Exercise Recovery: How Long Should You Rest Between Workouts?

man sitting after exercise

A man resting after a workout | Source: iStock

Exercise, diet, and recovery  these are the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle. While we tend to focus most of our energy and attention on the exercise and diet part of the equation, as we most likely should, the recovery step can’t be ignored. Anyone who knows anything about sleep will tell you that rest and recovery may actually be the most important element to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, particularly exercise recovery.

If you’re new to working out, or if you’re simply not seeing the results or hitting your goals, it may come down to recovery; your body might not be getting enough rest. And this is relatively easy to fix, you just need to allow your body enough exercise recovery to recoup from workouts, and make sure that you continue to fuel with the right combinations of food and drink.

One of the more tricky aspects of getting this right, especially if you’re a gym newbie, is timing. Say you’ve just hit the gym and gotten a workout in. How long, exactly, are you supposed to wait before you go again? You’re likely to get different answers from everyone you ask. Some people go every day, no matter what is going on. That works for them. Others swear by the fact that they need one or two days between workouts to properly recover.

protein sources including meat, fish, eggs, cheese, and nuts

Slection of meat, fish, eggs, and nuts | Source: iStock

So, who’s right? When should you actually take a break, and for how long?

What we need to dig into, to get our answer, is a process called muscle protein synthesis  or, the actual physiological and biological process of building muscle. When your body kicks into gear, it’s using up resources to expend energy. For example, when you lift weights or run, your body is burning through calories and other resources, while also using your muscles, and the muscle’s fibers and proteins, to get the job done.

Muscle protein synthesis is the process of repairing those muscles, by replacing the damaged proteins with new ones. And here’s where the magic happens: These new blocks are stronger and more resilient than their predecessors. That’s how you get stronger.

So, as soon as you start to exert force using your muscles, this process kicks into gear. Using the resources that you provide through your diet (which is why having a keyed-in diet is so important), your body will begin repairing and rebuilding itself automatically. Now, after your workout ends, it needs critical time to recover, and let the synthesis process run its course.

protein shake in a glass

Protein shake next to a shaker on a wooden table | Source: iStock

Supplying your system with protein, salts, and fluids after a workout can also help this process along. Which is why they tell you to choke down a protein shake within a given time frame after exercise.

But back to muscle protein synthesis; the trick is to let the process work, and then get right back at it with another workout. The time frame here varies from person to person, but you’re basically looking at a window that lasts between 24 and 48 hours, according to scientific studies.

During that time, your muscle-building processes will ramp up, and then drop to almost zilch once your body feels it’s been repaired and recouped. At the end of that process is when you want to start the cycle all over again, by getting another workout in.

Of course, you’ll want to be sure to monitor how you’re feeling, and what you feel you’re capable of. Everybody is different, as we said before, and that’s what makes this a difficult concept wrangle. But for the majority of people, if you give yourself a day or two between workouts to recover, you’re going to maximize your muscle-building potential. This is assuming you’re covering all the other bases as well, like getting enough quality sleep, and sticking to a clean, healthy diet. And having the discipline to stick to a workout regimen.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger

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