130117 (A Treatise on Rest)
I’ve heard a lot about rest days lately, it was the subject of an entire Barbell Shrugged podcast (EP. 42) and I see people complaining about how terrible it is to take them. I’m sorry that working so hard 5 days a week makes the other two days a week so intolerable for you. Maybe you could find something productive to do, like research why rest days are so important, or cook something delicious for your “talk hole”, or just sleep cause you probably aren’t getting enough of that anyways. Deep breath. If I haven’t lost you yet, great, you’re a step ahead.
Types of Rest
Rest days should in theory be the easiest thing to understand about strength, conditioning and fitness, right? I mean all you need to do is…do nothing. Obviously it sounds much easier than it is, and I would be a hypocrite if I said I’d never stressed about resting. Not to get all fourth grade book report on you all but rest, according to wikipedia and physics is a pretty simple concept; “Rest in physics refers to an object being stationary relative to a particular frame of reference or another object.” More applicably – if I’m looking at your on your rest day, you should be stationary relative to everything else – e.g. passed out on the couch, ideally with a dog on your stomach and full of bacon. Of course it can never be that simple, well maybe on Sundays.
For the purpose of this conversation I’ve split rest into three categories; sit-on-your-ass rest, passive recovery, and active recovery. I won’t belabor the first point, SOYA rest is what we all truly think about when we see the words “rest day” on our respective programming platforms. This point does, however, provide a good launching point for the discussion of rest in general. Let’s look at the importance of rest and rest days in any training regiment. Odd’s are at one point or another you’ve argued yourself into the thought that training 6 or 7 days a week, or 9, maybe 10 days in a row is a good thing. That you’re working hard and you’re intense and going after the goals you’ve laid for yourself. This was me when I was 21, and 6 weeks later I had tendonitis and was wondering why my strength was going down. You burn out, you get tired, and performance decreases – this is science.
At this point most people look to their idols, and the latest issue of “Blast your biceps 8 days a week until all the girls want to have sex with you”, and you ask “Bob-ray Bodybuilder can lift heavy things 6 days a week, this is America where we’re all equal, surely I can do the same and in no time I’ll be 1968 Arnold Schwarzenegger!” One of my favorite writers in the realm of fitness is Lyle McDonald who writes,
These are the genetic elite, training full time with no job or life stress, and juiced to the gills. Unless you have all those things going for you, you shouldn’t try to emulate their training. And given that a massive percentage of elite athletes report being overtrained, perhaps even they should be training less frequently.(The Important of Rest)
Let that sink in for a minute. Yes all humans are 99.8% genetically identical, and yes physiologically and biochemically we are easily more similar than we are different. You’d be surprised what that .2% can do however, the difference in muscular function, energetics, mitochondrial function, and even nerve conduction are remarkable. That of course is the first flaw in our plan to become super-human. The second which was, until recently, not openly acknowledged by many, is drugs. I won’t re-hash the news of the last 5 years that is rippling through professional sports beyond the realms of bodybuilding and weightlifting; nor will I turn this into a discussion on the matter. Drugs exist, they can be used relatively easily and with a fair amount of safety given a certain disregard for longevity. So next time you’re getting ready for bed and asking Twitter followers if you should rest the next day, I hope you think of this.
Now that I’ve talked you off the overtraining/overreaching ledge, we’ve arrived at the precipice of active and passive recovery. At least one day a week, you should rest passively, maybe once every 10 days if you’re young and sleeping a ton and getting massages and recovering well. Passive rest is identical to SOYA rest that I outlined above with a key excepting that you should get your blood flowing, just not to a great degree. This is a great day to play with family, take a nice walk, go to the zoo, find something that interests you and do it! It shouldn’t feel like work or exercise, if you sweat you’re doing it wrong, or it’s hot out. Stay away from gyms or boxes. At most I throw in some light foam rolling, maybe a massage, and some extremely light mobility work, not even with a band if I can avoid it.
This brings us to the second, and arguably more interesting section of recovery, active recovery. In practice active recovery should look a lot like a deload week, but in day form. Again, I refer to Lyle who summarizes it pretty simply, “In contrast, active rest (aka active recovery) refers to a workout done at a reduced intensity and volume of loading (relative to a normal workout).” (Active versus Passive Recovery) The take home behind active recovery is that you should feel better than when you started, it should not be fatiguing or taxing in any way. Active recovery has a few advantages beyond passive recovery from a physiological standpoint, actively promoting recovery by shuttling blood and nutrients to tissues, simply letting recovery happen without adding training stress and potentially regenerating damaged mitochondria. Beyond this though is the technical aspect of Crossfit, and here’s were active recovery takes very different form.
Active recovery days allow for a great deal of technical work, and in a sport with as many techniques as Crossfit, this presents a unique opportunity to improve compared to passive recovery. For me this often takes a couple different forms, the first being the “feel” of my double under, if I don’t do double unders for a day or two I lose them for quite some time and often suffer the consequences. The second is Olympic weightlifting or weightlifting, the “feel” of good hip contact, tripple extension, and the third pull is not something that is as easily recaptured as I’d like, at least not yet, so getting light, low volume reps in with just a barbell, maybe even a ladies bar, is a good place for active recovery. Another recent experiment of mine that I’ve been meaning to return to is Yoga, for those of us with flexibility concerns a day off can turn us into tin men without our oil cans, finding a moderate intensity yoga flexibility focused routine can do wonders for both flexibility and finding that refreshed feeling.
Active recovery does of course have it’s drawbacks. First to mind is that anyone with nagging injuries is likely to exacerbate them if choosing the wrong type of recovery. An example might be someone with chronic bicep tendonitis choosing to work on Olympic technique causing that to flare rather than some of the inflammation subsiding, it will stay inflamed and likely cause trouble during the next true session. Be honest with yourself and weigh the costs and benefits appropriately. Which brings me to the second drawback that I experience constantly, the idea behind active recovery is to refresh and invigorate, if you do it correctly about 2/3 in you should feel pretty good, and leave feeling better. The moment I start to feel good the desire then becomes to harness that feeling and workout, push myself until it doesn’t feel good anymore. This is where active rest becomes your downfall, now instead of recovering the volume and intensity climb and overtraining follows, along with injury and burn out.
Conclusions – Which is Better
The general consensus is that active recovery is more beneficial if it can be executed properly, but similar to deloading, is often not done correctly and thus diminishing all benefit. In this case passive recovery becomes the top performer, total rest is better than no rest at all.
Put more succinctly: when in doubt, do less not more.
…most people train at too high of an intensity far too often…
In terms of getting the most out of the hard workouts, it’s necessary to be rested, and that usually means interspersing them with much easier days to allow recovery.
The hard days can’t be hard enough, the easy days are too hard and the whole week ends up being this weird sort of medium intensity across the board.
Clearly, to improve fitness (or whatever kind), the hard workouts need to be hard. Hard enough to stimulate fitness gains.
But that also means that the easy days need to be easy.