Rest: The Real Work

At the novice level of the Starting Strength program, as in many pure strength programs, you only lift two or three days a week.  The other days are for rest.  Period.  That has been one of the toughest mental adjustments for me, and it also seems to be one of the most difficult concepts for many of my friends at the gym to grasp.

In high school and college, I used to train for cross country races and for marathons.  Coach had rest weeks programmed into our training, and I struggled with those, with the week or two at the end of each season when Coach said we were not allowed to run.  I can remember in high school, coming home and trying to read poetry in the living room instead of running.  Forcing myself to be still.  My mind and my heart were not in it.  I wanted to be moving.  

As an adult that desire to keep moving translated into working out, moving to move, exercising to sweat and feel like I’d left it all on the floor in a spin class or on the road while running, pushing a baby stroller uphill to burn off stress or anxiety.  Without Coach enforcing rest weeks, I skipped them.  Sometimes I skipped rest days during the week too.  If I’m honest about why I did that, I’d have to say that exercise was, and still is, a coping mechanism for me – endurance exercise as a way to manage, to endure, whatever was bothering me at the moment.  Often that was a daily thing.  

Coming from that mindset, when I first heard Artemis say that training strength requires you to leave the gym feeling like you still have one more rep in the hole, one that you didn’t spend, the concept made no sense to me.  When Craig told me that to lift like he does, he takes 2-3 days off per week, I was a little stunned.  Even Tim, whose training for physique competitions has him lifting 5-6 days per week, usually takes a full week of rest before hitting the same body part again.  The rest and recovery might be less apparent in his program, but it’s still there.

As I struggled to adjust to all the extra rest in my new strength program, I tried to finagle a different answer out of Emily.  Right!  As if I could get her to tell me I could just lift lighter weights on my “rest” days.  Her reply: “Honestly, you should be doing nothing on your rest days. That’s why they are rest days. Walking is fine. Gentle yoga is okay. Conditioning work is not resting unless it is the light cardio stuff. Your rest day should be a real rest day. 😉 For some, a day in between is enough. For others, older trainees, two days off in between. If you want to get stronger, you have to rest. You have to pick your goal. Get stronger or get sweaty. Exercise or train. Pick your goal.”  Ugh!  Truth hurts.

But to look around, it’s not surprising that I tend to undervalue the importance of rest in training.  We live in a culture of “go big or go home”.  I have taught in facilities where instructors encourage participants to go “balls to the wall” all the time.  And so many people that I see at my gym come in and pound their bodies on a daily basis, even taking multiple classes in a row.  They work hard, rarely take days off, and never seem to have an off season.  They aren’t necessarily training for anything; they are exercising.  They don’t have a coach to tell them their body needs rest to rebuild, to make them take time off.  When they don’t see the results they are looking for, they figure they need to work harder.  When that doesn’t help, eventually some of them give up.  

There are many reasons why people exercise like this.  Some people are doing what they think is right based on popular fitness magazines.  Some claim they exercise so they can earn dessert.  Some seem to be punishing themselves for what they ate yesterday.  Exercise is a coping mechanism for many people, as it has been for me, and that’s ok; it serves that purpose very well.  However, even those who are exercising as opposed to training need rest.  If you’ve been undervaluing the importance of rest days like I have done, maybe it’s worth looking into the reasons why.  Those reasons are usually complex and deserve some attention.  The way Emily describes it, “Our rest days are the days when we are really working.  We’ve broken down muscle lifting heavy, and the rest days are when we do the real work of rebuilding ourselves stronger.”  Rest days are necessary to make gains.  Those are the days when we can get a little extra sleep, prep healthy food, take care of ourselves, and patiently wait to build strength.  Sometimes that’s the hardest work.