One of the most common reasons people fail in their quest to gain muscle mass is because they fail to appreciate the importance of rest to the muscle building process. This may be most frustrating way to fail because these people do possess the hard work ethic that so many others lack.
Many if not most beginners (as well as more experienced trainers) spend way too much time in the gym.
When these efforts fail to give them results, they increase their workout time. And when that doesn’t work, they increase it more and eventually burn out, deciding that they just can’t build muscle no matter what they do.
It isn’t hard to identify the source of the “beginner’s logic” that produces this approach – an outsider looking in assumes that building muscle is all about how much time you put in at the gym.
When the average person encounters an impressive physique he will say, “Boy, I bet that guy works out a lot.”
The truth is that diet, training and rest are all critically important to the muscle building process.
What you should say when you encounter an impressive physique is, “Boy, that guy works out, eats well AND provides his body with sufficient rest.”
It is hard to convince people that you can train too much. Give the enthusiastic beginner a workout schedule that has him training for only 3 or 4 hours a week and he has the tendency to assume that you are being conservative, that you simply don’t realize how determined he is and how hard he is willing to work. He thinks that if he doubles or triples the schedule he will double or triple his results.
Bodybuilding does not work that way. You must understand the importance of rest to the muscle building process.
The Dangers of Overtraining
Often referred to as “burn out” in athletic circles, overtraining is when the body becomes overwhelmed by the demands being placed on it.
Overtraining Syndrome (OTS) is a clinically recognized condition characterized by feelings of fatigue and depression, increased cortisol levels (stress hormone that breaks down muscle tissue) and decreased blood-glutamine, testosterone and DHEA levels among other indicators.
Overtraining occurs when the body incurs more damage than it has the opportunity to repair and rebuild. When you train with weights, your goal is to initiate small tears in muscle tissue with the hope that the body will then repair and rebuild that tissue to be stronger. These tears are necessary to stimulate muscle growth but they are, at least temporarily, muscle damage.
If you do not allow the body the opportunity to adequately repair this damage, you will begin overtraining. OTS is a progressive condition. If you continue to train beyond the body’s repair capabilities you will progress into an increased state of OTS.
Early warning signs for overtraining include persistent feelings of fatigue and decreases in performance. If you start feeling more lethargic than normal, it is wise to consider backing off your training until these feelings disappear. Likewise, if you did 8 bench press reps at 100 lbs. fairly easily on Monday but have to strain to do the same set on Wednesday and then can only do 7 reps on Friday, this is not telling you that you need to increase your training frequency but rather that you may need to decrease it.
The cure for OTS is rest. A minor case can be managed by a few days away from the gym coupled with a decreased training regimen. A more advanced case will require longer periods of complete rest for the body to exit the OTS state. Supplementing with glutamine has been shown to speed up recovery.
To avoid OTS, you have to give the body the opportunity to repair the damage you create – You have to give it adequate rest.
How Much Rest Does The Body Need?
The rate with which the body can properly repair and rebuild muscle tissue will vary by the individual. There are numerous factors that influence this rate – everything from genetics to nutrition to other life-stresses.
The intensity with which you train (the effort you put forth) also impacts how much rest you will need. The prescription for muscle mass gain is training with maximum intensity. Done correctly, a mass gain training session will place great stress on the body.
Athletes new to intense weight training have a tendency to judge their ability to recover based on previous training sessions for their respective sports. Understand that the goal of a mass gain training session is to inflict maximum amounts of the small tears critical to the muscle building process. While the prescribed sessions may be short, they will require more recovery time than other forms of training.
As suggested on the main weight training program page, the following four rules should be enough to keep the typical trainer pursuing maximum muscle gain out of OTS danger:
The 4 Rules
- Each muscle group should be directly worked just once to twice per week if training with splits and 1-2 times if training with full-body routines.
- Each training session should be completed in under an hour. Studies have shown that you have a slightly less than 50 minute window from the time you begin really intensely taxing your muscles (after stretching and warming up) to the point where your weight training starts becoming progressively less effective in a rapid manner. Cortisol production increases and muscle protein is depleted.
- There should be a maximum of five workouts performed a week.
- Every 8-12 weeks, a one to two week break from the gym will help rejuvenate the body.
These are general guidelines. It is certainly true that some people may find they can recover faster than these guidelines allow. These people simply have greater recuperation abilities. It is also true that some people will find that they make greater gains by allowing for more recovery time – for some working a muscle group once per week can be too much.
Your ultimate goal should be to find your optimal ratio of training to rest. While pursuing that goal you want to lean more towards undertraining. You will gain more muscle undertraining greatly than you will overtraining a little.
I often get emails…
…from guys who are doing the six-day-a-week, 2-hour-a-day type of routines (obviously getting no results) and I give them the basic advice presented above…
Invariably, if I hear back from them, they choose to train each muscle group twice a week, do 5 workouts a week and take a one week break every three months. In other words, they choose the absolute most training within the set parameters.
While this is fine and shows a definite improvement from their previous schedules, it also shows that they have held onto the “beginner’s logic” that originally lured them into those insane routines – that the more they do in the gym, the better the results they can expect. This is disastrous logic when it comes to bodybuilding.
With this mindset, the trainer will continually try to conquer every obstacle and plateau with increased training. This mindset is singularly responsible for more frustration from prospective mass gainers than any other source.
To achieve maximum muscle gain, you simply must respect the value of adequate rest to the muscle building process. To work past a plateau, increased training can sometimes be effective but just as likely, probably more likely, backing off will be the ticket to getting muscle growth restarted.
Getting Quality Rest
The biggest part of the rest equation is sleep. Don’t do all else well and let your mass gain goals drift away because you fail to get adequate sleep. What is adequate sleep? This will vary by individual, but most likely you will need eight plus hours to be fully rested. Like most things, it is more about quality as opposed to quantity and “good sleepers” can get by with less.
If you are having difficulty waking, if you’re hitting the snooze button a dozen times, you aren’t getting enough sleep and you should realize that your muscle building goals are being negatively affected.
There are numerous general health benefits that can be obtained from simply getting a good night’s sleep. A big one is better cardiovascular health – sleep deprivation has been linked to a hardening of the arteries.
The importance of sleep is amplified for the person trying to gain muscle mass. It is when you are sleeping that your muscle building hormones come out to play – your body secretes the greatest amount of growth hormone about one hour into deep sleep.
Tips For Better Sleep
- Taper off your water intake in the hours leading up to bedtime (don’t want to be getting up all night
- Make your final meal of the day a smaller one with a small amount of carbohydrates (an overactive digestive system can affect sleep)
- Avoid strenuous activity for a few hours previous to hitting the pillow. Allow your body and mind time to unwind and sleep will come.
A good night’s sleep can be the final piece of the puzzle that catapults your body into a growth mode. Don’t overlook it. You’ll wake-up more alert, improve your concentration skills, be healthier, stronger and more prepared to give maximum intensity in your next bodybuilding workout.
Beyond sleep, you can also increase the quality of your rest time by managing your stress levels. The more stress the body has to deal with, whether that is physical stress produced by illness or injury or mental stress produced by worrying, the less time it has to devote to building muscle.
What To Do While Resting?
Well, first and foremost you want to be taking it easy. And you want to be making sure you are eating well, making sure you are giving the body the raw materials it needs to grow.
If you have some time left over, take a look at some of the routine methods you can use to effectively stimulate muscle growth. The traditional basics along with the intensity builders are discussed here: Workout Routines Methods. A couple of more radical approaches are covered in the Slow Lifting and Static Contraction Training Article.
Couple more articles you may like…
Learn how and when to use the top muscle building methods of workout routines from single-sets to pyramid sets and more advanced methods.