Be Clock Wise

A scientific study that shows how to determine optimum recovery time.

Be Clock Wise

Illustration by Gavin Orpen 

Typically, it is counterproductive to train a muscle again before it has fully recovered from a workout. Muscle recovery entails several stages that are initiated immediately after a workout and continue for several days, depending on how intensely the muscle was trained. The more intense the workout, the more muscle-fiber damage and the longer the muscle takes to fully recover.

The general rule that most bodybuilders follow is to allow a minimum of 48 hours of rest before training the same muscle group again. Many bodybuilders allow seven days of rest for major bodyparts. Bodybuilding is an individual endeavor, though, and what works well for one athlete may not necessarily work well for another. Just as one training method doesn’t fit all, one recovery scheme doesn’t necessarily fit all.


It’s true that the easiest way to ensure adequate recovery for your muscle fibers is to refrain from training them again for a full week. However, that doesn’t mean seven days is your optimal rest period. Not allowing adequate recovery time can be detrimental to your progress in the gym, but resting too long can also curtail your gains as dictated by the physiology of muscle recovery and growth.

Immediately after you train a muscle, genes within the muscle fibers become activated, initiating many processes that lead to muscle growth. Activating muscle genes isn’t like turning a switch on or off. There are levels of activation, ranging from very little to a lot. Most genes stay activated for only a few days after training.

If you wait to train a muscle until it and its genes are completely rested, then you start from zero the next time you work out. However, if you train a muscle before its gene activity returns to resting levels, you can expect greater gains.

Here’s how it works. We’ll assign resting levels of gene activity a value of zero for a given muscle group, and gene activity immediately following a workout will be assigned a value of 100. After one or two full days of rest, the activity might drop to 75; by the fourth or fifth rest day, it might be down to 25; after that, it might return to zero. If you train that muscle group again when its gene activity is at zero, then you’ll possibly only increase its level to 100. However, if you train it after four or five days, when gene activity is still at 25, you might be able to increase gene activity to 125. That translates into a boost in muscle mass and strength.

Then, why not train after just one or two days of rest and get gene activity up to 175? Because you still don’t want to train a muscle before it has fully recovered. Actual muscle growth doesn’t occur until after the recovery phase is complete. To determine the exact point at which your personal muscle recovery is complete, use a recovery test such as that designed by exercise scientists at Western Kentucky University (Bowling Green).


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