Here’s Why You NEED Recovery Days To Build Bigger Muscles
You’ve heard it many times before. It’s harped on by all major fitness magazines, articles, and experts.
Take a break.
Your body needs recovery time. And although you hear about it, maybe you don’t take it very seriously. Maybe you think a few hours overnight is enough. Or maybe you plan on resting on the weekend…next weekend.
In this article, we get to take a deep dive into a topic that’s uncharted for many. We’ll look at the science, the physiology, and the importance of the recovery days.
To understand that, we must understand the science behind muscles, what we’re doing to them when we workout, and how to get more muscles by (unintuitively) doing less.
This is a crucial topic for anybody doing training of any kind. This is for athletes, weightlifters, Crossfitters, runners, swimmers, and anybody else working toward a goal of their own.
Society tells us that rest is lazy. If a doctor prescribes a patient rest for two weeks to recover from an injury, we applaud the person who is “up and at ‘em” in one week. We tend to view recovery and rest and weakness and make it a goal to avoid it at all costs.
Let’s break down why that’s such a dangerous mindset, and what real muscle growth looks like.
The Physiology of Muscles
Your muscle is made up of many different fibres. In a previous post, we talked about how muscle growth works and how the hypertrophy of muscle fibres differs with varying strength training workouts.
There are two methods that impact the performance of a muscle; the strength and thickness of the fibres, and the neurons that fire signals into them.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot that can be done to increase the speed of your motor neurons in the gym. But we can affect muscles by increasing the strength of the fibres. This is most commonly known as strength training.
How Muscles Grow
Most people believe that if they work hard in the gym, that’s how their muscles grow. But muscle growth occurs in the rest periods between workouts, not the workouts themselves.
As with any type of strength training, you put a strain on your muscle tissue and it tears. As long as you put more burden on that muscle than you are accustomed, you will be stressing it. That micro-trauma is essential to what comes next.
When your muscle cells indicate that they’ve been stressed to the point of failure, they respond with an increased demand for synthesised protein. So your body responds by breaking down protein into amino acids and uses those amino acids to refold, flip, and reorder them into muscle tissue. It repairs the microtraumas and increases the muscle tissue to handle the strain for next time. That is how your muscles grow.
The Physiology of Rest
The stress, tension and damage you cause to your muscles on purpose must occur to trigger a protein synthesis response. Any type of training must demand stress on the body or it’s ineffective. And when that stress comes, your body needs time to work through the recovery process.
After a workout, this response to stress can last for 24-48 hours at a minimum. It does not need to feel sore in order to have been stressed, although that can be a good indicator that the muscle has some form of microtraumas. As you rest, your body increases growth hormones while you sleep, and sends protein cells to repair the inflamed and torn muscle tissue.
You might feel sore with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), but that might not set in for a couple days. You might not even notice any pain at all. But the importance of rest occurs whether we “feel like it” or not.
The Risks Of No Recovery
If you don’t allow the muscles to experience a reprieve from stress, it can actually atrophy the muscle, the opposite effect of what you intended when you went in to the gym.
Almost every strength training program that’s been created by experts contains a rest period built in. You work out one day, rest the next. Or maybe you work arms one day, and work your legs the next day.
The importance of rest is also to prevent injuries. One of the greatest risks in the gym is overtraining. Your body can actually get sick from exposing your muscles to excessive stress without enough recovery time.
If you train because you don’t feel sore, because you want to push through the pain, or because you’re just a “tough guy”, your body will respond with warning signals that you are doing more damage than good.
One of the areas that people most neglect to rest is with cardio. If you’re a runner, you’re exposing your body to stress the same way a weightlifter exposes his arms or legs to stress on the weights. But with the sport of running, participants tend to ignore rest periods and run every day. This is also overtraining and your body can give you flu-like symptoms and restless sleep because of it.
In Addition to Recovery Days, You Need…
Rest is crucial to a good workout, but it’s not all you need to push harder in your next workout
One of the keys to building stronger muscles is to have enough of the macronutrients you need to feed your muscle repairs. That means that you should be eating a healthy balance of protein, carbohydrates and fats when your muscles require fuel to burn and amino acids to rebuild.
On days when you expect to work hard, increase your calorie intake in carbohydrates, the fuel that’s quickly broken down to sugars, powering you harder through your workout. Pair that with good quality complete protein like lean meat, eggs, fish or soy. Your body can synthesise this protein easily and break it down into necessary amino acids for your muscles’ use.
Supplements can be your best friend to recover from a strenuous workout.
As you workout, you deplete your stored energy (the ATP molecules in your blood and muscle tissue), and you depend on HUGE amounts of protein to combat the protein stress you have put your muscles under. Taking quality supplements can ensure you’re covering all the essential nutrients your body can’t always get from food sources.
Use a supplement like Creatine to build up that lost energy that was stored in your muscles. Your recovery time depends on replenishing that storage so you have enough energy to work hard next workout. Take this after a workout to power your muscles with ATP when they need it most.
Use a casein protein supplement to build up protein overnight and during extended rest periods. Whey protein acts incredibly fast. Synthesised in minutes, it begins repairing those tired, aching muscles immediately when taken after a workout and is great first thing in the morning.
Branched Chain Amino Acids also aid your body to synthesize proteins faster, giving you those essential amino acids that your body needs to work better during recovery. Take these before and after a workout.
Society may tell you that sleep is for the lazy. Many successful people boast of sleeping only 3-4 hours a night. But that is harmful to your fitness and strength goals. Rest should always includes a good night’s sleep.
Your body needs this time to produce the Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which is only released during sleep. Your muscles depend on those growth hormones to stimulate the muscle fibres to increase in density and strengthen. You also want to be mentally alert for a good workout. Focusing on form and movement is easier when you have a rested mind.
Typically, an adult needs a minimum of 6 hours of sleep per night, but the optimal goal is 7-9 hours. It’s interesting to note that some of the hardest trainers that we know - Olympic athletes - regularly depend on 7.5-8 hours of sleep a night.
The Importance of Rest
We cannot stress this enough: Your body needs to recover.
This cycle of stress/recovery is how muscles are made. The better you are at understanding this principle of how your body works, the more advantage you’ll have when planning out your recovery times.
Of course, you can always tell people that you’re building muscle as you chill on the couch watching Netflix.