The Rest of the Basics
Today’s topic is about rest. Well, initially at least. It’s a very important part of the overall picture of making progress. Not everybody out there is going to be as dedicated (read: obsessed) with working out like I am, but that does not make taking time off any less important for maintaining gains and making progress.
Our lives are busier than ever these days. Technology and busy lifestyles have managed to drive us to exhaustion — and often we do so willingly thinking we’re having fun! Video games, movies and television, writing articles like this… all great examples of things that we enjoy (amongst many other technological activities) but they keep us going beyond what we perhaps should. The end result is a shorter night of sleep.
I average 6 – 7 hours a night of sleep. Sometimes more on the weekend, sometimes less depending on how tired my kids are. It’s really not enough to provide for optimal workout recovery, and it’s a part of why I often slip into a state of being overtrained. You can tell when you get overtrained because you body isn’t responding well. You may be irritable or tired, constantly aching, and unable to make any progress in the gym. An easier test is to take a pencil and pick a time range, say 20 or 30 seconds. Now time yourself and use that pencil to put dots on a piece of paper until the time is up. Just tap the paper as many times as you can. When the time is up count the dots. When you’re fresh and ready to go you should have quite a few. If you’re wiped out and overtrained you’ll be able to put down a lot less of those dots. That’s your nervous system telling you it’s fatigued and it wants a break.
So how do you get overtrained? Too much work for too long, not enough rest to allow recovery, not enough nutrition to handle the workload, too much stress, and working out in a weakened condition (ill, dehydrated, malnourished, etc.). Any one or more of those conditions can cause overtraining, and being overtrained sets the stage for a weakened immune system, injuries, decreased reaction times, and other bad things. Overtraining can also be a tool, if used very carefully, but more on that down the road.
As a living example of what not to do, I used to overtrain myself prior to a powerlifting meet, then I’d take the week off before the meet to recover. The last time I tried that I pushed it too far. Circumstances, a wiped out body, and too much CNS fatigue worked together to pop off the tendons connecting my pectoral to my arm. That’s a rather severe example of why overtraining should be avoided. Most people won’t have that sort of problem, but in the off chance you decide to play with extremely heavy loads and get very serious about it, pay heed and take care.
Back to resting to avoid overtraining and promote recovery and growth. For the majority of trainees most repair and muscle / strength gain happens when we are resting. The body goes into repair mode when sleeping. It’s not just about weight training either — why else would doctors recommend rest to help recover from an illness or injury? Outside of the muscular and skeletal improvements the mind and central nervous system also takes a break from stressors and resets itself. This is as important as the body fixing itself.
For the lucky few who have sponsors that allow them the luxury of working out a few times a day and not having to worry about punching a clock, rest is both even more important and a little bit easier to come by. A mid-day nap, for example, can help boost the body’s anabolic properties. I don’t know if any studies have been done to support this but I also wonder about hormonal release, especially in men. I do know that the average man has the majority of their daily testosterone generated and released in the pre-dawn hours of the day. For third shift workers I wonder if that timing changes to whenever they get their daily (nightly?) sleep in. I don’t want the results to this little test but for anybody working midnights, keep track of whether you’re waking up with a kickstand propping you up on your side or not – that’s a great indicator that you’re producing testosterone while you’re sleeping.
For the majority of us life is just too damn busy to catch a nap during the day. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to some days, but there’s nothing comfortable on my desk to lay my head on. So instead we have to try and do what we can to find as much sleep as we can in a comfortable fashion (aka a decent mattress and pillow, preferably a cozy bed partner as well). If that’s not enough to refresh the mind as well, work on finding relaxing activities to indulge in. For me that means writing, reading, or some other immersive activity that allows me to put the world and its stressors out of my conscious mind. Incidentally sex is great for stress relief too, but if you’re aching from a major workout and there aren’t enough endorphins in the world to make the trembling arms and legs stop, take a rain check on the nookie.
So go out and get some rest. It’s not a license to be lazy, it’s a requirement for maintaining the moist robot that is the human body.