One of the big misconceptions people have is that skipping workouts is a bad thing. You’ve likely heard someone say, “You never regret a workout” or “The only workout you regret is the one you don’t do.”
Well, let me tell you, that’s 100% false. I can think of plenty of workouts I regret, and I see plenty of people doing workouts that I know they will later regret. A lot of folks can get really caught up in working out and viewing exercise as black-and-white: Either you do it all the time, with great intensity, or you don’t do it at all.
(I know, because I was stuck in that mentality for a long time…)
But the thing is that with exercise – as with most habits we intentionally implement – is that its purpose is to make your life better. Your workouts are meant to serve you and your goals, and you are not meant to be a slave to your workout plan. On the whole, working out 3-5x a week is a good thing, and you should do it consistently. There are plenty of times when exercise won’t sound like the most appealing thing but it will still be worth it to push through and work out, because the benefit of that workout (increased strength, heart health, endorphins, mental clarity, personal satisfaction in having accomplished something) outweigh the benefit of skipping it (more time to watch netflix and scroll through instagram).
The operative word here is consistently. Not “perfectly.” Because on the flip side, there will be plenty of times when the benefit of skipping a workout can be greater than the benefit of getting in that particular workout. And in those instances, it can actually be better to skip that workout, because even if you miss the physical benefits of that particular workout, you are increasing your ability to work out consistently (not perfectly) for a long time – ideally, the rest of your life – which means you’ll be able to reap greater physical benefits in the long run.
So all that to say, YES, there are certainly some times when you should skip a workout!
But how do you know when to skip a workout?
That is a little less straightforward, because while there are obvious reasons to skip a workout (i.e. you’re really sick), there are other very valid reasons that can vary from person to person – it often depends on your lifestyle, your priorities, your goals, and your obligations. These guidelines are a great starting point, and they’re what I consider when I’m deciding whether to work out or not.
You’re sick as a dog
Obviously, if you are sick, workout out is difficult, if not impossible. As a general rule, if you have symptoms that extend “below the neck” (i.e. chest congestion, GI symptoms, body aches, fever, etc…pretty much anything besides a cold) it’s best to take time off from the gym until you’re recovered. Working out when you’re sick usually means your workouts will be less-than-stellar, but adding the physical stress of working out when your body is already fighting an infection/virus can make it harder to recover…which means a longer period of time where you are having to skip workouts/have really subpar workouts.
In my experience, it’s worth it to take at least one day off from working out even when you just have the common cold. And no matter what you’re sick with when you skip a workout, make the most of it by sleeping, drinking lots of fluids, taking extra vitamin C, and eating chicken soup. Trust me, I spent years working out when I was sick, and learning to cut my losses and just take a day or two off and invest my energy in helping my body recover was a game changer.
Whatever you do, please, please do not attempt to go do leg day when you have a stomach bug. No one wants to seen an Exorcist reenactment in the squat rack.
You’re sleep deprived
It’s hard to overstate how important sleep is for optimal health and fitness. If fitness practices were drawn up into a food-pyramid type of schema, sleep would be at the base. If your sleep is chronically insufficient or crappy, all the other areas of your physical health/functioning will be inhibited in some way, too. But figuring out how to get consistently great sleep is a story for another day (Well, actually, for another ebook, coming out in a couple months. Keep an eye out!).
So let’s be real, none of us are going to get a perfect night’s sleep every night. But we all have a baseline amount of sleep that allows us to feel good and function well, and when we are consistently missing out on that “sleep sweet spot” and getting less or crappier sleep than we need, it puts a toll on our bodies. Once again, adding the physical stress of working out to that does not help your body improve in either health or performance…and the added stress can actually make it harder for your body to get good quality sleep going forward.
If you’ve been crappy sleep for a few nights, or even just had one night of truly terrible/very little sleep, skip your workout. Give your body some time to recover, get to bed early, and catch up on the sleep you need so that you can hit the gym fresh after a night or two of good quality sleep.
You have very important, time-sensitive obligations that need to be completed
Once again, this is real life. You have a life outside of the gym. (If you don’t, you need to get one.) Sometimes obligations in other areas of life will compete with working out, and sometimes prioritizing a workout would mean neglecting those obligations. In those cases, skip the damn workout! The gym will still be there after you finish a big presentation for work/go to your kid’s basketball game/take a weekend to visit your aging parents/whatever.
Remember, working out is supposed to add to your life by making it better. If getting in a workout means neglecting an important obligation in another area of life, then working out in that instance won’t be making your life better. The gym will always be there, but a lot of opportunities and special moments in life won’t always be there – don’t pass those just for the sake of being able to say you never missed a workout. Skip the gym, take care of your obligations and make the most of opportunities, and get back to it after that.
You haven’t taken a day off in more than a week
Your body needs rest. I tend to harp on rest and recovery, because the fitness industry likes to hammer home the importance of pushing yourself and turning up the intensity of your workouts while ignoring the importance of recovery and regeneration. Don’t even get me started on the #teamnodaysoff trend…
Here’s the thing – your fitness improves when you are at rest, between workouts. It’s during rest that your muscles grow, your heart gets stronger, your lungs get more efficient, and your body fat whittles away. So obviously, it’s really important to take rest days and give your body the extra time it needs to actually benefit from the hard work you are putting in during workouts.
But for some reason, it’s easy for some of us to forget that and be hitting it hard in the gym 7x a week. And when we do that, we start getting less and less back on the investments we are making in the gym. If this is you, then absolutely yes you need to skip a workout. Not only that, you need to schedule in rest days in your weekly training schedule, as well as rotate in some lower intensity workouts each week. Take it from someone who got leaner when she learned to work out less often and less obsessively – rest days will do your body good.
This should go without saying, but if you have an injury, then at the very least you should be avoiding any workouts involving the injured part of your body. If you have a broken arm and can still do workouts involving your legs/core, then go for it. But even with a less severe injury, like a strained muscle or a tricky shoulder, it’s good to be cautious – especially if you haven’t seen a doctor or you’re not entirely sure what is going on. A lot of times, it’s easy for something that starts out seeming like a little muscle pain to become a chronic, nagging injury that takes a long time to rehab and ends up limiting the workouts you’re able to do.
With injuries, a good rule of thumb is to remember that you’re playing the long game.
(You know what, scratch that. That’s a good rule of thumb for everything to do with fitness.)
You’re not working out just for today, and your workout today won’t make a big difference. You’re working out for the long term health and fitness benefits and added longevity, and your consistent habit of working out will make a big difference over time. Pushing through and working out with an injury may boost your ego in the short term, but it’s basically crapping all over the long game by increasing the chance that you’ll worsen the injury and decrease your ability to work out consistently.
So be smart – work around injuries (with the approval of your doc/physio) that you can, and take a few days off if you can’t. You’re in it for the long haul, and a healthy injury-free body is what you need to play the long game.
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When you’re whether you need to skip a workout, remember that skipping a workout doesn’t mean you stop working out altogether or that you have to be completely inactive. It’s about picking your battles and knowing when skipping a particular workout will yield greater benefits in your life, and when giving yourself some wiggle room on one day will help you stay the course in the long run.
You’re working out to make your body healthy and your life better for the long haul. And in the long haul, consistency wins over perfection every time.
I hope this helps you next time you’re trying to figure out when to skip a workout or not!