Although a cliche, ‘a change is as good as a rest’, could not be more relevant that when it comes to exercise. From time-to-time, I have found it beneficial to either “mix-up” my exercise regime or take some time away from the gym, particularly when recent gains have plateaued. My rationale behind this is two-fold:
Overtraining and rest
Over-enthusiasm to exercise can sometimes be more destructive than a lack of enthusiasm. In an effort to get quicker results it can be tempting to over-exert, perform longer workouts or exercise too often. Such activity leads to overtraining. I am sure we have all seen examples of novice body-builders training arms everyday – yet they never seem to make real gains. The reason for this is overtraining the muscle; basically not giving them time to recover. Such activity will eventually lead to injury.
The science behind muscle fatigue can be quite complex, put simply, when a muscle is at the point of fatigue the muscle fibres are broken down and structural proteins are added, in a process called hypertrophy. It is therefore important to allow a muscle to recover fully before fatiguing it again, otherwise this process cannot occur and the muscle will be injured. In essence, if the muscle is sore from a previous workout, leave it to rest.
The length of rest-time for each muscle ‘group’ (e.g. Shoulders, Back etc), can vary. As a general rule-of-thumb, 48 hours should allow most muscles to recover; exceptions to this are notably Stomach muscles and Calves which can be trained pretty much everyday.
For regular gym-goers, over-training is hard to avoid, since a muscle can be fatigued as a ‘side-effect’ of performing another exercise. Therefore, care must be taken to isolate muscles during exercise so as not to fatigue those muscles in the recovery phase. An example of this when performing the Bench Press as it also heavily fatigues the Triceps and Shoulders too.
To avoid over-training, I prefer to train each muscle group once a week only; making sure to isolate during an exercise where possible. However, best results are evidence based and there is no ‘one-size fits all’ solution here. So try different rest periods and see what works best for you is my advice.
Changing the workout
Changing the style of your workout periodically, whether it be which exercises you perform or the intensity (repetitions vs weight) gives best results. Mixing-up the workout has the effect of stimulating different muscles (known as ‘shocking’). This approach is best where gains have plateaued, whether your goal is weight-loss or weight-gain.
Personally I like to make whole-scale changes to the routine itself. By trialing such methods as Extreme Volume Training, HIIT, Pyramids or Supersets, I have managed to avoid the plateau. I will cover the specifics of these in a later post.
Changing your mind
Besides the physical aspects, don’t underestimate the psychological one too. As aluded to in my post: Riding the Motivational Wave, loss of motivation or being stuck in a rut, can be destructive. Changing the workout or just simply taking timeout can sometimes really help you mentally. By setting realistic short-term goals, motivation will remain high, especially if you expect a change or rest when they are reached as a form of reward.
I have found 6-8 week periods work best for me over the years. Although sometimes a little longer if I have an event – such as a holiday or competition. This approach has kept me motivated for over 3 decades now, so cannot recommend it enough.