Okay, so you have your exercise equipment, fabulous workout clothes, and a rocking music playlist. You also have your favorite fitness instructors you follow along with and a bunch of workouts you love to do. But figuring out where every workout fits within the week can be confusing and feel like you're making it up as you go.
Organizing your workouts to maximize your results is challenging. Still, I am here to make it less confusing and give guidelines to help you determine how much rest between workout days you need to make it painless and straightforward.
Let me introduce two fundamental principles – S.A.I.D and G.A.S. Supercompensation Theory training that govern how the body responds to exercise and grows to adapt and strengthen over time.
How to Get Stronger?
This acronym means, Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. Essentially, when the body is exposed to a particular type of exercise or movement (stressor), the body will start to adapt to perform better and withstand that specific stressor next time. It seems intuitive, right?
If we want to get better at riding a bike, we should not be hiking up and down mountains. Not to say that hiking is not a great outdoor activity and workout, but it won't help us get better at biking if that is our goal.
Similarly, if we desire to build muscle in our body, we should include strength training at least 2x per week. But often, what our weekly routine looks like does not match up to the goals set for us, so always remember this first principle.
G.A.S Theory & Supercompensation
What Happens After You Work Out?
The General Adaptation Syndrome is our second acronym for today, which governs how our body responds to a stressor. The G.A.S Theory is comprised of alarm, resistance, and exhaustion. In this case, I am referring to exercise as a stressor (eustress, a.k.a good stress); therefore, your workout is the "Alarm" phase.
For 24-48 hours after a workout, your body enters the second phase called the "Resistance" phase, where your muscles are sore and significantly weaker. The muscles used for the workout will usually feel sore, and general fatigue is normal and expected as the workout temporarily breaks down your body's resources. The body enters repair mode, trying to quickly restore itself to baseline but slightly increased, over the next 1-3 days to become stronger and better equipped to handle that same stressor for the next time.
Each workout must be just the right level of intensity for your body. If it is not challenging enough, the stressor will not elicit the appropriate physiological response. Conversely, a too challenging workout that completely kicks your butt will force a longer recovery time, and you enter the third stage, "Exhaustion." You will spend over three days simply recovering and will need to take more than the appropriate amount of time between your workouts.
Appropriate Recovery for Workout Progress
However, when your workout is just right, like Goldilocks and her porridge, after 2-3 days, your body has recovered and appropriately adapts to the stressor and is slightly stronger for a 1-2 day window right after the recovery. Sounds incredible, right? This window of heightened performance is called "supercompensation" and is when you want to work out the same muscles again to receive this benefit. See below for an image to depict this process.
Why Consistency is Important
This physiological adaptation, supercompensation, can compound and is called positive supercompensation (image a). When you consistently time your workouts appropriately week after week, you will continually progress and get stronger, more efficient, and closer to your health & fitness goals. For this reason, fitness professionals preach the importance of consistency and try not to let you fall off the wagon. When too much time is spent between workouts, your body will return to where it started.
An irregular training plan consisting of long breaks followed by short spurts of focused workouts leads to you spinning your wheels in the snow going nowhere, called null supercompensation (image c).
On the other end of the consistency spectrum, there is also too much exercise called negative supercompensation (image b). High-intensity workouts 5-7 days a week are most likely overloading your body. Exercising till exhaustion daily without giving your body adequate time to rest and recover will result in a drop in performance over time. Not only will you cease to grow stronger, but you may also get weaker.
These adverse effects of over-training may spill over into other aspects of your health. A few signs of overtraining consist of persistent muscle soreness, prolonged general fatigue, high occurrence of sickness, poor sleep quality, among many more.
How to Organize Your Workout Routine
So, at this point, you may be wondering, what is the ideal workout plan? How can I exercise daily or five days a week appropriately to avoid overtraining? Here is where your periodization or training plan comes into play. Working out without a plan is like driving without our smartphone’s GPS.
It will take us a lot longer to arrive at our destination, or we may not make it there at all and become lost or give up! If you are anything like me, I need directions when I drive just about anywhere!
A significant element of your workouts we need to consider and manipulate is intensity. Intensity is how challenging a workout is. I recommend using the RPE (rating of perceived exertion) scale on a 1-10 scale to measure intensity. Ten is extremely hard on the brink of collapse, seven is challenging but manageable, five is moderate and manageable, three is not very demanding and has a good warm-up or cool-down pace.
Workout duration, heart rate, and strain level are components of a specific workout's RPE. RPE is specific to you and how you feel that day. Have you ever had a day where the workout was a struggle to get through? Did the weight or resistance feel way heavier than last week? Or, on the flip side, the weight may feel easy and light, and you crushed the workout.
The second element we need to consider is what muscle groups are used in the workout. I mentioned earlier that it is crucial to give muscle groups 1-3 days of rest between workouts for optimal recovery and growth.
Performing an upper-body dominant workout on Day 1 will most likely call for a lower-body dominant workout for your next training session since the lower body muscles were not used on Day 1.
If you work out 5-7 days per week, as a rule of thumb, I recommend 1-2 high-intensity days (RPE 7-9), 1-3 moderate days (RPE 5-7), and 1-2 low/recovery days (RPE 2-4). If you are training 2-3 days per week, a healthy mix of all three intensity levels is best, in my opinion.
Sample Training Week
6-Day Training Week
3-Day Training Week
Putting it All Together
Putting together your plan of attack will depend on your access to equipment, health and fitness goals, and schedule. Using the positive super-compensation model, I discussed above; we want to be training muscle groups ready to be challenged.
As a rule of thumb, it is ideal for muscles to have 1-3 days of rest after a workout before training those same muscles again. It is also important to not let more than 5 days go by in between training muscle groups. It is impossible and not advised to PR (personal record) in your cardio workouts every time.
Varying each workout’s intensity by changing the speed, resistance, and duration within the week and mixing in lighter recuperation days allows your body to recover in between training days to maintain positive super-compensation. I also always advise a combination of strength, cardio, and recovery-focused exercises to keep a well-rounded and healthy mind and body.
Linked below are programs designed with proper periodization to maintain positive super-compensation. Happy Training!
(1) “Applying the Principle of Super-Compensation” NDM Sports & Personal Training, 2019, https://ndmcoaching.co.uk/2019/04/03/applying-the-principle-of-super-compensation/ . Accessed 29 March, 2021.