Here's why: When you exercise, you break down muscle fibers; as the fibers heal, they come back stronger. It's that healing process that reshapes your body—but it happens only when you give your muscles a break. So do your body good by taking a workout breather.
Get Enough Z's
Being sleep-deprived messes with your hormone levels and depletes your energy, resulting in ineffective workouts and cravings for sugar as quick energy. What's more, your body repairs itself best when you're zonked out.
Need some motivation to click off Conan? A recent study at Stanford University had 1,000 volunteers report the number of hours they slept each night. The people who got less than eight hours of sleep per night had higher body fat content. Aim for seven to eight hours a night.
Uncover the truth behind the top 10 sleep myths.
Feed Your Muscles
After a workout, you feel depleted — because, well, you are. According to a study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, grab a snack with 4-to-1 ratio of carbs to protein within 30 minutes of your workout. This is the best way to offset muscle damage.
Your body absorbs liquids faster than solid food, so you'll get the most immediate bounce-back if you drink your snack in shake form. A quick recipe: Mix two scoops of whey protein powder with 12 ounces of water, 1/2 cup of nonfat milk, ice, and 1 cup of strawberries. Click here for more top fitness food for women.
Allow at least 24 hours between workouts and give yourself at least one day off every week. Usually three to four days of strength training weekly is the most your body can handle. (In fact, you can get amazing results with just two a week.) A hard workout won't help if you don't build inadequate recovery time.
Work Out the Aches
The healing process sometimes creates adhesions, or scar tissue — those "knots" in your muscles that hurt like hell. Our recovery routine (see "Fix the Kinks") uses a foam roller — a simple, inexpensive at-home tool that's available at most sporting-goods stores — to massage away those adhesions and help keep your body in peak, pain-free condition.
Listen to Your Body
Ignoring muscle soreness or tightness is like continuing to drive your car when the "check engine" light flashes on the dashboard: It just sets you up for bigger problems. If you start to feel pain during exercise, pause to stretch, or stop your workout completely. Even better, carve out time to stretch before or after your routine to keep your body running at its best. But don't ignore these 7 warning signs.
Four Amazing StretchesYour body will love these get-loose moves
These stretches work the muscles that get the tightest in women: hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, and chest. Stretching them improves range of motion and flexibility throughout your entire body, so don't even think about skipping them. First, do a complete warm up, such as five to 10 minutes of walking, cycling, or easy jogging. Warming up increases blood flow to the muscles, which will give you better results and reduce your risk of injury as you stretch. Stretch the tightest muscle or side first; a tight muscle will inhibit the flexibility of all the others around it. And don't skimp — hold each of these as long as you can (at least 30 seconds).
Stand on your left foot with your right foot behind you on a raised step or chair, hands on your hips. Lower yourself into a lunge until your right knee rests on the floor. Press your hips forward and keep your torso upright. Repeat on the other side.
Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Open your left hip and shift your left leg out to the side; bend your knee 90 degrees so your left foot is pointing behind you. Bend your right knee 90 degrees so your right foot is in front of your left knee. Place your hands on the floor in front of you, then walk them forward, keeping your back flat. Repeat on the other side.
Lie on your back and raise your right leg so it's perpendicular to the floor. Loop a towel or band around your right foot and pull your leg toward you, keeping your leg straight. Keep your back flat on the floor and your left leg still. Repeat on the left side.
Stand facing the wall. Extend your right arm straight in front of you and place your right hand on the wall. Twist your body away from the wall, until you feel the stretch in your chest. Slowly bend your elbow as you lean toward the wall to isolate the stretch even more.
Want a harder workout? Try this deep-stretching routine that will tone and shape your backside.
Parts adapted from The Female Body Breakthrough, by WH fitness columnist Rachel Cosgrove (Rodale, October 2009).