You’ve probably heard it before. Now you’ll hear it again: in an efficient training program, recovery is as important as working out.
Why do you keep hearing this? Because it’s true.
The Cycle of Training
The salience of sufficient recovery lies in a fundamental idea of training progress: to become stronger and faster, we must break our bodies down. This may seem counterintuitive, but understand we are stress-based organisms; thus, only when we damage ourselves can we rebuild—and when we do, we become a machine adapted to that stress. And so begins the cycle of training.
Let’s say you load up one small plate per side on a barbell and bench press the weight—in this case, 95 pounds—for four sets of eight reps. As a beginner, your body has rarely, if ever, experienced this heavy of a load in this plane of movement for this length of time.
The exercise hurts in the moment because the body is struggling to supply the energy necessary to perform this action. That’s the point. And the body will probably be sore the next day (and probably the day after that, too) because it is now scrambling to rebuild all those damaged muscle fibres. But the body is smart: when it repairs itself, its muscle fibres are now considerably more prepared to handle bench pressing 95 pounds for four sets of eight reps.
Do the same workout too many times in a row, and the body shrugs. It’s easy. No damage done. No need to rebuild. You are stronger than before, but progress has flattened.
So you create a new stress. Maybe you slap on larger plates. Maybe you add an extra rep per set. Maybe you add an extra set, or a drop set, or a superset. Maybe you switch to dumbbells or dips.
Whatever the method to your madness, it’s enough to stress your body again. More damage dealt. And, again, you return next week stronger than ever.
Assuming, that is, your recovery game is on point. Without giving your body a proper opportunity to recover, it’s unable to repair at maximum effectiveness; eventually, as unchecked damages accumulate, you risk becoming weaker. The body is telling you that the stress is too much, too often. The body fails you.
No. You failed your body.
Recovery During Training
Whether you have 15 seconds or five minutes to recover between sets, there are things you can do to remain productive. Rest during workouts is about recovering from your last effort while also preparing yourself for the next one. Here’s how to accomplish that.
Breathing Between Sets
Being in control of your breathing, both during physical exertion and at rest, is crucial to performing at your peak. After any set that sends your heart rate skyward, inhale deeply through the nose and exhale through the mouth. This will optimize new energy coming in, expel waste byproducts, and regulate your heart rate.
There are many levels of breathing skills—it’s not nearly as simple as one might think. I recommend Yoga, Tai Chi, or meditation classes to help hone your breathing technique.
Stretching Between Sets
Performing dynamic stretches between sets can work wonders for your mobility, especially in weaker areas, and particularly early in the workout when not every joint and muscle may be on board with producing or resisting force just yet.
Here’s an example. Doing squats? Perform a handful of hip openers after the first set and chances are your form will sharpen automatically during the second set. Note: this should not replace dynamic stretching during your mobility warmup nor your static stretches performed after each workout.
Timing Rest Between Sets
How long do you rest for? The answer depends on your workout intensity. The harder you work, the more you rest.
If you are doing all-out, 15-second sprints, you’ll want to rest for about three minutes before repeating the set. That’s how long it can take for your body to replenish upward of 100% of its ATP stores—and that is what fuels your body during short, extreme demands for immediate energy. Resting for only a minute or less will ensure your next sprint is not optimal.
Weightlifters typically rest between one and two minutes for hypertrophic intensities (75% to 85% of their one-rep maximum), which is enough to restore up to 85% of their ATP—an energy that is tapped into, but as dependent on.
For cardio-focused sessions, such as circuits and HIIT, rests are often at their shortest—always under a minute, and sometimes as brief as 20 seconds (Tabata). However, there may be rest periods of one to three minutes between full rounds. Resting between bouts of intense cardio allows you to perform at a higher percentage of your maximum heart rate, which boosts your aerobic capacity, or your maximum threshold for cardiovascular performance.
A steady-state workout, such as cycling for 60 consecutive minutes, will enhance your aerobic efficiency—spending less energy to produce the same results (or the same energy to produce better results!). This means you want to avoid resting at all, and instead maintain a pace that keeps your heart rate around 70% of your maximum.
Don’t know your maximum heart rate? Subtracting your age from 220 is a start; then use your monitor’s heart rate data from workouts to fine-tune it from there.
Performing this workout at an even lower intensity, interestingly, becomes its own form of recovery…
Active recovery is a workout performed at a light intensity and with less volume than your regular routine. This can include half-hour spins at less than 60% of your maximum heart rate, dynamic stretch routines or light yoga, and casual swimming or hiking.
Studies show that active recovery can actually accelerate recovery from high intensity sessions like plyometrics and volume-based hypertrophy. We all suffer at least occasionally from delayed onset muscle soreness, right? Well, active recovery the day after a DOMS-worthy workout can mitigate the looming soreness, research shows. Understand that you won’t be rewarded with gains—neither aerobic performance nor strength are enhanced from this type of training, data confirms—but given both the low risk and low cost of the tactic, it’s one worth adding to your playbook.
That said, if you need a mental break more than a physical one, feel free to skip this method and enjoy a true rest day…
There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a well warranted rest day. While most people don’t workout hard enough and often enough to incur symptoms of over-training, one rest day every week or so can be a helpful reset button for anyone—mentally as much as physically. High-level athletes often take several days off in a row after weeks of increasingly intense training. This is unnecessary for the general population though; maintaining a consistent rhythm of working out is a more beneficial strategy for most people.
If you give your body an opportunity to recover, it will take it. However, the best opportunity to recover isn’t during a rest day…
Sleep: Overtraining versus Under-Resting
You cannot overestimate the importance of sleeping well if you intend to train hard most days of the week. A bare minimum of 6.5 hours is required for optimal recovery and next-day performance; any less and you’ll negatively impact your training. Even if you feel fine for a few workouts in a row, eventually a lack of sleep accumulates and will eventually manifest it as symptoms of overtraining—except that, really, you’ve only been under-resting.
The sweet spot is between 7 and 8 hours, though an additional hour of sleep on top of that can prove beneficial without side effects, studies show. Again: the harder you go, the longer you must then stop.
Train hard and rest smart—that is how you get lasting results.