Why Rest and Sleep are as Important as Exercise (Or even more!)

You probably know this already, but resting, and especially sleeping, can actually result in increased muscle mass and therefore, strength. Of course, I’m not saying you’ll wake up buff one day if you sleep 12 hours a day, but you will notice an improvement if you get the necessary amount of sleep and take periodic rest days between training.

What happens when we sleep?

It would take a full dissertation to go into every aspect of it, but here it is in a nutshell. When we sleep at night, our body goes through several processes of regeneration and even detoxification which are essential to the proper functioning of our bodies. When we go to sleep too late or get up way too early, or simply don’t get enough hours of sleep, our bodies skip some of these important processes and this results in tissues that are not repaired and toxins that are not removed from our bodies.

How does sleeping affect my gains at the gym? What happens if we don’t get enough quality sleep?

When we exercise, we stress our muscles to the point where the tissues must repair themselves, thus making themselves stronger so that the next time they are faced with the same challenge, they can step up and handle it. This is why we increase resistance and/or repetitions in order to continue seeing gains. However, when the above-mentioned processes don’t take place and we end up with unrepaired tissues, the gains will be reduced, the muscles will actually still be a bit torn up, and the next workout will only continue to break them down. It’s kind of a ‘two steps forward one step back’ situation, which means you’re cheating yourself out of some major gains by not getting enough good quality rest. You’ll see gains, but you could see more.

This is also the idea behind the old custom of having leg day/upper-body day. If we don’t work the same muscle groups back to back, they should be getting enough rest in order to regenerate and strengthen. Now we know it’s not that simple, and we can use the much more beneficial full-body or compound exercises on alternating days while “resting” by doing alternate, lighter exercises on the other days, like swimming, jogging, yoga or unweighted exercises. Or simply, if maintaining, one could exercise on alternating days and take the days in between off altogether; staying active, but not working out perse.

This kind of rest isn’t enough, however. Besides not overworking the same muscles day in and day out, we must allocate the right amount and quality of sleep so that our body can repair itself and we can reap the full benefits when we hit the matt again on our next strength training day.

How much sleep is enough?

This is a completely subjective question, as we all have different requirements. Doctors agree that six to eight hours of sleep are usually enough to recover from our daily activities. However, that changes with age, type and intensity of activities one is involved in throughout the day, and the individual’s general state of health. If one is sick, for example, the time spent sleeping will more than likely be used dealing with the illness and not repairing muscle tissues. This is exactly why we get body aches when we have the flu; our bodies focus all their resources on fighting the flu virus rather than repairing cells as they usually would. And the flu virus does nothing but destroy cells, so make sure you get enough rest when you do catch the flu.

Another thing to remember is that certain processes happen at specific times during our sleep cycle and if we are not asleep when they are supposed to happen, they will not take place. One example of this is detoxifying, which usually happens close to sunrise, which, if we’re not asleep at the right time, can affect our digestive system, making us feel heavy, tired, and… backed up.

That said, I find that the best way to figure out how much sleep you need is to set aside a couple of days when you have nothing to force you to bed late or to rise early. Go to bed relatively early the first night (between 10:00 pm – 12:00 am) and don’t set an alarm. Sleep until you wake up naturally and see how long that was. Since you may just be “catching up” on missed sleep, you may end up sleeping more than eight hours. Then repeat the routine the following night and see how long you sleep that time. This should give you a rough idea of how much your body needs to recover on a regular day. You should feel nice and refreshed on the second morning.

Once you get a feel for what your healthy “sleep number” is, strive to get as close to it as often as possible. And remember that it’s not just the amount of sleep that matters, but the quality of sleep. Turn off all screens and avoid staring at your phone (or watching TV) an hour before bed (tall order, I know…). This video from Seeker does a great job explaining this, so check it out! This should all help you feel less stressed, more rested, more alert, and speed up your gains at the gym. But there’s more than sleep to this equation.

How often should I rest? How much time do I take off from working out? How many off days should I take?

While getting the appropriate amount and quality of sleep will benefit your body’s ability to heal itself, therefore making you stronger faster, there is nothing like taking full days off to truly allow your body to recover and your muscles to rebuild better and stronger.

Some athletes choose to not take any days off or take just one day off from exercising; and while that works for them, taking a couple of days off, at least every now and then, will not hinder your gains and will actually do the opposite. If, after working your butt off all week lifting, hitting the matt, running, or doing any kind of training, you take two whole days off truly off!-, and get a full night’s rest each night, you will see a noticeable increase in strength come Monday!

I’m not even kidding! I’ve experienced it myself plenty of times when, for whatever reason, I had to take 3-4 days off from exercising because my schedule didn’t allow it or I was out of town, or just decided to take some time off because I was feeling burned out, when I came back and worked on my usual training, I was stronger! I was able to increase my reps and/or resistance and last longer! I didn’t lose strength by taking a few days off, I increased it. My muscles had enough time to not only recover, but they also rebuilt themselves to be stronger.

Another great example is my friend who is suffering from a temporary case of Lupus as a side-effect of a medication she is taking. Lupus eats up your muscles, leaving you weak and making physical activity very difficult. However, as she also had a fall a few years back, she also had back problems. But she didn’t let that stop her. She eventually joined a gym and hired a personal trainer who has helped her strengthen her muscles and bones. After a few months, she started seeing the wonderful results of being active and started to feel better, little by little. Then the holidays came and she went home for a week, where she did absolutely nothing but sleep in, eat good food and relax. Guess what happened when she hit the gym again? She was actually stronger and able to do things she could do before her vacation! Her body had enough time to rebuild itself and strengthen! Now, with that newfound information, she continues to make progress and heal her body with the right food, exercise, but most importantly, rest.

So if you just can’t stay put, or it kills you to take more than a day off from working out each week, give it a try at least every now and then! Give yourself a little vacation every few weeks. You could even take 3-4 days off when you’re ready to change up your routine and you’ll see how you’ll come back stronger and super ready to keep adding gains!

But, as with everything, don’t overdo it with rest either. After about a week of inactivity, we actually start losing muscle tone and conditioning, so sticking to 1-2 days off weekly is best and when taking a “reset” time off, it’s best to take no more than 4 days off, unless you really feel you could benefit from a whole week of recovery, which is sometimes the case when we overdo it at the gym. Just listen to your body! (But you know that already 😉 )

So next time you feel like taking a day off, do it! Your body will thank you for it by getting stronger!

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