Horizontal color image of woman taking a break from weight training in gym.

Rest days: 6 signs you need to rest and when to take a recovery day from the gym

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Worried about when to take a rest day or how often should you be taking days off from the gym? Here’s how and when to tell your body needs time to recover… 

If you’re into fitness, there’s a high chance you’ve questioned how often you should train and whether you’re doing enough. But have you ever thought of asking how often you should rest instead? 

In a world where more is regularly seen as better, you might think that there’s plenty of reasons to skip your rest and head to the gym, lace up for a run or dive into an Instagram HIIT workout no matter what. News flash: being part of Team No Days Off isn’t going to make you any stronger, fitter or faster. Rather, ignoring your body when it’s telling you it would rather sleep than sweat will probably hinder your progress (and leave you feeling utterly pants).  

Why do I need rest days?

“The way that I think of it is that the time in between your sessions is where the progress is made,” says personal trainer Lauren Slater. “During the workout itself you stress the muscle tissue to force it to adapt to this new stimulus. The period that you take in between your training sessions is when your body repairs and adapts so it fares better the next time you put that stress on it.”

While some people can adapt very quickly to training and can continue to progress without a lot of rest, other people do need more time to work on recovery. “I’ve never been someone that recovered particularly well if I go over, say, four training sessions a week. But that has taken a lot of trial and error to figure out, so everyone needs to find a way to discover out what works for them and what their body needs,” Lauren adds. 

Knowing what your body wants is difficult. That’s particularly true if you’re new to exercise, are used to being on a plan that dictates when you train and rest or simply don’t know the signs to look out for. 

A woman tired and sweaty bent over after running.
Rest day: how to tell if you need to take a day off

When do I need a rest day?

You have sore muscles 

Muscle soreness is something that’s almost encouraged,” says Lauren. “But we know that muscle soreness, primarily, comes from new forms of exercise, so that could be something you’re not used to doing or increasing the amount or intensity of your usual exercise. If someone was getting sustained soreness after every single session despite already being quite skilled at their chosen form of activity, I would say that’s a really big red flag for needing more recovery days.” 

What about training on sore muscles themselves? Say, for instance, you did a lower body workout on Monday, and had planned another one a few days later. But Thursday rolls around and you’re still feeling stiff. If you think you can manage it, “it’s fine if you want to train on slightly aching muscles, but think about whether that will impact your progress over time,” says Lauren. The chances are that you won’t do your best squatting session if your muscles aren’t fully recovered, and “you won’t see the strength gains you want from overtraining.”

You’re fatigued

There are so many reasons you might be more tired one week to the next, be it where you are in your menstrual cycle, mental stress or not fueling your body enough – and training can also impact your fatigue levels. If you’re having an exceptionally tired week/month/period of time, adding in more rest days can be really beneficial.

“We can’t always get it right, because we don’t necessarily always know how well recovered we are,” says Lauren. For example, you might turn up to the gym thinking that exercise will help to boost your energy levels, only to learn that this tiredness really isn’t going to subside. “Trial and error is totally OK, and it’s important to have a bit more compassion with ourselves for the days we can’t do as much as before, or we walk into the gym and turn back around again.

“I would say that if you are in a more stressed and fatigued state, your recovery is likely to be hampered anyway, so it is potentially wise to tail back the intensity of your sessions.”

A woman struggling to wake up in the morning, lying in bed yawning.
Rest day: you might want to skip the gym if you're struggling to sleep.

You had a bad night’s sleep 

It’s not just about long term fatigue levels. It’s totally OK to skip a workout because you simply didn’t sleep well the night before. “Sleep is one of the main things that you can do to ensure better recovery and to help with the adaptation process,” reminds Lauren. Not getting enough of it doesn’t only mean you’ll be too tired to perform well, but also means your body won’t have properly recovered from the session the day before.

You’re injured 

Hopefully it goes without saying that you shouldn’t be training with an injury. But even the little niggles that are more annoying than life changing can be a sign to take some time off.  

“If you have some recurring injuries, such as knee pain or lower back aches, they tend to flare up when you’re not resting enough or recovering well,” says Lauren. In the same way you’d take time off for an injury or DOMS, taking time off for any smaller discomforts is totally OK and will probably benefit you in the long run. 

You’re hungover 

While people swear by the idea that they can ‘sweat out a hangover’, it’s really, really, really OK to not go to the gym when you’ve been drinking the night before. In fact, it’s probably better for you to push your workout to the next day. 

“If you’re wanting to prioritise performance in your exercise then drinking a lot is not going to help that. You might want to do something to get your body moving, but the level of activity that is appropriate will depend on the person,” says Lauren. 

Let’s not forget that alcohol is something your body has to process, so if you’re working hard to break down the drink, adding the extra stress of exercise may do more harm than good.  

You’re busy 

Read that again. Being busy is a totally valid excuse to take a rest day. It’s all about priorities, and sometimes a looming deadline at work, a catch up with a friend or a bit of extra sleep is more important to us than nailing a PB. 

“Most people don’t have the time or desire to train six days a week,” reminds Lauren. “Particularly now, when we’ve just been released out into the world a little bit, your priority right now might be to fill the social cup and that means not pushing as hard in the gym because you might not be recovering as well. That’s just life – we have to balance a lot of plates.”

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Images: Pexels / Getty

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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