Getting strong and breaking personal bests is great, right? Well today we’re going to talk about not that; we’re discussing why light days are important and how you make them even better.
If you’re ready to be better every day – rather than just the heavy ones – you’re going to want to keep reading…
Training: quick overview of how it works and the SAM
The point of training is a simple one: stress your muscles, give them the time and nutrients to improve, and you’ll be better next session.
However, as you improve, the time you need between sessions to recover increases. What are you going to do? Not exercise for several days in a row? That’s a bad idea.
The light training day is primarily here to bridge the gap between heavy sessions. It’s there to help you keep yourself in the gym and improving, even when you have sore muscles and you couldn’t be further from a personal best.
The key is to keep yourself in stage 2, without dragging yourself to exhaustion in stage 3. Proper management of training volume and load is how you manage this, and the whole point of a light day!
Why light training days matter
The point of a light training day is to break up the stress you’re putting your body under with normal training. It’s a chance to let the muscles and tendons rest and recover.
Why not just use a rest day?
Well, first, you’re not actually training. That’s one reason you might not be burning fat or gaining muscle; training often is good for you as long as you recover well.
Equally, it’s a chance to practice the movements you want to get better at! Strength comes from practice and good recovery. There’s really nothing more to it – and a light training day actually helps you do both!
You can even look at lighter training days as active recovery. Your body isn’t designed to do nothing; recovery is best when you keep the blood moving to the muscles and tendons. A light training day is often better for your soreness and progress than a day on the sofa.
How you can make the most of a lighter training day
So, you know you should be using light training days – but how? What makes a good light session?
1. Reduced volume
This is what makes it a light training session: you’re doing less exercise.
Keep intensity high but drop the volume. You don’t want to forget how to move weights, but you don’t want to smash your muscles anymore.
The key is to keep intensity at around a 7-8 out of 10 effort, but drop the sets and reps. This gives you time to focus on movement quality, as well as resting the muscles and tendons.
You can perform higher-rep movements, too, but the big compound lifts should be dialled down. This gives your prime movers a chance to recover while still getting practice and working through your main exercises.
2. Shifting to other training focus/working on your weaknesses
Light days in training are perfect for improving your well-rounded fitness. If you know you have a weakness or something you’ve been neglecting, use light training sessions to focus on it!
There’s no expectation on the weight you lift or the reps you squeeze out. It’s about improvement, not showing off; lighter training is great for things that are already a little weaker.
Equally, you can use this chance to work on other goals. Building strength but want to get bigger arms? Throw in some arm work. Feel like you’re getting a bit soft in the middle? Add some more core exercise.
There’s really no limit to this, the point is just to focus on what you’re not doing enough of and work on it.
Exercising in Different Planes
One of the best ways of mixing up training on a light day is to use smaller muscle groups or work in different planes.
Used to leg pressing? Take the time to back off the big weights and use the single-leg variations. Lunges, split squats, and side lunges are all great examples – these bring the weight down and challenge you in new ways.
This is one of the easiest ways to build up holistic strength, keep your joints healthy, and improve your fitness without slapping on tons of weight. It’s a nice change of pace and you may even find yourself enjoying it!
3. Using lower-damage, athletic exercises
There are some exercises out there that look cool but are primarily designed to reduce the loading on the body. Box jumps are a classic example and they’re popular with athletes because they don’t add to muscular fatigue in a big way, but they do improve power.
If you’re unfamiliar with them, then you should consider this kind of exercise. They add a dimension of athleticism to your physique and health training, all while being safe. Slowly build up from a low box and keep your landings soft.
There are tons of other examples for this, like the sled push. Using these kinds of low-eccentric-load exercises helps you recover without actually damaging the muscles as much as you would in a normal muscle-building exercise.
4. Good prehab
This time in training is perfect for preventing injuries. At a loss with what to do on your light days? Protect yourself from the risks of injury.
This means balancing joints up with exercises like face pulls or leg curls, as well as strengthening end-ranges. If you’ve already experienced an injury then you know how bad it can be, but also you know where to apply work.
If you’ve got an ankle injury, doing some calf raises in different positions is a great choice. Slow, controlled movements in all the directions around an old injury or in vulnerable joints can really keep them healthy.
Invest your light days in injury resilience so that you can have more heavy, muscle-building sessions in future!
Mobility, core, and glutes
You’re not doing enough of at least one of these – and you know it!
Mobility, core, and glute work are all great ways to improve your health and keep the spine and other joints healthy. Properly training them can be dull sometimes but they’re perfect light session focuses!
Stabilise the spine with 8-point planks, some side planks, rotational core strength (like the Russian twist or side plank twist), and learn to control the hips with cat-cows and frog pumps.
These aren’t huge exercises; they’re about control as much as strength. Layer that up with a good mobility routine with specific focus on the hips and shoulders, and you’re looking healthier and happier for that light training day already!
5. Cardio? Maybe
Cardio is good, but it depends what you do – and it’s not always the answer for light days.
Focus on low-impact cardio like a cycle, cross-trainer, or swimming. These all help improve circulation and thus recovery, without impact on the joints like a spin class, run, or hard row.
The best cardio for light training days is in a nice chatty zone where you don’t feel like you’re breathing hard. There’s a time and a place for hard cardio, and it’s not rest days; you want to feel better when you leave than when you started!
The best training day is the one that fits the stress – adaptation cycle. If you’re not putting the time in to make the light sessions better, your whole workout routine could be better. You’re basically just missing out on better results.
A well-structured light day full of clever exercise choices is only going to boost your results. You don’t need to go to your maximum every day – and being smarter with workouts only means better results, less soreness, and an even better session next time!
Try building a light day around these principles, or get in touch and we can talk through how I’d design a program for you. Whatever you do, remember recovery matters and there’s nothing smart about stunting your own muscle gain/fat loss!