Are Recovery Days Necessary or Just a Trend?

Lauren Bedosky
by Lauren Bedosky
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Are Recovery Days Necessary or Just a Trend?

Conventional fitness advice says you should avoid doing back-to-back full-body strength-training workouts. The idea is that, to avoid injury and fitness plateaus, your muscles need at least 48 hours to recover and rebuild before you can hit them again.

THE RESEARCH

However, new research suggests you may still see strength gains when you perform a total-body strength routine multiple days in a row.

Researchers from the University of Porto in Portugal randomly divided 21 men into two groups: one group did a total-body strength workout three days in a row, while the other rested at least 48 hours between workouts. Both groups did the same strength routines, which involved 3–4 sets of 7 exercises to hit every major muscle group. By the end of seven weeks, both groups made comparable increases in strength, as measured by a one-rep max leg and bench press.

Similarly, a new study published in Frontiers in Physiology – Integrative Physiology had 30 recreationally active young men perform the identical total-body strength training routine 3 times per week for 12 weeks. Half of the group did the workout 3 days in a row, while the other separated their workouts by 48–72 hours. Again, both groups saw similar improvements in strength by the end of 12 weeks.

According to the authors of the first study, strength training on consecutive days may be temporarily beneficial for people with tight schedules who can only train three days in a row. While training three days in a row elicits greater muscle soreness, four days of rest should be sufficient for adequate recovery, authors say.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Still, experts believe it’s best to give yourself at least 48 hours of rest between full-body strength workouts, especially if you’re a beginner (i.e., you’ve been training for fewer than six months). If you’re new to strength training, chances are you won’t be able to bounce back from back-to-back sessions very well, says Michael Piercy, MS, certified strength and conditioning specialist, IDEA personal trainer of the year 2017 and owner of The LAB in Fairfield, New Jersey. And if you’re overly sore (or worse, injured) from training too hard or too often right off the bat, your likelihood of sticking with the exercise program goes down.

“For me as a coach, the first thing is to always do no harm,” Piercy says. “I want them to be consistent and keep coming back.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

That said, you can still exercise multiple days in a row — so long as you keep some of those workouts low-intensity. Just pick any low-intensity activity you enjoy and use it to keep your muscles engaged while you recover from your workout the previous day. “What that ends up doing is it actually helps your body recover from your workout and increases your work capacity, meaning you can handle greater training volumes down the road,” says Johnny Tea, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of JT Strength Therapy. Great options for an active recovery day include light cardio (e.g., walking, jogging, easy cycling), foam rolling or mobility work, swimming and tai chi.

In case you’re wondering: On a scale of 1–10 — where 1 means you’re sitting on the couch and at 10 you’re going all-out — moderate-intensity training is right around a 4or a 5, whereas high-intensity is anything at or above a 6, Piercy says. Try to keep your active recovery days around a 3 or 4, especially if your workout the previous day was high-intensity.

If your schedule is packed, and the only way you’ll be able to squeeze in the 2–3 days of full-body strength training (recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine) is to do them on consecutive days, try to structure your workouts so you won’t overload the same muscle groups.

For example, one day you could perform a full-body “push” routine to work the muscles involved in pushing weight away from your body (i.e., chest, triceps, front of shoulders, quads). You can target these groups with moves like pushups, dips, overhead presses, squats and forward lunges. The next day, do a full-body “pull” routine to hit muscle groups that pull weight toward your body (i.e., back, biceps, rear shoulder muscles, hamstrings). You’ll work these muscles with exercises like pullups, biceps curls, rear delt flyes, deadlifts and reverse lunges.

If you can, work with a certified personal trainer. After all, a fitness professional can create a program based on your schedule, experience level and how many days you want to train every week. “What you don’t want to do is go in [to the gym] blindfolded and wing it with random full-body workouts,” Tea says.

About the Author

Lauren Bedosky
Lauren Bedosky

Lauren is a freelance fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Men’s HealthRunner’s WorldSHAPE and Women’s Running. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with her husband and their three dogs.

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