When You Should Take a Day Off

When You Should Take a Day Off

Every now and then I get a chance to workout, and I just feel…….off. I’m not sore, I’m not sick, I’m not worrying about whether the Oilers will make the playoffs or not (spoiler alert: it’s a 6th straight “rebuilding year.”), but for whatever reason I’m just not feeling it.

It happens. You show up and hear the tragic remix of Justin Bieber mixed over the Bee Gees playing through the speakers of the commercial gym, the squat racks are full of guys pulling way heavier than they should with their spines resembling a question mark, or are doing concentration curls. You have 50 other things you want to do, 20 other places you’d want to be, and working out isn’t a major priority.

These are days when the only limiter is your motivation to get in and do work. As I said, nothing is getting in your way except you. If you’re not sore from a previous workout or injury, have the energy and the time, you should be able to get in something, whether it’s a different workout than you’re used to or merely going full-on meathead, there’s always a way to get through it.

Now there’s always something you can do in the gym, even when you don’t feel like pushing for limits. Then again, sometimes you can have your best workout when you’re just not feeling it. Why, just the other day I worked up to heavy-ish deadlifts of 405, and when I would usually finish up with a single at that effort or go heavier, I decided to do 3 singles, which meant some repeated technical work at a heavy intensity, something I haven’t done for a long time. It was good to get in the practice, and it felt better with each rep, which was always encouraging. I think I might have scared the guy who was curling in the squat rack too, so bonus points for that.

Now if I had managed to get into some sets and they felt crummy, I would have probably wound up dragging a sled around for a bit, hitting up some biceps curls of my own (not in the squat rack), and maybe even finished up with a bike ride. I’ve been doing some kettlebell work lately in preparation for the SFG certification I’m taking in May, so I probably would have even thrown in some swings for good measure, but I started to feel better as the sets went on, so I wound up doing a pretty solid posterior chain workout with some hip press, hamstring curls off the lat pulldown machine, and some other fun stuff of my own concoction.

It was a pretty solid workout.

Now not every workout is this solid. I was doing a Smolov deadlift program a few weeks ago which made me feel like re-ground hamburger by the end of it, but resulted in some serious gains to my deadlift. For those who don’t know, it involved training the deadlift with high volume high intensity work 4 days a week, which meant I was a walking zombie for a few weeks. I hated deadlifts after the sixth week, but pressed on to try to keep up with the program to keep on pace, and can honestly say I haven’t worked that hard in a while. The downside to that was that my lats grew pretty quickly and now a nice leather jacket is fitting snug and almost too snug.

With a phase of heavy training like this, I was probably on the verge of overtraining for what I was used to. I was taking some specific precautions to make sure my recovery was good, drinking a lot of water and working on some low level mobility and conditioning work to keep healthy so that when I had to try to hit 10 sets of 3 at 90% of my 1RM, I wouldn’t wind up blacking out like a total wuss.

My wife goes through the same thing with her training. She’s preparing for the World Triathlon Championships this coming September, so balancing training with recovery is always tricky given she routinely logs about 12 workouts a week. Every now and then I’ll look at her and simply say “So today should be a recovery day, right?” At which point she usually goes back to bed.

Now what about the rest of the world who aren’t putting themselves through deadlift hell or training for a big competition? When should you take a day off? Well, to make life easier, I created this handy dandy flow chart for reference.

day off flow chart

Unless you’re a competitive athlete training multiple times a week with a relatively high intensity, you’re probably not over training, unless you’re a distance athlete who insists on running 6 days a week and then “cross training” on the 7th by, you know, running slower.

If you just go to the gym and “work out” 3 or 4 times a week, you’re not over training. You can definitely get a lot more effort out of your build, especially if you’re like the majority of the population and work in a cubicle farm all day long. Seriously, even prisoners get out once a day for exercise, and you should be able to Shawshank your way out of your own prison daily to get in some physical activity of your own.

There’s a few times you could probably skip a workout, such as if you had an extremely crap-tastic sleep last night, you’re total body sore and stiff from a hard cycle of training, currently sick, or currently injured and you don’t know what you should do or avoid to keep it from getting worse. Aside from that, you should be able to do SOMETHING to keep moving and get closer to whatever goals you may have. Knowing your limitations and staying away from the gym when necessary can play dividends, as most of your physical gains from training are seen only following adequate recovery. Make sleep, food and hydration primary importance, and live to deadlift another day.

One way to tell if you should take a day off is by checking your Heart Rate Variability. HRV is a measure of the differences in heart rate from beat to beat, and is a good indicator of total systemic stress. You cna measure it commonly with a heart rate monitor and receiver designed to sample the HRV, or you could use a very simple little box called the Stress Eraser Portable Biofeedback Device to measure anywhere, any time. It gives instant results and a quick synopsis of how stressed you are. It’s a pretty fun little toy.

That being said, if you’ve recovered, you’re not stressed, you’re not sore or stiff, and you’re not sick, there’s literally nothing preventing you from working out today, except if there’s a couple people setting up shop near the squat rack that somehow smell like a mix of B.O. and kitty litter. Then you may want to hit up some cardio, bro.


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