Why You Need to Take Days Off When Training

Walking is a good exercise to maintain fitness as we age.
Walking is a good exercise to maintain fitness as we age. (Airman 1st Class Gabrielle Spradling/U.S. Air Force photo)

Think of a day off from training as a recovery day. Mastery of your physical, mental and emotional recovery is a key ingredient to longevity and optimal performance.

For the young who are seeking optimal performance, longevity is typically not part of the training plan. Starting in middle age, longevity and keeping the necessary optimal performance to do your job effectively with minimal pain becomes the goal, especially in the tactical professions.

Optimal performance and longevity require recovery and an understanding of what "training days off" means.

When it comes to taking a day off, there are many options. You can relax completely and stay out of the gym or avoid training altogether. You also could pull back and do an easy day, like a mobility day.

A very common way to aid recovery and still see progress is to utilize smart split routines so you can rest muscle groups from day to day while still training regularly. Many people fail by working the same muscle groups through weight training or calisthenics on back-to-back-to-back days. This is where training days off or smarter split routines are needed the most.

Consider this list of options for "training days off" that can help you see better progress and avoid injuries and burnout:.

Real Day Off

Just as you need a day or two off to relax from work, you also need days off from training. Less is more when you are dealing with optimal performance and longevity.

A recovery day when you're training hard is going to help you see improved performance when you are on the higher end of the fitness spectrum. A recovery day is going to be beneficial to desired outcomes for many who are hitting challenging workouts and focused on performance, muscle growth and longevity.

Even on a day off, you should get quality sleep and pay attention to calorie consumption. You also don't have to be a sloth. Doing yard work or walking are good recovery-day activities that can be considered as part of a day off.

Some time away from high-repetition calisthenics, heavy weights and running miles will do the body good, but do not get in the habit of taking too many of these days in a row. Just as training hard every day is not the optimal option; taking too many rest days in a row can be equally problematic.

Recovery Day

People who use this option are often still going to go to the gym, but they pull back 50%-75% on the intensity of the workout and perhaps focus on easy-paced cardio or stretching. Using a sauna, hot tub or getting a massage are all active ways to block the time in your workout to focus on recovery.

One reason why a recovery day is popular is that it keeps a training time in the schedule. You maintain the habit of training while doing therapies that will improve performance and overall well-being. The mobility day is a classic example of a recovery day, one that can be truly life-changing if you add it to your schedule even just once a week.

Split Routines: Training 6-7 Days a Week

If you prefer to train daily, you need a smart split routine that has built-in recovery. This type of recovery will be different from those described above, but a recovery day for specific muscle groups is an effective way to see progress and still train daily.

A common way to continue training on consecutive days is to use the upper body/lower body/cardio combination. On day 1 of the week, you focus on the upper-body exercises of your workout. On day 2, you focus on the lower-body exercises (aka leg day). On day 3, you do a cardiovascular training day that classifies as a resistance training day off. Add some stretching to your cardio day, and you have a nice method that will allow you to train as many days in a row as your schedule or body allows.

Repeat the upper/lower/cardio split throughout the week as desired. Making day 7 (typically Sunday) a day to reset is a smart recovery option, though, especially if you're doing heavy lifting or adding in a high volume of calisthenics or running.

Where Many Go Wrong

Unfortunately, many young people who are starting on their fitness journey will train daily, doing the same few exercises day after day after day. Your body may be able to handle this daily training for a few weeks, but, soon, growth will stagnate and you'll start to see negative results.

If you only do a few exercises, there are other possible negative results. Muscle imbalances start to form, and injuries are more likely to happen. Many see this with daily push-ups or biceps curls. A young person may see quick results at first, but less-than-optimal gains and performances are soon to follow.

What prompted this article was a recent experience I had with an older gentleman who wanted to do his first-ever pull-up. After a year or more where he lost significant weight, he was now at a healthy weight that made it more likely that he would be able to do pull-ups.

I had him on the above split routine, and he accumulated three upper-body days a week by focusing on push and pull muscle groups. Because a pull-up was not an option at this time, he built up his back muscles and biceps by doing a variety of "easier than pull-up" exercises.

I noticed after nearly three months he was not getting anywhere on the program, and I saw him in the gym working, so it made no sense. After discussing nutrition and sleep, I asked whether he was doing any other physical activity outside of working out. I found out he was doing biceps curls and rows at his house on the days between the upper-body days, for 6-7 days a week in total.

After some explaining of the basics of muscle growth and recovery, we replaced the extra credit biceps and row exercises with an additional 20 minutes of walking. He did his first pull-up today after three weeks of doing fewer pulling exercises each week and adhering to a smart split routine that gave him four pulling days off per week. Once again, less is more.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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