How long do your muscles need to recover between workouts?
That is one of the most important questions for any lifter – whether a newbie or a competitor. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest to answer.
You’ve probably heard 48 hrs. Or maybe you’ve heard 72 hours. Some people even advocate a full week of rest between working each muscle group.
For this article, we are talking about resting particular muscle groups, not about rest between workouts (unless those workouts hit all your muscles).
In general, you probably need more recovery time than you think.
I’ll give you some scientific and empirical evidence as anchor points so that you can evaluate muscle recovery time for yourself.
To make this easier to digest and act on, I’m going to score each recommendation in the rest of this article into three buckets:
a) tend towards a 2-day muscle recovery period
b) tend towards a 3-day muscle recovery period
c) tend towards a full week to rest your muscles
But all of the recommendations I make interact with each other – you can’t look at just one factor and say “ok, the ideal recovery time is X”. Some guidelines may trump others, so the key is to take this knowledge and start applying the ones that you believe will have the biggest impact on your particular situation. And then test.
One final preamble. We’re talking here about force recovery – the time it takes for your muscle strength to return to optimum levels for their next major exertion. It’s a proven fact that after working a muscle intensely, it is actually weaker while it is healing than when you started. It takes days until it is capable of exerting the same (or more) force as before the workout. And since you want to exert maximum force in each workout, this is the recovery time we are working with. So don’t equate soreness with recovery. Whether you are sore or not, is secondary.
The Factors That Influence Recovery Time
There are tons of factors that influence how long you should rest your muscles between workouts. And because there are so many factors, this is a very long article. LeanLifters Members get the full article. Everyone else gets the short version. Here are the factors:
Things You Don’t Control
- Your genetics
- Your age
- Which muscles we are talking about
Things Related To Your Workouts Themselves
- Your experience lifting
- What program/routine you are on
- How intense your workouts are
- What non-lifting exercise you also do
- What you are doing on your “rest days”
Things You Control, But Outside The Weight Room
- Your diet
- Whether you are taking steroids or not (hopefully not)
- Your sleeping
- Your stress levels
- Your mental strength
With all these factors, there’s no way to have a universal rule!
Factors You Can’t Control That Affect Muscle Recovery Time
Let’s start by talking about genetics, age, and different muscle types.
Fiber Types – Genetics
You may have heard about Type I, Type IIa, and Type IIb muscle fibers. Well, we’ll skip the physiology class for now and let’s just call them “fast” and “slow” muscles. Fast muscle fibers are designed for explosive movements. Sprinting. Jumping. Powerlifting heavy weights. Generally, these muscles require more time to recover between workouts (and between sets, but that’s a different topic). The slower muscle fibers are designed for endurance activities – jogging, for example. And they take less time to recover.
We’re all born with a mixture of types. But some people are skewed towards one end of the spectrum or the other. The split can be anywhere from 40% to 60%, vs 60% to 40%. But that 20% swing makes a big difference between whether you’ll be a champion marathoner or an Olympic shotputter.
Keep this in mind when we talk later about routines. But for now, just recognize that your recovery time is impacted by which fibers are used, what your mix of fiber types is, and how trained those fibers are.
The older you are, the longer it takes to recover. It can be more complicated, but let’s leave it at that. How much longer? Well, that depends on your workout. But it’s not like a 50 yr old takes twice as long to recover as a 25 yr old. It’s more like 50% longer.
General guideline: 20 yrs old – tend towards 2 days; 50+ – tend towards a week for a muscle group to fully recover.
Arnold used to talk about how his calves and biceps recovered faster than his back and chest. I’ve found this to be true as well but it is related to whether you are doing compound or isolation movements (see next section). And it is related to the fiber type issues above. It appears, in general, that larger muscle groups take longer to recover. But that’s not an absolute rule. Anecdotally, some guys will say that their smaller muscles take longer to recover. Those are the same guys who try to do bench press 3 days a week…
General guideline: smaller muscles – tend towards 2 days; larger muscles – tend towards 3+ days; and then there are the back muscles hit by deadlifts – tend towards once a week.
Factors In Your Workout That Affect Muscle Recovery Time
I just heard Tom Venuto talk about this exact issue and I must agree 100% with him. (Duh, of course I’d agree with him. Have you seen him? Heard him? He’s got to be the smartest bodybuilder I’ve come across with the best physique. Anyway…)
When you are just starting out, full-body workouts every other day are perfect. You hit every muscle group in every workout, or 3x/wk per muscle. That also means each muscle (in fact, your whole body) rests only about 48 hrs.
But the more experienced you are, the more you’ll need extra recovery days. That’s mainly because (presumably) you are learning to be more intense with each workout as you get more experienced.
Pro bodybuilders (especially the few that are all-natural) end up often resting each muscle 6 or 7 days before working it again. That’s why 3-way split routines, with lots of isolation movements, are ok for bodybuilders. But for the mid-experienced lifter, 72 to 96 hrs is usually perfect.
General guideline: just starting out – tend towards 2 days; mid-level experience – tend towards 3 days; very advanced lifters – tend towards letting each muscle recover a full week.
In line with your experience level, you will likely modify your routines over the years. The worst thing any newbie or beginner can do is jump into split routines. You really need a full-body lifting program. That said, I’ll try to step off the soapbox and simply describe the effect that different routines have on recovery time….
If your routine calls for you to isolate particular muscles, then you can lift more frequently. As long as you use different muscles in each workout. For example, if you did legs one day, you could do chest the next day, then back the day after that, then shoulders, then arms, etc. and workout 6 days a week. In practice, that’s very hard to do in a pure isolated fashion. For example, deadlifts use a heck of a lot of your muscle groups! In fact, all of The Big 7 exercises hit multiple muscle groups.
The workaround is to do 2-way or 3-way splits. A 2-way split is usually upper body/lower body. A 3-way split example is legs/upper pushing/upper pulling. Or legs/chest/back. And some people do 4-way splits by adding in either shoulders or arms. (I recommend only 2-way or 3-way splits.)
So, if you are doing a lot of compound movements, or hitting multiple muscle groups in a single workout, then you need more days off for recovery. If you are doing more isolation movements, then your “recovery days” are actually spent working different muscles. Those really aren’t days off, so to speak. The distinction is less about how much time each muscle needs to recover – it’s more about whether those recovery days should be “days off” or not. Make sense?
General guideline: full-body/compound workouts – tend towards “days off” recovery periods; for isolation type workouts, your recovery days are spent working other muscles.
How Intense Your Workouts Are
Forgive my presumption here, but I bet you are not making your workouts as intense as they need to be to see sustained progress. I say this with confidence, because I see it in 99% of the people at every commercial gym I visit. I’ll save the lecture, and stick to the facts: there’s a continuum of intensity and most of us are in the middle. The less intense your workouts, the less recovery time those muscles need. And of course, the more intense, the more recovery needed. [Note that I'm talking about lifting intensity for producing force, not cardio intensity.] Actually you could even do a test to see how intense your workouts really are. If two days later, you can lift the same weight for the same exercise for the same reps, then you most likely weren’t at maximum lifting intensity the previous workout.
Some notable exceptions: 1) newbies; 2) endurance workouts (like metabolic workouts or fat-burn workouts with weights). On both of these cases, you can be intense and still only need a couple days of recovery.
General guideline: extremely intense workouts – tend towards a week recovery for those muscles; if you are just going through the motions with little intensity – tend towards a 2-day recovery (better yet, just make your workouts more intense!).
To read more about muscle recovery time, join LeanLifters and read the full article here.
As I wrap up this shorter version of this article, take a moment to think about what you’ve read. What are you doing right? What are you doing wrong? What advice can you offer fellow lifters? Please make a commitment to post a comment below ok?