The Blessing of Rest

Sometimes in conversation, you see a version of yourself reflected back to you.  The other night I saw in some friends the same struggle to understand the importance of rest in my current pure strength program that I wrestled with at the beginning.  We were talking about our training for that day and describing our usual programs.  Both of my friends described circuit style work, moving quickly from one exercise to another without a conscious focus on rest between sets; the rest seemed more the accidental by-product of the amount of time it took to move from one station to the next.  I described my lift that day, a heavy lift that actually involved moving for reps and sets more weight on some lifts than I had previously ever moved.  Rest was essential in order for me to get each rep; my rest between sets on the really heavy lifts was a minimum of five minutes.  My friends looked at me with something akin to horror and said, “Yeah… See… I could never do that.  I need to keep moving.”

I know exactly how they feel, because that’s the same mindset I had when I started training pure strength, and it’s something I struggle with too.  “I know!”  I told them.  “When I first started training this way, I had a hard time waiting.  I have to set the timer on my phone to make sure I don’t try working again too soon.”  I told them the story of one of the first Saturdays I trained that both Diego and Emily were there.  Emily had been stressing the importance of rest between sets with me over several weeks and apparently had mentioned it to Diego.  He noticed that I was sitting down on an empty bench waiting for my next set, as opposed to pacing around, and he pointed this out to Emily as though describing a victory.  Emily laughed and said, “Yup, I’ve trained her to sit.  It’s obedience school around here.”

Being still and just sitting is difficult for me, and as my conversation with my friends indicates, this is a challenge for many of us.  I think this resistance to being still is not isolated to our experiences in the gym.  I go through a lot of my day in a state of fairly constant motion.  I believe a lot of us are like this; this is the pace at which our culture encourages us to move.  The state of constant motion in which we live was the starting point of one of Pastor Earl’s sermons, aptly delivered at the start of the school year as our more spacious summer schedules started to get jammed up and on a Sunday when two of the readings addressed the idea of Sabbath.  The Gospel lesson was one in which Jesus was criticized for having worked on the Sabbath, and the reading from Isaiah contained God’s announcement that honoring the Sabbath leads to blessings.  Pastor Earl helped us break down what “honoring the Sabbath” meant historically; Sabbath was originally a gift of rest for the Hebrew people following their enslavement in Egypt when they were forced to work 24/7.  He explained that many of the rules of keeping the Sabbath that might seem silly or extreme to us originated out of a desire to protect that blessing of rest, and that to a certain degree they are necessary:  “In reality, these rules are not silly. Why, just look at how we’ve filled our days and weeks to the brim so that pausing, resting, and focusing on our relationship with God gets shoved aside. We are modern slaves to our work, our way of life, our pursuit of financial comfort, and our accomplishments used to define ourselves.”

Maybe our desire to have more, be more, and do more requires each of us to establish some of our own rules of Sabbath in order to honor it.  Pastor Earl explained that Martin Luther detailed the two main purposes of Sabbath in his Large Catechism as being “first for our health and second for making sure that we gather and worship God.”  Pastor Earl invited us to find the method that worked for us.  In the gym, many of us use the timers on our phones to ensure that we don’t attempt our next set before our minds and bodies are ready; some read articles on the internet; sometimes we talk; one girl reads Harry Potter.  The method we use to protect that rest is less important than the fact that we do.  Find your own way, but take up the invitation:  “Carve out a little time each day to sanctify, to make the day holy for you. Carve out a day every week to sanctify, to make the day holy for you. We don’t have to get legalistic about it … that eventually leads to more work and stress. But make that part of that day and that day of that week something where you pause and remember God.”  Find the blessing of rest that is both needed and promised.

Mind the Rest

Emily yelled at me for the first time the other day. From all the way on the other side of the turf room. While she was in the middle of leading her basic training group. Yell is not really the right word, but she was stern. “No! … No! … I do NOT want to see that again.  From now on, I’m the only one who will spot you.  That was NOT enough rest between those sets.  Now you have to wait for ME if you want to lift!”

I was in the middle of my working sets on bench, and Emily was busy.  I didn’t want to interrupt her, but mostly I just didn’t want to wait.  I was impatient.  Instead I asked Adam to give me a hand off and to spot me.  The bar didn’t feel all that heavy on my previous set, and I wanted to get through my lifts a little faster.  Turns out Emily was paying more attention to everything that was going on in her gym than I realized, and she knew I had not waited long enough for working sets.

“OK,” I said meekly and then hopped on my phone to text Tim: “Shit!  I just got yelled at.  Didn’t take a long enough rest.”  Tim’s response: “Rest between sets???”  Remembering one of the fundamental differences between the way he trains for hypertrophy and the way I am learning to train strength is length of rest time, I replied, “That’s something you know nothing about.”

Emily came over to check in with me and to explain again to a slow learner about the importance of rest between sets when your goal is to build strength. “THIS is about getting stronger,” she said.  “It’s about adding more weight to your bar each time, not about adding reps or ‘working legs’. If that was the point you could do anything. This is about building strength. Training the whole body to be stronger. About prepping your body to get your reps on the next set. This is NOT conditioning. This is NOT Crossfit. It is NOT circuits. You need the rest to allow your body and your mind to recover for the next set.”

Tim texted back again teasing, “Wha…rest.  Haha?”  This time I had a clearer understanding, which makes for better ammo.  “You don’t know about rest because you have no discipline!  You’re just chasing pump! I’m building strength. HA!  Strength is a process.”

Practically speaking, I know that Tim rests.  Practically speaking, I know that his training is a process that takes discipline too.  His rest just looks a lot different than mine.  His rest between sets is minimal, sometimes non-existent, but it’s always there between lift days.  He is just as mindful of the importance of rest as Emily is.

Somehow in that moment, this experience reminded me of a conversation I had a few days prior with a guy in my 6am bootcamp.  He told me he had been raised in a family that emphasized goals.  Once he reached one goal, he was expected to start plugging away at the next; no rest for the weary.  As he got older, he started to feel like reaching his goals wasn’t all that satisfying.  His wording caught me, “You may be way beyond this already, but I’ve been reading a lot about mindfulness recently.  I think what was missing for me growing up was that I wasn’t encouraged to celebrate my successes.  We were so busy moving with blinders on trying to get to the next goal that we never took time to recognize what we’d done.  I think it’s important to do that, even if it’s just a small goal.”

He’s right, of course.  We do need to pause, to rest, reflect and be mindful.  But he’s also wrong.  Clearly my impatience to get to my next working set on bench indicates the degree to which I am not “way beyond this”.  I was too busy trying to check bench off my list so I could get to deadlift.  Just like the younger version of my boot camp friend, I was so focused on my next goal that I didn’t allow myself time to process the work I had just done.  Too impatient to be mindful.  I suspect that often I’m not much different outside the gym, but neither is our culture.  Americans value hard work.  We are encouraged to multi-task, persevere, and work tirelessly to get to the last item on our daily agenda before collapsing into bed so we can do it again the following day.  Do that for five days straight, cram as much fun into the weekend as possible, and then repeat.  Sprinting through our days with blinders on, forgetting that we are engaged in a process, a long-term project of building and growing ourselves.  The rest might look different, but growth doesn’t happen without it.  Sometimes it takes as much discipline to carve out a dedicated time to rest as it takes to do the work.  Maybe we could all use a loud voice from across the turf room, interrupting our non-sense, reminding us to take time to allow our minds and bodies to recover.

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.