel, they shouldn’t consume the same amount of carbs, or else they risk gaining fat. If your goal is STRICTLY fat loss, there may be some value to this. But if you’re looking to build as much muscle and strength as possible, see your off days as days where you’re trying to do everything you can to maximize growth and performance, not days where you don’t do anything. Think of your time off as an investment.
With this in mind, what should you do nutrition-wise? Cut carbs and calories, leaving you with muscles that aren’t fully replenished with muscle glycogen and leaving you unable to take advantage of the anabolic properties of insulin? No! Do the opposite.
How to Accelerate Growth Day Gains
Insulin is the most anabolic hormone in the body. It shuts down catabolism (protein breakdown or muscle wasting) and ramps up anabolism – protein synthesis or building muscle. It also activates mTor, which triggers muscle growth and increases glucose storage inside the muscles. Muscles being full of glycogen is itself anabolic. As a bonus, a fuller muscle is a stronger muscle.
If your goal is maximum muscle growth and strength gains, it’s important to consume plenty of quality carbs and protein during those off/growth days. See each growth day as the only day in the week where the body is allowed to build muscle. If that were the case, what would you do on that day to make sure that you get every possible ounce of muscle growth? Certainly not lower your calorie or carb intake!
At the very least, keep calorie and carb intakes the same or increase them a bit. I’d also increase protein intake slightly to take advantage of the more anabolic state. Mag-10® pulsing would be perfect for this. I simply add three Mag-10® servings of “pulses” to my regular protein intake on these days.
How Many Growth Days Per Week?
Most people should train four days per week. For a normal person, four HARD sessions per week are about all that can be done. Sure, training more often is possible, but it would require the careful and precise use of training days with a much lower stress level. I don’t like these because I always feel like I have to restrain myself and “train with the brakes on.”
If you like to go balls-out, four training days a week is the best option to start with. That leaves us with three rest/growth days per week. Occasionally doing five sessions per week is fine, which would leave us with two rest/growth days. But this isn’t the ideal long-term solution.
Where Do You Place Growth Days?
One rule: Avoid taking two days off in a row. Performance tends to be flat after two days of rest and the quality of the workout always suffers. So here’s the best option for three growth days and four training days in a week without having two days off in a row:
- Monday: Training Day 1
- Tuesday: Training Day 2
- Wednesday: Growth Day 1
- Thursday: Training Day 3
- Friday: Growth Day 2
- Saturday: Training Day 4
- Sunday: Growth Day 3
How Do You Structure Training Days?
Make the heaviest days Thursday and Saturday. These are the days when performance should be at its highest. On Monday, in theory, you could also go super heavy, but since you have a second training day in a row, we don’t want lingering neural fatigue. Make Monday a challenging session but not as heavy as Thursday and Saturday. It can have a bit more volume, however.
Tuesday is the training day that should be the lightest – understanding that light is relative – with the highest volume. Another option is to train your lagging muscle group(s) with higher volume on Tuesday.
Regardless of the split you’re using, here’s my recommendation:
- Monday: Moderate Loading and Volume
- Tuesday: Highest Training Volume
- Wednesday: Growth Day 1
- Thursday: Heavy Training
- Friday: Growth Day 2
- Saturday: Heavy Training
- Sunday: Growth Day 3
Don’t Focus On The Wrong Things
The only thing that matters with training is getting results. Period. That’s how you evaluate how good a job you’re doing. Sadly, I see more and more people taking pride in other things – the amount of work done being at the top of the list.
It goes like this: Joe is passionate about training. He reads everything he can find and desperately want to earn the respect of other gym rats. But Joe isn’t really muscular, nor is he strong. And his training doesn’t seem to be giving him the gains he’d like.
So Joe begins to train more and more. At first, it’s in the hope of getting more results, but eventually, doing more work becomes his new goal. Joe isn’t getting more results, but he prides himself on training harder and more often than any other person.
That’s a vicious circle because he’s killing his gains by training too much. But by now his only source of pride is how much work he can do… and then he gets hurt.
Listen, if you want maximum growth and progress, you need those rest/growth days. Becoming a stimulus addict, refusing to take days off, and piling on volume will just leave you frustrated and likely injured.
Invest in the Next Workout
Let’s pretend that Friday you have a competition or a physical test. You have to have a great performance – either lifting heavy or being able to do a ton of high-quality work. You know you’ll be judged on your performance that day. What will you do the day before?
Will you go running on Thursday? Will you do hill sprints? Will you pump up your shoulders? Of course not. You wouldn’t put your body through any fatigue that might interfere with your performance on Friday.
THAT’S how you need to see your rest/growth days and workouts. At each workout, you need to perform at the highest possible level. On your rest/growth days, you need to do everything you can to put your body in the best possible situation to perform at the highest level. That holds true for your nutrition, supplementation, and training.
Growth days make the magic happen: building more muscle and preparing your body to perform the next day.
Trigger, Recover, Grow
Training really is that simple: the workout is there to trigger the biochemical responses that tell your body to adapt and grow. Once that’s been triggered, doing more will simply deplete resources.
When you’ve triggered the right response, just allow the changes to occur without disturbing the processes. Yes, changes can still occur on days that you train, but for a maximal response you need to train super hard and then do everything you can to speed up recovery on the growth days.
While suboptimal workouts might occur due to unplanned life events, they should never happen because you were under-recovered from your previous workouts. Remember, the big problem with under-recovery is that it builds up. You might only cause a small deficit in recovery at each workout, but it’ll accumulate quickly. When it does, you can kiss your gains goodbye!
Train smarter. Rest harder.
First of all, thanks!
I train EOD and am not good at recovery. On these growth days I do little cardio, like 20 m skipping rope and some abs, or some running. Do you consider this a training? Or where to put them in this case, at the end of the training days?
Anything that is intense enough to cause a physical improvement is training, not rest.
You rest by doing less not by doing more.
Active recovery is misunderstood by most: the moment the activity level becomes even slightly demanding, it INCREASES recovery needs, it doesn’t speed up recovery.
Walking is fine. Stuff like yoga is likely fine. Mobility work, within reason, is fine.
It’s not that you are not good at recovery. Is that the stuff you do on your “days off” is an additional stress, it’s not recovery.
Now, it’s not as stressful as what you do on your regular training days, but it is still training stress that you need to recover from.
it’s says all . can’t clarify,define better . thank you
In that case, if I want to have some cardio sessions like running, is it better to do it after training on the same day, or maybe to skip one training day and make cardio out of it? Or maybe just to end the training in a metcon fashion?
What are your goals with the running? That may help him with advice. Do you love running, are you trying to improve your heart health, do you have weight loss goals, is it about sports conditioning, etc?
Right, no info supplied, sorry.
I like to run, and to hike as well – both at a low effort level. I also want to keep my heart healthy. 45 yo, low fat level, I started few years ago with weight lifting. I went from 60 to 72 kg in that period; if I gain some more muscle will be good, but not my main target, I focus more on strength. I train EOD, lift specific.
I also do yoga everyday, very relaxed one (Yin yoga), no stress at all.
It really depends on you. How you are recovering.
Some people can do fairly demanding physical activity every day. Others will need 2 days COMPLETELY off per week others will need 4 days COMPLETELY OFF per week.
I cannot give you a universal answer.
Some people will get a lot of central fatigue both from cardio and lifting. Others only get fatigue from lifting others only from cardio.
Now, yoga is doable. But it’s a mistake to think that it doesn’t impose any stress at all on the body. Stress doesn’t mean being stressed. In a training context it means challenging your body so that it becomes better. If your yoga improves some physical capacity (including mobility) it represents a training stress. The fact that you are feeling zen and relaxed afterwards doesn’t change that.
It’s low stress mind you, which is why I told you that it can be done on off days. But if you are doing it daily, it certainly increases your overall physical stress over the week.
The thing is figuring it out how many TRUE rest days you need to feel good. And then divide all the work you want to do among those days.
But be aware that it might be unrealistic to want to do all of what you want to do and recover optimally. You might have to take something out or decrease the amount that you do.
Now, yes, there are better times than others to do some of the training types that you do. But the first step is figuring out what will be the optimal training to off days ratio for you.
From experience, most people should train around 4 days a week. Meaning 3 days completely off (except walking, mobility work, yoga if you are not doing it on the other days). You might be good with 5 days. But very few people should have more than 5 training days per week.
Great Read thanks can playing a Sport in the same day as the workout day could cause also Fatigue since I am not that good with recovery since I always feel best on a one day on one day off and feel my best when in the lifting day I only recover and on the next of day I do the sport which is like cardio or that could be also stressing me out
Hi! Great article!
Do you have any preferable carbs to fat ratio? I always keep prots at 1/1.2g per pounds.
I’m currently on week 3 of your Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters Part 2 sequence. You really stress that the most optimal way to follow the plan is to workout 6 days. Based off what you know now, is 5 days better? I’m a 50 year old lifter and even though it’s a strenuous program, it’s been an extremely effective program in terms of strength and size.
This is great. As some others have stated, I train every other day (Jay Ferruggia training program), and appreciate ‘what to do when you aren’t training’. The example of participating in a competition on a Friday was outstanding
Last year I remember you suggesting that one could do multiple sets with the same weight but really challenge yourself on the last one! Wouldn’t those additional non failure sets of the same weight be interpreted as junk sets tapping into your recovery? Or can they be used as part of the necessary volume for hypertrophy? The reason I ask is because on some exercise mostly big compounds I notice that I can do more reps on the last set of the same weight, it’s like the others were part of a warm up! Weird! By the way I am 67 so I am thinking just maybe my aging body needs that kind of warm ups.
Great article coach – and a valuable REMINDER for us iron addicts. I actually made my best gains when I was working out every 3 days. Full body – basic lifts – lots of weight – rest 2 whole days and then hit it again. Training LESS is difficult – because the “must train hard and frequently” paradigm is becoming more popular these days and many of us have a “hard work” ethic. Having a great home gym I have to stop myself from wanting to lift something every time I walk by the power rack. I like your advice to eat quality carbs even on off days – makes a lot of sense. Hearken back to the “old days” when 2-day/week regimen was highly suggested for big gains – that seems to have gotten lost in the newer training ideas.
How does this interact with training splits? If I normally do legs/push/pull/shoulders on four separate days, should that be it for the week if I train balls out? Or does the fact that each muscle group is getting several days of rest between workouts mean that I should keep it at 5-6 days a week? (4 split/1 rest/repeat)
Coach, thanks for the article. Always enjoy your point of view either on TNATION or THIBARMY. How does your position on Growth and Stimulation days impact ideas around Neural Charge Workouts? Would you simply include them on Stimulation days, and leave them out of Growth days?
Thanks for posting. All your articles and posts provide the best, basic information, in the easiest way to understand and apply. I appreciate how you also anticipate the arguments and address them. And yes, off days can be torture for iron addicts…and the iron addicts will always find a way to self sabotage the best advice …“I will just walk at a really slow pace on off days…for three hours…”
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