How Long Should I Rest Between Workouts?

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

Q: I'm about to get back into lifting, and I don't want to get too sore. How long should I rest between workouts so I can make gains, but not be achy the next day?
--Jake M., Newtown, CT

A: To get strong and big you have to tear your muscles up, right? Wrong.

Research actually says that muscle damage isn’t necessary to stimulate gains in strength and size. In a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, subjects performed exercise that resulted in muscle damage. Afterwards, their gains in strength were compromised for several weeks, not enhanced.

In another study, researchers looked at strength and muscle gains in two groups. They created muscle damage in the first group, and had the second group train in a way that prevented muscle damage. In the end, both groups increased muscle mass to the same degree. So based on these results, you can see that muscle damage isn’t all that necessary to make gains.

But just for argument’s sake, let’s say that you train hard enough to make yourself sore, which signals that you have damaged your muscles. Do you need to wait 7-10 days to wait for them to heal before you can train again?

Not if you hit the gym regularly.

Assuming you exercise a few times a week, it’ll only take about three days for your strength to return to normal, according to researchers in Singapore. In addition, consider the “Repeat Bout Effect.” Basically, it says that after you train a muscle once, you’re less likely to do significant muscle damage or recreate that same soreness you experienced in your first hard workout. Additionally, studies in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research have shown that training three days later won’t impede your ability to recover from the first workout.

Here’s how you should approach your weight-room comeback to make big, quick gains without having to take any downtime and to avoid soreness. Take advantage of the repeat bout effect: condition your muscles for big gains, but start at an intensity level below your best effort. Don’t do repetitions of a given exercise to failure; stop short by a couple of reps. This will prevent you from creating excessive muscle damage which would impact your next workout in a couple of days, but you’ll still create an overload on the muscles that will kick start your gains.

Regardless of whether your goal is strength, size, or both, start by doing sets of five repetitions with weights that you are able to do seven or eight reps with. That combination of weight and repetitions will activate the larger muscle fibers that contribute the most to size and strength.

Perform the following exercises two or three times a week: front squat, Romanian deadlift, split squat, bench press, military press, dumbbell row, chin-up.

Each week, increase the weight that you lift, until by the end of the third week, you’re working at your best effort. Do three sets of each, two or three times a week:

Week 1 – 5 repetition sets with a weight you’re able to do 7-8 times.

Week 2 – 5 repetition sets with a weight you’re able to do 6-7 times.

Week 3 – 5 repetition sets with a weight you’re able to do 5-6 times. On the last workout of this week, you should be doing 5 repetitions of a weight that you can only do 5 times.

After the first few weeks, cycle your intensity on a weekly basis to promote consistent gains… but that’s another blog.