Active Recovery: Best Exercises and Workouts to Do on Your Rest Day

Rest days are an integral part of any training program, they are essential for optimal recovery. And if you're strength training and consistently hitting the heavy weights then you want to make sure you're doing everything possible to maximize your recovery. Although there are times when you do need a complete rest day filled with your favorite self-care activities, there may be a day in your training week you can do a little more... This is when you can take your rest day to the next level and make it an active recovery day.

Active recovery is unlike what most do on their rest day, which is passive recovery or sitting on the couch binge-watching your favorite tv show (no hate, we're guilty of it too). Active recovery actually involves movement to increase blood flow and speed up the recovery process. But don't worry, your rest day won't involve an hour-long workout session, instead, it'll be low-intensity activities that help stretch out your sore muscles so you bounce back feeling stronger and ready to tackle your next training session!

So, how can you incorporate active recovery into your workout plan?

We have everything you need to know below about active recovery... It's actually important for so much more than just a rest day...

Why do active recovery

We all know how our bodies feel after a challenging workout, especially a day later. Those who do a lot of high-impact and high-intensity exercise, like weight lifting or interval training, often experience delayed onset muscle soreness, also known as DOMS. This is soreness is due to the muscle damage done during training which leads to inflammation and feeling physically fatigued. Despite popular belief, and as tempting as it is, laying down and doing nothing isn't the best recovery technique. No hate to passive recovery, but active recovery has been shown to be better due to the enhanced blood flow that helps contribute to less muscle pain. But there's more than just that, the benefits of active recovery include...

  • It helps improve muscle flexibility.
  • It helps shuttle out waste, like lactic acid, that builds up during exercise.
  • It can reduce muscle stiffness and soreness.
  • It reduces your risk of overtraining and injury.
  • It will help you maintain a consistent workout routine and make better choices on non-training days.

When to do it

There are actually two different times we suggest doing a form of active recovery...

  1. Immediately after a tough workout.
  2. Between exercise days as an active rest day.

Cooling down after an intense workout is just as important as warming up! Always do some type of active recovery after working out to get your heart rate down, increase blood circulation, and reduce lactic acid buildup to help you recover effectively. Studies recommend spending 6-10 minutes cooling down after your workout by doing active recovery exercises (we'll be going through the best ones below).[1]

As a guide, aim to perform an active recovery session at around 60%-70% of your maximum effort, or even less depending on your level of fitness.

When it comes to between exercise days, you want to try to replace one of your rest days or training sessions with an active recovery day. This will help give your body a break from strenuous activity while helping you maintain your endurance and strength and improving your recovery time.

So, what are the best active recovery exercises?

What to do for active recovery

Active recovery is quite simple! You simply want to move your body and perform at around 60-70% of your maximum effort, depending on your fitness level. Below, we break down the best active recovery exercises to do for cool downs, and the best active recovery workouts you can do on your active rest day!

Best active recovery exercises for cool downs

For post-workout recovery, try one or all of these active recovery exercises...

  • Self-myofascial release: This is most popularly known as foam rolling! This active recovery method involves using a foam roller, ball, or massage stick to roll over the muscle group worked. This helps remove lactate buildup, reduce tightness, and tension in the muscle tissue, which in turn reduces the risk of DOMS. To do it correctly, slowly roll over the entire muscle group worked until you find a tender spot. It shouldn't be extremely painful, it should be tolerable. Once you find that spot, roll over it slowly for 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
  • Walking or cycling at a low-intensity: Light or steady-state cardio is a great way to cool down and reduce your heart rate, plus it'll help you get some extra steps in! After your workout, hop on a treadmill or stationary bike for ten minutes or until your heart rate is below 120 beats per minute.
  • Stretching: A fast and simple cool down you can try is stretching! If your short on time spend at least 5 minutes stretching, focusing on dynamic movements, opposed to static. Focus on bodyweight movements like lunges, leg swings, arm circles, cat and camel, and more. Keep your movements low-impact so no jumping or bouncing, think yoga-like movements! It's essentially like doing another warm up, so pick a few of your favorite exercises that work on stretching the muscle group you worked on.

​What to do to have an effective active recovery day

For those needing something to do on their rest day, focus on doing a low-intensity exercise for 15-40 minutes. The duration of your workout depends on what you prefer to do, and how much time you have to do it. So, just a pick a time that works best for you, it doesn't matter as long as you're moving your body!

Your active recovery workout shouldn't add stress to your body or cause you to burnout. Instead, it should be enjoyable and make you feel refreshed, energized, and ready for your next workout sesh! When it comes to having a successful active rest day, try these workouts and follow these healthy tips:

  • Do steady-state cardio: The last thing you want to do on your day off is do sprints, HIIT, or any high-impact cardio. Although those are great workouts to do on your training days, you shouldn't do them on your off days. Instead, focus on low-intensity steady-state cardio! This form of physical activity is better on your off day because it gets your entire body moving, increases your heart rate, and still helps you work up a good sweat. We suggest light jogging, walking on incline, or even swimming. Pick your favorite cardio workout and keep the intensity low to moderate (keeping your heart rate between 120-140 bpm).
  • Do some yoga: Those weight training could benefit from incorporating yoga as an off day activity because it can help improve your flexibility thus improving your range of motion. Plus it helps relax and unwind your mind to help reduce stress levels, promotes better blood flow to help repair broken down muscle tissue, and lengthens the muscles and tendons. The best part is, there are so many free yoga workouts at your disposal! You can look through Instagram, Pinterest, and Youtube for workout ideas. If your new, start slow by starting with a 10 minute workout and working your way up to a 30 minute full-body yoga session!
  • Do some flexibility training: If yoga is not your thing, but you still want to improve your flexibility and range of motion, then use your time off to focus on flexibility training! Tight muscles can reduce the explosiveness necessary for various popular strength training exercises, so using your rest day as a day to work on your flexibility can help improve your future exercise performance to get you better results. Flexibility training simply involves a lot of mobility and activation exercises in important areas like your core, glutes, hip flexors, and hip abductors. A few examples include planks, glute bridges, fire hydrants, frog stretch, and a lunge with spinal twist. But if you need more exercise ideas, here are >> 10 Flexibility Exercises You Can Try at Home.
  • Go outdoors: A successful rest day does much more than just move your body, it helps reduce your overall stress levels. And one way to do that is by hitting the outdoors! You don't need to stick to your usual normal workout routine, pick something to do outdoors! Like go on a bike ride with your loved ones, hit the nearest walking trail, or just stretch in the great outdoors! You'll get fresh air and movement, the two things that will turn a regular rest day to a great one.
  • Eat enough protein: Besides moving your body, you want to make sure you're still eating enough protein even if its your day off! A rest day doesn't mean a day off from your healthy diet and lifestyle, so remember to eat enough protein to help with muscle recovery. Plus, you're still moving your body, so you want to make sure you're getting the nutrients needed for energy and recovery. If you want to maximize your active recovery day then don't forget to have a protein or amino acid supplement! Have a protein shake on your day off to increase your protein intake and give your body the amino acids needed for recovery. Or have a scoop of BCAA's during or after your active recovery workout to help reduce muscle fatigue and enhance recovery! It's not necessary, but it can be beneficial for those with muscle-building goals.

Choosing the best active recovery exercises depends on your fitness goals, and your overall interests. At the end of the day, it's still a rest day so pick something you enjoy! Don't pick something like yoga or pilates if you're going to dread it. Pick something that aligns with your goals, and helps put your body and mind in a relaxed state – whatever you decide to do, you'll be ready to crush your next workout session 💪

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