As any fitness guru or instructor will tell you, strength, endurance and general health improvements don't come during exercise. They come after exercise, during rest, as this is when the body repairs itself and responds to the stress you've just put it through. Still, exactly when you should rest, when you are training, is a little more murky.
A Very Loose Rule
The general guideline for any exerciser is to take at least one day of rest before you work the same muscles again. The body will use this time to fix damaged muscle tissue. Many athletes address this issue by developing what's known as a split, which is simply a schedule that lets them rotate once or twice through their muscle groups over the course of a week. If you want to do full body workouts and not use a split, the guideline is to take at least two rest days a week.
Despite the general guidelines for rest days, you must take delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) into account. DOMS happens when your muscles develop microscopic tears, which cause swelling, inflammation and stiffness. Bringing your muscles through a very light workout has been shown to reduce DOMS, but if you are in so much pain that it's difficult to move, don't ignore what your body is telling you. Back off and keep resting until going through your regular motions at a reduced weight load or speed is tolerable. Keep in mind here that DOMS is usually worse following workouts focusing on eccentric contractions, as well as after workouts where you've suddenly bumped up the endurance or weight load requirements significantly. The method in which you work affects when you'll be able to get back in the gym and what you'll be able to handle once you're there .
Your Complex Systems
Exercise influences just about every system of your body. The nervous and endocrine systems, for example, both get stimulated. These systems need a chance to recoup just as much as your muscles. Depending on your health status and how hard you're pushing, one day might not be enough recovery time before working out again, even if you've developed a split. Being unusually sluggish, having poor concentration, not sleeping well and getting sick frequently can all be your body's way of telling you to let up.
There are differences in heart tissue and regular muscle, but the heart is, nevertheless, a muscle, and it simply is not designed to handle exertion after exertion without a break. If you wear a heart rate monitor and notice that your heart rate is higher than normal despite adequate temperature, sleep, hydration and nutrition, this is your body's way of telling you that it's not quite ready to get sweaty again.
Rest is imperative to any good fitness program as it lets your body fix the damage you've created so you get stronger and healthier. There is not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to when to rest, however. Ultimately, you have to listen to your body based on the type and intensity of your sessions, paying attention to cues like DOMS, distress signs like illness and your heart rate.
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