Nine years ago this week, on September 12, 2003, Johnny Cash died of complications from diabetes. Johnny Cash was 71. My Dad was 12 years old when Johnny Cash came to play at the Skyline Drive-In in LaFayette, my hometown of less than 2,000 people in rural Georgia. Johnny got so drunk after the show that the Sheriff arrested him. Later that night, the Sheriff’s son ran around waking up all the local boys so they could come see the Man in Black in the drunk tank. In 1962, my Dad paid a nickel to poke Johnny Cash with a stick. For Johnny, rest was hard to come by. In 2006 I paid $9.99 on iTunes for_ American V_, which producer Rick Rubin made from recordings that Johnny had made just after his wife, June passed away. This is the first song.

There are three themes in just about every Johnny Cash song: toil, fate, and redemption. These often appear as train motifs (Folsom Prison Blues, Like the 309, On the Evening Train). Johnny’s world has a narrative. You push and you push because you have to just to make it in this world, but you’re doomed to toil until you can be rescued from fate by a higher power. John’s redemption wasn’t just his faith, it was June Carter. And as you can tell from the first song he recorded after her death, suddenly rest seemed hard to come by.

Dan John says the question he gets most often when he posts workouts is, “what are the rest periods?” Dan’s answer is usually, “until you’re ready to go again.” Rest is the variable in training that is the easiest to quantify, and therefore the hardest variable to fully understand. Rest is not just about recovery. It’s not just about replenishing ATP. Every variable in your workout should be designed to get you closer to your goals, so when people ask me “how long should I rest?” I like to ask, “from what?”

Rest can be a tricky thing. I came up with this little workout for a duo of clients that train together. They named it “Mary-Kate & Ashley” “Mary-Kate”: (2 x 12kg) 10 Double Kettlebell Swings + 5 Double Kettlebell Front Squats + Farmer Carry down and back “Ashley”: (1 x 24kg) 10 Two-Handed Swings + 5 Goblet Squats + Suitcase Carry down, switch hands, Suitcase Carry back. Repeat 3x

There is no “rest period” and the workload is identical between the two series. If you do this workout, however, you will feel yourself resting during “Mary-Kate” and dreading “Ashley.”

Mark Twight’s “Tail Pipe” features a rest period (on paper) where you hold two kettlebells in the rack position. Dan’s “The Eagle” is little more (on paper) than 8x8 Double Kettlebell Front Squats with farmer walks instead of rest. But so much of the point of these workouts is missed on paper. With “Tail Pipe,” Twight is trying to train athletes to relax and breathe under load (literally 40kg of load on their chest) so the “rest period” is actually the training. With “The Eagle” Dan is trying to train his athletes to keep grinding it out and moving forward, so by the end the squats become a rest from the grip work of the farmer walks. “The Eagle” is training to trade one kind of pain for the another and using that illusion of relief to keep moving forward.

On the other end of the spectrum, a few weeks ago I tried out Craig Weller’s “50 Rep Workout.” I loaded 65% of my 1RM snatch on the bar, set a timer to go off every minute for 50 minutes, and pulled up American V on my iPhone. I listened intently until the timer went off, snatched, dropped the bar, then went back to thinking about Johnny Cash. With that load, I probably could have finished the workout in 15 minutes if I needed to. But my problem isn’t recovery. I’ve been having a problem with over-thinking the snatch so in this workout, I was resting from thinking too damn much. If I hadn’t been listening to Johnny and thinking about train motifs in the lyrics, the workout probably wouldn’t have been as effective.

The most famous rest period in a workout is probably the 10 seconds of rest in a Tabata. “10 seconds for rest every 20 seconds of work” is pretty exact. But what are you resting from? It’s totally possible to do front squats or stationary bike-sprints for 240 straight seconds. No, in a Tabata you’re resting from the intensity so you can pick it back up again. You’re training to dial the intensity up to 9 or 10 on a moment’s notice. ‘After all,’ you think, ‘it’s only 240 seconds.’ That’s why changing the classic Tabata often makes very little sense. Doubling the number of rounds guarantees half the intensity. Doubling the rest gives you too much time to think. Remember the goal is to keep the goal the goal and the goal of tabatas is intensity!

Rest is more than time. Rest periods are not dead time. They are another variable you can manipulate to help move you closer to your goal. So if the workout calls for rest, REST! Don’t start doing jumping jacks because you’re bored. If the workout calls for rest and you think you’ll get bored, just listen to a Johnny Cash song and think about the lyrics. Rest is more than “not working.” As the last song on Johnny’s American V implies, rest can also be redemption. Don’t waste it.