If you work out hard on a Monday, you’ll be a bit fatigued on Tuesday. You can still go to the gym, but your performance may suffer a little. That prospect may leave you wondering if you should stay out of the gym until you’re fully recovered, or how pro athletes get away with working out every day. Let’s take a minute to talk about recovery and timing.
Rest days are a simple way to pace yourself, but they’re not the only way
If you’re just getting started with an exercise program, resting a day between workouts is often recommended. Couch to 5K asks beginning runners to rest every other day; so do Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5×5, which are aimed at people new to powerlifting (the squat, bench, and deadlift).
This is a good strategy for beginners, mainly because it limits the number of hard training days. Every training day is a hard day at first, and this way you get a good mix of working hard and taking it easy.
But after a few months of working out regularly, you’ll be able to handle more than zero work on your light days. Experienced runners often think nothing of doing a light jog every day, much like we all have a baseline level of activity (standing around at work, walking the dog) that our body barely registers.
This is true for lifting, too. One strategy is to alternate upper-body and lower-body days, so you’re not working the same body part twice in a row. But you can work your whole body every day if you want to.
The important thing is to keep an eye on how much work you’re asking your body to do, in total. Even though I lift 5-6 days a week, the intensity varies. For example, heavy deadlifts are the hardest to recover from, so I usually only do those once a week. Most workouts for me are full body, but medium intensity, and often at least one day is a “fun” day where I’ll do lighter work: some accessories and cardio, for example, or technique work that doesn’t leave me feeling too fatigued.
For an endurance athlete, the principle is the same but the schedule might look different. For example, during marathon training a runner might do speedwork or strength training on Wednesday, and a long run on Saturday. The other weekdays would be short, easy runs. Think about it: you need to run a 15-miler at some point in your training, but most of us would be exhausted if we tried to do a 15-miler every day.
Varying the length and intensity of workouts through the week can keep the total demands on your body to reasonable levels. That’s why it helps to use a training plan, written by a coach or other professional, that gives you a sense of when to go hard and when to go easy. Couch to 5K and Starting Strength do this for beginners; when you get more advanced, the idea is the same but the specifics of the training plan will adapt to keep challenging you.
We accumulate fatigue, and that’s fine
So, here’s a puzzle. If you’re new to exercise, or if you’re ramping up your schedule to include more workouts, you might notice that you can’t do as much in the gym on your second day as you could on your first. You’re working harder, and yet your performance declines. What’s up with that?
While it might seem logical to conclude that you’ve done too much and need to back off, it’s important to keep perspective. If you’re feeling fatigued all the time, that might be the case. Or if you just doubled your workload from one week to the next, then yeah, you’re probably doing too much too soon.
But slight differences from one workout to the next aren’t a big deal. If you could do ten pushups on Monday, but then on Wednesday and Friday you can barely get to seven, that’s fine. That’s normal. Keep working on it, and soon the sevens will become eights, and the eights will become tens, and before you know it you’ll be able to bang out 15 on a day you’re well-rested.
When you do fully recover, you’ll be a beast
The truth is that every workout makes us stronger in the long term, but slightly fatigued in the short term. If you were to wait until you were totally, fully recovered before hitting the gym again, you’d barely train at all and you wouldn’t make much progress.
Instead, we train through it. If you’re preparing for something where performance matters, like a race or a powerlifting meet, your training will get harder and harder, up to a point. Shortly before the competition, you’ll ease up just enough to allow your gains to shine.
For a marathon, that’s a three-week-long taper. For a 5K (a three-mile race), it’s just a day or two of rest beforehand. If you’re heading into a powerlifting meet, you’ll lift a bit less than usual for probably a week or two before meet day.
Every workout that you skip during this taper sacrifices a little bit of long-term improvement, but also frees you from short-term fatigue. If you want to test your max number of pushups on your own, for example, you can accomplish the same by just taking a few days off before the day you plan to test. And chances are, you’ll get a lot more reps after proper training and rest than you ever did the first time around.