What to do on rest days to build muscle 

Taking rest days when weight lifting can be challenging due to the fear of missing out on building new muscles. However, rest days contribute significantly to muscle growth.

This article will explain what to do on rest days to build muscle tissue. Including why muscle grows outside the gym, nutrition for rest days, the importance of hydration, and incorporating active recovery. 

Growing muscle outside of the gym

For most, going to the gym means taking an hour out of their day to move their bodies. What about the other 23 hours in the day or, in this case, over a rest day? 

Considering the minimal time it takes to work out, it is important to have the same focus you do in the gym as you do on your nutrition and recovery. Let’s break it down more. 

You are training to build muscle, so you are doing resistance training, which causes micro-tears in the muscle fibers. The muscle damage caused by training is the START of the muscle-building process by initiating muscle protein synthesis. (1)

The damage is done. You have finished the workout. Now it’s time to repair and build new muscle. This growth process requires nutrients, especially amino acids (protein) and glycogen (carbohydrate). Having proper nutrition fulfills the needs driven by your workouts. 

The last piece of the recovery puzzle is sleep. Without it, we are turning on several signals to break down muscle tissue and make it hard to recover from the damage caused by the exercise—the exact opposite of what we want. (2)

To read a more in-depth overview be sure to check out How To Build Muscle.

Proper nutrition

As we mentioned above, you need to meet the nutrition demands of your muscles for the best performance growth and repair. This can be done by eating balanced meals that include the five food groups, low-fat dairy and protein, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit. 

Meeting your daily nutritional needs does require planning, shopping/ordering, and preparing food. This takes thought, effort, and time but has a significant upside if done right. 

Using your rest day or off days to plan your food and nutrition for the next week should be on top of your priority list. 

This is a cliff notes guide to nutrition for building muscle. For a more detailed breakdown, I wrote three separate articles on the number of calories, macros, and supplements for building muscle. Get a 7 day meal plan for muscle growth.


About 76% of muscle mass is composed of water. Maintaining hydration is like maintaining 75% of your muscle. (3)

While hydration entails drinking enough water, it also includes meeting your electrolyte requirements. Your electrolytes include potassium, magnesium, and sodium chloride, which should be obtained from your diet. 

A useful tool for checking your hydration is to use a nutrient tracker like Cronometer. Tracking your daily intake over a week, then use your rest days to analyze your water and electrolyte intake.  


When someone does not get enough sleep night after night, scientists describe this as sleep debt. Consistently being in this state can slow down muscle-building, impair mental state, alter food cravings, and even increase the risk of injury. (4)

By not getting adequate sleep, you are turning on several signals that make it much harder to build muscle. 

Using your rest days to catch up on some sleep can be an enormously helpful tactic to build muscle. 

Active recovery 

Active recovery is a method of recovery that involves low-intensity and low-impact activities to help your body recover from intense exercise. This approach promotes circulation to tired and sore muscles, reducing stiffness and enhancing recovery. Here are a few examples: 

  • Light Cardio: Engage in low-impact cardio exercises such as walking, cycling, or swimming, emphasizing keeping the intensity low and the duration long.
  • Yoga and Stretching: Yoga and stretching exercises help reduce muscle tension, improve flexibility, and increase blood flow to your muscles.
  • Foam Rolling or Massage: Foam rolling and massaging are excellent ways to alleviate soreness and reduce muscle stiffness. 
  • Active Recreation: Activities like gardening, cooking, dancing, or playing with your kids can also count as active recovery. These activities are fun and can boost your mood, reducing stress levels, which can positively impact your physical health.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are signs that you need a rest day?

There are several signs that you should consider taking a rest day. First, you are suffering delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS will prevent you from having the ability to train with maximal effort. Next, your sleep quality is declining. Sleep disturbances are considered a significant symptom of overtraining. (5)

What should I eat on rest days to build muscle?

During rest days, you should focus on a balanced diet, including the five food groups, low-fat dairy, lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Similar to training days, you will want to emphasize protein intake. Learn more about the number of calorie and macros you need.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, rest days are essential for building muscle tissue, as it allows your body to repair and rebuild muscle fibers. 

By following the tips mentioned above, focusing on nutrition and hydration on rest days, and incorporating active recovery, you can optimize your muscle recovery and growth. 

Remember, those rest days are not an excuse to skip the gym but an essential component of a well-rounded workout routine. And, if you want to learn more about muscle building and nutrition, check out the Strength Phase Nutrition Podcast for guidance on your fitness journey.

Don’t miss out on valuable information and advice on muscle building and nutrition! Subscribe to the Strength Phase Nutrition podcast today for the latest insights and tips.


Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.

Noah Quezada is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist located in Denver, Colorado. Over the course of more than a decade, he has gained extensive experience in helping clients manage their weight through in-person sessions. Noah is also the 2023 President of the Colorado Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

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