One can argue the true cornerstone to any great workout routine. Some will say it is the lifting itself, others will say it is the diet. Some will even say it is rest that is most influential in growth. I myself find it hard to place an order of importance on these items, but one simple fact remains – you cannot function on any productive level if you are stressed and not well rested.
Being stressed can really take its toll on the body. When you are stressed your body engages the fight or flight response and enters a state of alertness. At this time adrenaline is released, raising your blood pressure, heart rate and overall energy availability. Also released is, and yes I’m about to say a naughty word, CORTISOL. Cortisol is the primary stress hormone which increases glucose in the bloodstream, and suppresses the digestive system and growth process by means of suppressed thyroid function. What does that mean? It means that stress is (prepare for another naughty word), CATABOLIC.
Our world is extremely hectic. We tend to cram so much into our daily lives that there is usually very little wiggle room for chance or errors. As such, people today are generally more stressed for prolonged periods of time. Soccer practice, music lessons, reading programs, dance class, grocery shopping, work, gym time, dinner, homework, bath night, and doctor’s visits…what a nightmare! Relaxation must be achieved to keep these levels at bay. If it is feasible, schedule weekly massages, chiropractic adjustments, and/or some yoga. You’d be surprised what some quality you time and pampering will do for your results in the gym.
Similarly, you want to get plenty of good quality sleep – feel free to LOL, all you fitness enthusiasts with young children, but the fact is, your body grows while you sleep. This is when protein synthesis occurs and the body releases most of its growth hormone. There are several stages of sleep, and these can only be achieved by sleeping uninterrupted for certain lengths of time. I recommend aiming for seven hours of good sleep. Did you know that sleep deprivation has been shown to lower levels of leptin – the appetite control hormone? Research has shown that sleep deprived people eat more and tend to crave the bad stuff, regardless of caloric intake.
If you need a little help getting to sleep (or staying asleep), there are a lot of neat products out there that are non-prescription and non-habit forming. I personally take Melatonin. It doesn’t knock you out; it just allows you to get the most of your sleep. You wake up refreshed, not groggy. If your sleep is interrupted, it does not put you in a state to where you can’t get up.
Another favorite of mine is GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid). Marketed by some companies as a GH booster, it is actually more of a sleep aid. To avoid the nitty-gritty details of the GH claim, in short, it doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so it is ineffective as a GH stimulator. GABA at the right dose really puts me in the mood for sleep – but it has an odd temporary side effect. It will literally take your breath away. You will find yourself panting for a few moments as if you were having a mild Asthma attack. It’s an interesting Amino – look into it! My sponsor, Top Secret Nutrition, markets a sleep aid that contains both of these items.
In addition to keeping your mental state at bay, you want to pay specific attention to the stress that is put on your body through physical activity. The physical stress of an intense workout, or series of workouts for that matter, can be rather astounding. A lot of us out there, me included, tend to have a hard time letting up in the gym. My motto, mantra, and daily prayer are all the same – All Heavy All the Time. Eventually you are just going to have to give in and succumb to a rest day, before your body forces you to by means of a tragic injury.
The rest and off days that we incorporate into our routines allows the body to refuel and recharge, and most importantly, grow! A rest day ideally should be just that. Avoid the weights and anything else that will put additional stress on your nervous system. Until just recently I had a very hard time allowing myself to take a whole day off to do nothing. On days where I should have been resting I would incorporate a little cardio and some core work. I have since changed my mentality on this and made my off day something to look forward to. Since I follow a low carb approach to dieting, and I am currently in contest prep, I have designated Thursday as my reefed day. I take a whole day off from the gym and reward myself with an abundance of carbs.
One very important and often overlooked concept to rest is the deload week. As the name suggests, this is a week where you lighten your load and shift your focus to recovery. This is not to say that you should avoid the gym or working out altogether. Some people choose to take a week off, and that is fine. I still prefer to remain active but at a much less intense level. At the very basic level of muscle growth, results are achieved when you stimulate the muscle, you rest the muscle, and then you stimulate it again. By means of adaptation and compensation, the muscle is then ready to tackle the challenge next time – ultimately leading to an increase in ability.
My general rule of thumb is to decrease my weights by about 40 percent, based on my one rep maximum, and I cut my sets in half too. For example, a 285 pound, one rep maximum on the bench press equates to 170 pounds. Do two or three sets at rep intervals of about six to eight. You aren’t going to feel like you really worked the muscle, but that is the point. You are keeping it flexible and healthy, but you are allowing it the chance to rebuild itself.