At a recent family function, I had a very interesting conversation with one of my fiancé’s distant relatives. He’s a young adult who’s just starting to exercise and is hoping to build muscle without adding too much bulk. Unfortunately, it was very clear that he was going about it completely wrong; overtraining, overusing pre-workout supplements and not eating the right foods. The biggest mistake that he was making though was not allowing enough rest and recovery time into his regiment, which is really the deal breaker for getting the body of your dreams.
In previous posts, I’ve mentioned how important it is to get a good night’s sleep, but what we haven’t really discussed in depth are the benefits of recovery time and rest days. A real problem among active individuals is overtraining; the mentality here is that more is better, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. When you exercise you actually cause damage to your muscles and its fibres, so without the proper care and rest you end up doing more harm than good to your body. Your body starts its recovery process once your workout ends by repairing the damage that you’ve done which is what ultimately leads you to building more muscle. Think of it this way: Your workout alone doesn’t lead to muscular gains, but in combination with your recovery it will … if done correctly.
To start the process of recovery, your body needs nutrients ASAP following your workout so be sure to consume a meal within 60 minutes (at the very latest) after you’re done. In order to replenish your glycogen levels it is important to consume carbohydrates along with a lean protein, in fact consider a ratio of about 2:1 of carbs to protein, but keep the fats to a minimum as it will slow down digestion which your muscles definitely do not want after a tough session in the gym. A good option is a protein shake mixed with juice, or for something heartier go with some white rice and grilled chicken or tofu.
The next step is to look at how often you workout each week and how long your workouts should last. For those who have very physically demanding jobs (for example personal trainers, construction workers, professional movers, etc) and who also happen to include a lot of heavy weight lifting into their routines, four days per week is plenty. For those of us who have office jobs or who have less physically demanding careers, 5-6 days per week is a safe bet. Now it’s important to include both cardio and weightlifting into your routine (as I have mentioned many times before) and remember that doing the exact same exercise and working out the same body parts day after day will get you nowhere. Aim for 3-4 days of weight training each week and break it down by down part (i.e. back/biceps on day 1, glutes/hamstrings/quads/calves day 2, shoulders/abs day 3, and chest/triceps day 4) and include cardio 2-3 days per week. In terms of cardio, be careful; interval training can damage the muscles and ultimately make it harder for your body to preserve it, but it is great for fat loss so if you are concerned about preserving muscle go easy on HIIT training and include a bit of steady state into your routine instead. That being said never let your workouts last for more than 1 hour; studies show that if you exercise for too long in one timeframe, your body enters into a catabolic state meaning that instead of burning fat you burn muscle which is very bad and leads to a whole slew of other issues. Some say that your workout session should be less than 90 minutes, but even that may be borderline overdoing it so proceed with caution. It doesn’t take much to overtrain and sometimes you may not even notice it happening to you, keep your workouts under 1 hour and don’t worry too much if you can’t fit in six days of training into your schedule. If you feel like it’s too much than it probably is. It’s also a good idea to keep in mind that you should never do weight training for more than 3 days in a row in a given week; trust me on this, if you try to lift weights for the fourth straight day, your body will not be pleased and you’ll barely be able to complete one set. Consider doing 2 days weights followed by one day of cardio and so on. Like I said though, if you can’t keep up with it and if it really feels like it’s too much, then you should reorganize your workouts. If you have to choose between cardio and weightlifting, go for the latter as too much cardio will inhibit muscle growth and can give you that skinnyfat look in the long run and the more muscle you have the more calories you burn throughout the day.
Now let’s look at actual rest days, and by rest day I mean non-workout days. You absolutely must take at least 1 day off from exercising each week, which means no power walks, hikes or bike rides (an active recovery day is not a rest day). My fiancé’s relative had mentioned that earlier in the year he worked out 42 days in a row before he took a rest day! That’s horrible and even he admitted that he could see the poor reaction that his body was having to the overtraining. The best and most effective piece of advice that I can share and that all of the really ‘in shape’ people typically follow is this: every ten weeks, take one full week off from working out. This is a very tough one for people to comprehend and to follow, but it seriously works. Your body needs time to heal itself and if you never take time off from working out it will be in a constant state of repair instead of a state of growth, which will block its ability to burn fat while preserving muscle.
As for my own workout schedule, well for the moment I’m focusing on weight training 5 days per week and my workouts last about 40 minutes. I’ve unfortunately had to cut out cardio due to a foot injury, but it’s probably a good thing as I could have easily started overtraining had I included cardio along with 5 days of weights. So now I include more deep stretching that doesn’t cause any kind of strain on my foot, instead of going for a run or heading out to Zumba class. It’s really important to listen to your body as it trying to tell you how it feels. If for example during your workout you start to feel hungry (which happened to me recently) it’s a pretty good sign that you either haven’t eaten enough or that you ate your pre-workout meal too early. If you can’t hold the proper form or feel pain while weightlifting then that usually means that you need to reduce the amount of weight that you’re lifting or that you’ve actually injured yourself. Regardless of what signals your body sends you, adjust accordingly. You’ve only got this one body and the worst thing would be to damage it beyond repair and then be stuck with it for the rest of your life. Speak with your doctor and enlist the help of a personal trainer as needed to help you reach your goals safely. Rest up and let your body heal itself so that you’ll be stronger than ever!
Start It, Finish It