Rest Makes You Stronger

Take a Break

A couple of years ago, we had an athlete in our gym who was drinking the CrossFit Kool-Aid with both hands. You could see it in his eyes. He was obsessed, maybe even addicted. CrossFit was rewarding his obsession with fantastic results. He was lean, fast, and strong. He was improving in every domain. I liked his chances of being a contender in our region for the CrossFit Games.

His only problem was that he refused to take a day off. He was in the gym every day pushing every system in his body to the limit. One day he mentioned he was fighting through a few minor, but nagging injuries. I warned him that if he didn’t slow down and start taking a few days off from training, his body was eventually going to slam on the brakes and force him to take some time off.

knee_injury_icingI spoke from experience. When I first started CrossFit I got hooked and found it almost impossible to take a rest day. I felt guilty if I didn’t do some kind of workout every day, especially when I was in fat burning mode. I had this irrational fear that if I rested for even one day I was going to instantly gain back all the weight it had taken me three months to lose. I was also becoming addicted to the post-WOD high I’d feel driving home from the gym. When I did take a “day off” I would sneak in a few squats or push-ups or go for a long (2 hour) run at home. I was a workout machine without an off switch.

Then I blew a fuse. I developed tendonitis in my elbow from doing too many pull-ups and trying to force a muscle-up before I was ready. My knee started to hurt every time I did box jumps. Then I strained my back attempting a heavy back squat.

I tried not to let my injuries derail my training, but training around a sore elbow, knee, and back proved to be impossible. One can only plank for so long. I would lay off of training only long enough to let my injuries “almost” heal. Then I’d be back in the gym a week too soon and re-injure myself.

It should be obvious from everything I’ve written how much I love CrossFit. It is hands down the most fun I’ve ever had working out. But I found a way to make CrossFit un-fun, and that is to overtrain to the point of injury and then refuse to rest long enough to let the injuries heal. CrossFitting with chronic injuries is no bueno.

When I told my overtraining friend this, he politely listened, factored in that he is ten years younger than I am, and kept on going. A couple of weeks later he blew a fuse while going heavy and was forced to take a couple of months off. A year later he has yet to fully return to his previous state of awesomeness. He is a shadow of his former self.

What he once loved to the point of obsession just isn’t that much fun anymore.

A Forced Day of Rest

Several years ago, A. J. Jacobs embarked on an experiment of biblical proportions. He set out to obey every command in the Bible for one year. He compiled a list of over seven hundred commands, and did his best to obey every one.  Afterward, he wrote a book about his experiences entitled The Year of Living Biblically. It was an instant bestseller.

While doing publicity for the book he was asked if there were any commands he continued to observe after his experiment was over. He answered, “There’s a lot about gratefulness in the Bible, and I would say I’m more thankful. . .And I love the Sabbath. There’s something I really like about a forced day of rest.”

Most followers of Jesus aren’t sure what to do with the Sabbath. In the New Testament, we’re never commanded to keep the Sabbath in an old school sort of way. It is the only one of the original ten commandments that isn’t restated in the teachings of Jesus or the writings of his earliest followers. Many of us are happy to leave the Sabbath behind in the archaic pages of the Old Testament. “Whew! I’m glad we don’t have to worry about that one anymore.”

I understand why. Jacobs is right to call the Sabbath “a forced day of rest.” In the Old Testament, the penalties for working on the Sabbath were harsh. Here’s one example:

“Then the Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy. . . For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.’”[1]

And you think your gym’s ten burpee penalty for dropping a kettlebell is over the top?

Why is such a punishment necessary? Simple really. Because people kept working on the Sabbath. They couldn’t help themselves. They felt compelled to move a little dirt from here to there, or to scatter a few seeds behind their tent, or to pick a squash from the garden. They were addicted to productivity. They couldn’t make themselves take a day off.

Why is the punishment so extreme? Because the Sabbath was a sign of Israel’s relationship with God. If Israel refused to take the Sabbath seriously, then it meant they weren’t taking their relationship with God seriously either. God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt and promised to take care of Israel by providing everything the people needed to survive in the wilderness and beyond. All Israel had to do was demonstrate their trust in God by keeping his commands, especially the one about keeping the Sabbath.

There is a stunning connection between Israel’s unwillingness to observe the Sabbath and its penchant for worshipping idols.[2] Not trusting God enough to rest one day a week opens Israel up to chasing after false gods and developing all sorts of destructive obsessions.

When an Israelite worked on the Sabbath, it was a confession of distrust. A way of saying, “I’m not sure I trust God to take care of my family and me. I had better take care of myself.”

This was the beginning of the end for ancient Israel.

Rest is a form of trust.

Trust the Sacred Rhythm

Why do CrossFitters overtrain? Why do some of us find it almost impossible to take a day off, even when the official prescription is three days of work followed by a day of rest? Because we don’t trust the program. We don’t trust the principle that rest is also a form of working out. We struggle to believe that it’s on our days off, as our body is repairing itself, that we’re making gains in strength and speed.

So we reject the wisdom of our coaches, more experienced athletes, and scientists. We scoff at the need for an off switch. It’s only after our body forces the issue—too late in most cases—that we decide it might be a good idea to put our trust in a program designed by someone who knows more about achieving fitness than we do. What could have been a simple practice of taking every fourth day off, ends up being a month on the sidelines practicing the hook grip on a PVC pipe.

Three on, one off. Three on, one off. Three on, one off. This is the rhythm of elite fitness. But only if we trust the rhythm enough to actually take a day off.

Even though keeping the Sabbath is not a requirement for being a follower of Jesus, I challenge the wisdom of completely setting aside the Sabbath principle. It was, after all, part of the sacred rhythm established in the story of creation found at the beginning of the Bible.

Long before the Sabbath made God’s top ten list of commands, or emerged as the sign of God’s special relationship with Israel, or came attached with a death penalty for all who ignored it; it was a day of rest enjoyed by the Creator of the universe. This day of rest was so important to God that it was the first thing he blessed and set apart for holy purposes.

Dare we ignore the example of our Creator who established at creation a sacred rhythm, a holy cadence meant to dictate the pace of our work?

When we ask, “Do we HAVE to observe the Sabbath? Do we HAVE to take a day off?” like it’s a heavy load that has to be carried up a steep mountain, we’re missing the point.  Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”[3] The Sabbath was intended to be a blessing, not a burden. This is why A. J. Jacobs proclaimed, “I love the Sabbath!”

Six on, one off. Six on, one off. Six on, one off. This is the rhythm of a well-balanced life, lived in sync with our Creator.

If we trust God enough to actually take a day off.

[1] Exodus 31:12-15
[2] Ezekiel 20:12-24
[3] Mark 2:27

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