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How to Plan (and Enjoy) Rest Days in Your Exercise Program

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I have never been drawn to the weight room by the promise of improved aesthetics. But somewhere between an engagement proposal and an upcoming dress try-on, I found myself sucked into the pedal-to-the-metal exercise motivation vortex.

Must. Work. Out. Every. Day. Or. Else.

Ten days of exercise in a row later, my alarm went off at 4:45am after a broken night of sleep. I rolled over to press snooze with the intent to still make my 6:00am group training class. The only trouble was, I felt so heavy in just turning over, that my mind woke up trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with my body.

“Whoa. When was the last time I took a day off from exercise? What’s the gym’s cancellation policy? If I had to do a burpee right now, I might never get back up. I’m still sore from a few days ago.”

The internal debate continued. Eventually, I made peace with not making my workout appointment, vowed to make a better rest day plan going forward, and granted myself two glorious, guiltless hours of sleep.

Do you find yourself debating rest days like I do? Do you find yourself asking:

  • How many rest days should I plan each week?
  • What’s the science behind a rest day?
  • What are the signs I should take an unplanned rest day?
  • If I want to work out on a planned rest day, should I?

I went back to the textbooks and the latest research for both of us. And I will boil down here exactly why rest days are so important for you and for me, and how we can use them to our advantage.

How to Plan (and Enjoy) Rest Days in Your Exercise Program

How to Plan Rest Days Into Your Workout Program

First, let it be said you’re much less likely to feel “bad” about taking a day off from working out if it’s strategically planned. Planned rest can be included in any level of exercise programming:

Novice: Three workouts per week. Rest every other day.

Intermediate: Four to six workouts per week. Alternate high-intensity days with low-intensity days. Workout two or three days in a row, take one rest day. Repeat the pattern to complete the week.

Sample Week Pattern:

  • Day 1: Heavy lifting
  • Day 2: Low-intensity cardio
  • Day 3: Rest
  • Day 4: HIIT/metabolic conditioning
  • Day 5: Endurance lifting
  • Day 6: Rest
  • Day 7: Cross training

Advanced: Cardio in the morning. Strength in the evening. Work out three days in a row. Take a rest day. Consider a long Saturday session.

Sample Week Pattern:

  • Monday Morning: 30-minute easy run
  • Monday Evening: Deadlifts and core work
  • Tuesday Morning: 20 minutes of stair sprints 1-minute on/1-minute off
  • Tuesday Evening: Back, biceps, and rear delts
  • Wednesday Morning: 30-minute hill walking
  • Wednesday Evening: Front squats and lunges
  • Thursday: Rest day
  • Friday morning: Chest, shoulders, and triceps + 20-minute easy run
  • Saturday morning: Full-body circuit + 45-minutes total of moderate-intensity cardio
  • Sunday: Cross training (yoga, hiking, etc.)

Find a way that works for you to program your workouts and planned rest in advance. I love a good old-fashioned wall-hanging calendar. Just like meal prep, Sunday night is a great time to write in my workout/rest schedule and sign up for any classes I plan to take in advance. I then enjoy the process of crossing these workouts and rest days off as the week progresses.

Download the "Beginner's Exercise Plan That Works" E-Book

Level Up: How to Use Rest Days to Maximal Advantage

Rest days serve many purposes. They allow your muscles to heal and recover after challenging strength-training sessions or prolonged cardiovascular endurance training. They give your body an opportunity to work through inflammation that can result from exercise, called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Rest days also can give you energetic advantages for the next day’s workout by increasing your enthusiasm to be back in the gym and bringing your body back to a ready state.

So why not use rest days to cushion your most challenging workouts?

For example, if I know I’m going to work my upper body on Monday and do a challenging leg workout on Tuesday, I might take Wednesday off as a reward, using that day to focus on good sleep and nutrition. Or, if I know sprints are the most challenging type of cardio for me and I plan to do them on a Monday, Sunday would be a great day for me to take total rest in preparation.

How Can You Tell if You Need an Unplanned Rest Day?

Even if you’re an experienced exerciser, your plan will not always work. External stressors or unexpected physical fatigue from a hard workout may lead to you calling an audible when it comes to an unplanned rest day.

What are the signs that you need a rest day, regardless of the “plan”?

  1. Elevated resting heart rate or blood pressure
  2. Decreased exercise performance
  3. Reduced appetite
  4. Disturbed sleep pattern
  5. General soreness
  6. General irritability

Simply put, exercise stresses the body. Following a bout of exercise, the body fights to return to its normal state. Absolutely, we can all get stronger from placing ourselves under strain. However, if that strain is constant and, moreover, coupled with poor sleep and poor nutrition, the body’s sympathetic nervous system will become aggravated. This leads to a faster breathing rate, higher resting heart rate, and lower heart rate variability.

How to Plan (and Enjoy) Rest Days in Your Exercise Program

To help you become aware of these rest-day predictors, you might add notes to your workout log relating to your sleep quality, nutrition, and soreness level. Technology can also be a big help in this area, so let’s take a closer look at two numbers that many people find useful to track in pursuit of (or avoidance of) rest days.

How to Use Data to Predict Your Need for Rest Days

Resting Heart Rate (RHR)

RHR is an easy go-to indicator that all modern heart rate monitors can provide data about. Average resting heart rates are between 60-100bpm. Fit individuals may have resting heart rates lower than 60bpm. Resting heart rate can become elevated if the body is under duress, stress, overtrained, or coming down with an illness.

Resting heart rate should be taken before you stand out of bed, over the course of one minute. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, try taking your radial pulse for one minute. To detect an elevated resting heart rate, you will need to establish a baseline over a week’s time. If your average resting heart heart rate is 60bpm, and you note that it has gone up to 70bpm on a particular morning, that likely is an indicator you need a day off.

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

HRV is the number of milliseconds between successive heartbeats. By rule of thumb, fitter individuals have a longer amount of time between heartbeats as their cardiovascular systems have more powerful cardiac output per beat. Once you have established a baseline HRV, then decreases in the amount of time between beats is an indicator you need to rest.

Gear that can provide reliable data about HRV include:

Note: There seems to be a lot of debate as to whether any type of HRM that does not involve a chest strap provides reliable enough HRV data to analyze. Therefore, products like FitBit and Apple Watches are not referenced here but remain reliable sources for data about resting heart rate.

Should You Ever Ignore a Planned Rest Day and Exercise Anyway?

There’s a big difference between making excuses to skip exercise and feeling like an under-rested ton of bricks. The aforementioned data points only serve to back initial feelings you may have about whether you should or shouldn’t work out on any given day. If you’re feeling the symptoms of overtraining, that unplanned rest day could be the greatest thing that ever happened to your workout schedule.

How to Plan (and Enjoy) Rest Days in Your Exercise Program

At the same time, if every time you land on a scheduled rest day, you find yourself feeling like you want to work out despite what your planner says, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Could I have worked out harder the day before this rest day? (Also known as: Did I have more to give?)
  2. How can I make my planned workout for tomorrow so tough that I really need this rest day today?

Still not satisfied with staying home? Before you go break all the rules, consider a low-intensity day or an activity outside your normal choices to prevent burnout.

The Keys to the Recovery Kingdom

If you’re hell-bent on working out as often as possible, as many days a week as you can, the following practices can increase your body’s turnaround time in preparedness for your next session:

  1. Get eight hours of sleep per night (with no sleep debt to pay off)
  2. Follow a nutrition program tailored toward recovery
  3. Practice active recovery at the end of your workout sessions (Ex: a 10-minute jog, hill walk, or bike ride at the end of a workout will reduce next-day soreness)
  4. Get regular massages
  5. Experiment with cryotherapy (you know, that super fun ice stuff)
  6. Wear compression garments
  7. Regularly perform mobility work and/or foam rolling

Believe it or not, the world’s fittest athletes take days off — sometimes even a full week or two off following a competition. Their coaches endorse and enforce these rest days, and when these days are over the expectations for performance are high.

But whether you’re planning to go to the Olympics or aiming to slide into a mermaid-style bridal gown, a day off will pay off toward your end game. So, take a rest and love it.

Liz Marmesh
Liz is a NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and 200HR Yoga Instructor. Liz has been in the fitness industry since 2003, working in fitness education, fitness management, personal training, and group fitness in Boston, South Beach, Los Angeles, and the DC area. Liz graduated from the University of Miami with a Masters in Exercise Physiology.

A believer in constant movement, Liz has partnered with clients of all types to achieve various end goals. You can catch her teaching yoga at Ballston CrossFit in Arlington, Virginia.