Workout Recovery: When Do You Need to Take a Rest Day?

I feel like working out, but my body says “no”. Or, my body’s fine, but I’m not feelin’ it. Everyone pursuing fitness has that internal debate from time to time.

Training for performance, physique, or overall fitness, calls for progression and in personal trainer language, we call that “overload”. Overload in layperson’s terms means pushing the body beyond your current comfort zone—”pushing the envelope”, to use a familiar term. The proper amount of overload isn’t something you can see, it’s something you feel. It can’t be gauged by a clock, a wrist-worn device, or a program. So learning how to gauge the amount takes some skill, experience and the ability to read what your body’s telling you before, during and after exercise.

Let’s use an analogy. If I have an acre full of leaves and I try to rake them all in one afternoon without having raked in a while, I’ll get blisters on my hands and some overall soreness. It will probably be several days before I can get back out to finish the job. If I rake for shorter periods over a few days, the job gets done and I’m able to rake longer next time. “Sub-maximal” exposure leads to improved ability to do more.

Several popular exercise programs encourage overdoing it. Slogans like “All it takes is all you’ve got”, and “Pain is just weakness leaving your body”, make for good T-shirts but glamorize over-training and throw shade on recovery. Progressing requires overload, and overload-in-progress is uncomfortable for sure – but should never be painful. Making friends with reasonable discomfort sets you up for success. From there, the relevant questions become how much discomfort, and, what kind of discomfort. Too much too soon equals exercise overdose. Programs that call for training beyond normal exercise-related fatigue, complete exhaustion, or training through pain are definitely programs to stay far, far away from.

After a good workout, muscles require anywhere from 48 to 92 hours to recover. Logically, the harder and more specific the workout, the greater the recovery time. So, how do we know “when”?

Here are a few suggested guidelines for deciding whether to rest or work out.

Muscles are a little stiff the day after a workout

We’ve all experienced this. The day after a workout, or any physical activity/movement we haven’t done in a while, moving may be a little more challenging and our muscles are letting us know they got put to good use! Unless the program specifically calls for a number of days between workouts1 and you’re not in any pain, then there’s probably no reason to not work out, especially for those new to, or just returning to, exercise.

Soreness beyond these intervals may mean the program should be regressed.

Recommendation: Warm-up performing the same exercise movements – with no resistance/bodyweight ONLY – slated for that workout, will usually loosen things up.

Muscles are a little stiff the day after the day after a workout

This is called DOMS: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. You do a hard workout on Monday, no soreness Tuesday, wake up Wednesday and feel it. Unless you’re in pain, you can usually read this as a signal that you had a successful workout. DOMS alone is no reason to take a day off. An intelligent warm-up patiently performed prior to the next bout of exercise should get you ready.

Recommendation: Warm up wisely and take as much time as needed to feel comfortable. Consider adjusting your workout to reduce your planned resistance by 30-50% or keep it strictly bodyweight.

Burning muscles

A burning sensation in your muscles (not lactic acid burn during a set) signals possible micro-trauma to muscle fibers. It can also be a sign of nerve compression or damage, depending on the location. Severe burning mid-muscle often means muscle fibers have been torn. If the area burns whether sitting, standing or reclining, it probably means you overdid it and would benefit from a day or more away from training for the involved body parts until symptoms resolve.

Recommendation: Rest, ice and OTC anti-inflammatories. Ignore macho cheerleading to train through it. See a medical professional if the pain persists after an additional 24 hours of rest.

Sharp pain in muscles

Sharp, stabbing pain always means something’s not 100% right. If the pain occurs in the muscle belly at a specific place and time during an exercise, it could mean local muscle trauma. Like burning, it’s a signal that you’ve done too much one way or the other and need to give it a rest.

Recommendation: Rest. If still painful after rest, see a physical therapist or medical doctor for appropriate attention.

Pain around or in a joint when moving

Pain near a joint— such as forearm near the elbow— usually means overuse injury like tendinopathy. Continuing to train the muscle group will only make things worse and could create what Dr. Fred Hatfield referred to as “cumulative microtrauma”, with its strength- and motion-limiting adhesions. Long-term overuse brings on tendinosis— a chronic condition that presents with collagen break-down.

Recommendation: You’re best to give it a rest. Pain in any joint, if it persists, should be evaluated by a medical professional.

Want to work out but not feelin’ it?

You’re looking forward to a workout but something’s just not right. Mind says go, body says no. Run that stop sign and you risk injury.

Feeling under the weather can be the result of over-training2. Vigorous exercise taps, and saps, the body’s resources, diminishing its ability to fight off infection temporarily, especially common colds. If you have a cold, consider over-training as a possible cause.

Recommendation: Game-time decision. If you decide to go, take it slow. Warm up gently and see where it leads. There’s no shame in ending a workout early if your body isn’t up to the task that day. Just make sure that it’s your body delivering the message and not a sabotaging voice in your head!

Feel OK but don’t want to work out

Similar, only different: body says OK, but mind says ‘no way’. This is the most challenging biofeedback to read. A number of factors play into this feeling: life stressors, an illness that’s coming on but with no obvious symptoms, or over-training2. A trained individual who’s in touch with their body should pay close attention to its early warning system. If the “not feelin’ it” attitude occurs during a period of intense training, proceed with caution. Just make sure you’re not fooling yourself into a workout excuse. 99 times out of a 100, you’ll feel so much better after a workout.

Recommendation: Warm up, start light, and take it from there.

How to recover faster

There are ways to game your system and ameliorate the effects of post-workout soreness that are not the result of injury. Massage, cold therapy, post-workout and next-day stretching, and compression from garments3 can all reduce soreness and get you feeling like scheduling your next workout ASAP.

No fitness app or workout video can tell you what’s going on inside your own body. This is where an experienced certified fitness professional will create and adjust the right programs for your body and your success. The right personal trainer will also help you identify and understand all the cues your body is giving you and how to interpret each step of your physical – and mental – transformation journey.

Learning to decipher what your body is telling you is crucial to developing a long-term, healthy relationship with exercise. Just one more reason why working with an experienced and certified fitness professional will help you to be successful quicker – while keeping you injury free.

Special thanks and shout-out to my go-to physical therapist Aaron Gray, PT, DPT, for his clinical expertise in fact-checking and editorial suggestions…all incorporated.

Works Cited
1Rhea MR, et al., A meta-analysis to determine the dose response for strength development. Med Sci Sports Exercise. 2003 Mar;35(3):456-64.
2Cardoos MD, Nathan. Overtraining Syndrome. Current Sports Medicine Reports: May/June 2015 – Volume 14 – Issue 3 – p 157–158.
3Dupuy Olivier, et al. An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Physiology. 2018; 9: 403.