The idea that if you're going to train hard, you have to recover hard has been around for a long time, but the concept of recovery—and what approach is best—has changed considerably over the years. When I first started training seriously 25 years ago, things were quite different. Back then, if you crushed yourself in the gym, it only made sense that you'd want to take a full day (or two!) off to recover. Nowadays, if you're really serious about your recovery, you know that sitting on your butt for 24-48 hours after a session is less than ideal. Chances are, your body is giving you subtle hints about this as well.
So, if sitting around isn't the ideal scenario, what is?
There are two basic types of recovery between training sessions:
- Passive recovery is doing nothing and letting your body take its good, sweet time to recover.
- Active recovery is doing some form of physical activity to promote recovery and regeneration.
I've been a huge proponent of active recovery for years. Even when I was younger, I realized that if I was sore after a session but got up and moved around the next day, I immediately started to feel better.
There's a multitude of reasons to start adding active recovery to your training plan, but here are a few of my "big rocks."
Decreased Stiffness and Soreness
We all know that we're probably going to be sore after a heavy training session. What's crazy is that the longer we sit around wallowing in our misery, the worse it seems to become. A workout that should take 24-36 hours to recover from becomes 48-72 hours instead. Getting up and moving around the day after a heavy workout improves blood flow and circulation, which helps reduce that post-workout stiffness and soreness.
One disadvantage of getting bigger and stronger is that we can (potentially) lose some of our mobility and athleticism along the way. Using active recovery and regeneration days helps offset this. Not only will it help us feel better, but if we choose the appropriate exercises, it can improve our overall movement quality and mobility, as well.
Improved Overall Fitness
While the aerobic system may not be the cool kid in school, it's of critical importance if you want to train at a high level frequently. It facilitates recovery on the muscular level as well as the nervous system level. There's an intimate link between the aerobic system and the parasympathetic nervous system—think rest and digest—so if you want to stimulate recovery, adding an aerobic element to your active-recovery sessions can be a game changer.
4 Rules for Creating an Active Recovery Workout
While there are tons of ways to rationalize what constitutes a "recovery workout," here are four guidelines I use to help lay out my sessions:
1. Choose Exercise That Is Non-taxing and Lightweight
Strength expert Dan John is famous for saying, "The goal is to keep the goal the goal." That may sound simple, but in this case, it needs to be stated. If the goal of a session is active recovery, it doesn't make sense to trash yourself during the session.
A key factor in any active recovery workout is that it must be of limited intensity. Use light weights, body weight, or even band resistance.
Focus on concentric methods like dragging a sled or pushing a prowler. Make it a goal to find ways to decrease the load and make the movement feel fluid. If it feels fluid and relaxed, you'll be on the right path.
2. Use Mostly Multijoint Exercises through a Full Range of Motion
One thing I feel is critical to a recovery session is going through a full range of motion. This isn't the time to use short, choppy exercises like hip thrusts, deadlifts, or kettlebell swings. Nor is it the time to isolate every single muscle group. Instead, think compound exercises with larger ROMs—like squats, lunges, and push-up variations, for example. They will not only promote blood flow and circulation, but also reduce muscle stiffness and soreness and restore mobility for the next training session.
3. Train Key Muscle Groups and Inhibit Problematic Ones
Look, we all know that some muscle groups are just harder to turn on than others. The glutes and hammies come to mind, as do the abdominals and perhaps even smaller groups like the serratus anterior. So, if you struggle to "find" these muscles in some of your bigger lifts, why not dedicate some time to them in your recovery sessions? What's really cool is that when you do this, it tends to inhibit, or relax, some of your more problematic muscle groups, as well. Whether it's the lower back, the hip flexors, or the calves, inhibiting those tight, stiff muscles can go a long way toward helping you move and feel better.
4. Choose Exercise that Increases Blood Flow and Circulation
This last point brings us full circle, as one of our primary goals overall is to increase blood flow and circulation. Still, the goal is not to crush ourselves with high-intensity intervals, instead, we want to keep things moving throughout the session. If you have to rest longer than 20-30 seconds to "recover" after an exercise, you're going too hard.
These rules have helped me design many active recovery workouts. Here are a few practical examples that you can take and use today.
It should be obvious now that my recovery days aren't just about feeling better, but about learning to move better, as well. That's exactly what the workouts below are designed to do—help you recover from those big training sessions and help you move better so that you can train harder each and every time you're in the gym.
Here are two examples you can try on for size:
- Goblet squat
- Arm bar series
- Reverse lunge
- Push-up to downward dog
- Half-kneeling cable press
- Abs or core move
- Plate or reaching squat
- Leg lowering with band
- Low cable split squat
- Push-up to single-arm support
- Half-kneeling landmine press
- Abs or core move
Now, let's break down the rationale:
- Squatting variations are great on a recovery day because they unlock mobility at the ankles, knees, and hips. Furthermore, both the goblet squat and plate or reaching squat shift the center of gravity back, which allows you to squat easier and more freely.
- The arm bar series is fantastic because it engages the muscles around the core and hips while simultaneously loosening up the upper back.
- Leg lowering with a band is one of my personal favorites, as it not only builds the abdominals but also inhibits the hip flexors and the calves.
- Lunges and split squats help train the legs independently and work to lengthen the hip flexors on the back of the leg.
- Push-ups are a key exercise for any program, but especially in a recovery workout. They strengthen the serratus anterior as well as the core.
- Last but not least, the half-kneeling core superset is absolute fire. Half-kneeling exercises are fantastic for turning off the hip flexors, and when you pair them with something that trains the abdominals, you get a massive return on your investment.
As I mentioned, I've been writing recovery sessions like the ones above for years, and when you do something for an extended period of time, you tend to get a few of the same questions over and over.
Can I do circuits instead of supersets?
Yes! In fact, I actually prefer to do these types of workouts as big circuits versus alternating supersets. The problem is, too often it comes down to space or equipment. If you train in a commercial gym, I seriously doubt you can set up five or six pieces of equipment and start rolling without someone hijacking your stuff.
So, yeah, if you have the equipment available, by all means do these in a circuit. But if not, the supersets will work really well.
Do I have to lift, or can I just do cardio?
No, you don't have to do it like this. I prefer these workouts because they actually do something for your movement capacity and they're less monotonous and boring. However, maybe you want mindless or boring. Maybe you want to shut off your brain and listen to a podcast or catch up on all eight seasons of Game of Thrones. If that's the case, make it easy on yourself.
- Drag a sled.
- Walk on the treadmill.
- Unweight yourself and go for a walk in the pool.
You won't get some of the ancillary benefits, but it will still help promote recovery and make you feel better!
I don't want to go to the gym. Can I just do a bunch of mobility drills instead?
Yes! This is actually one of my favorite tools, especially for some of my athletes who don't have great gym access or simply want some time off from the gym. Choose 8-10 of your favorite warm-up exercises or mobility drills and go through them continuously for 20-30 minutes. When you're done, I guarantee you're going to feel 10,000 percent better than when you started.
What about nutrition and supplementation?
A full recovery dietary strategy is outside the scope of this article, but I like to prioritize these easy tactics to help support recovery:
- Keep your protein up: I generally recommend eating 0.8-1 gram of high-quality protein per pound of body weight daily from a mix of whole food and supplement sources.
- Stay hydrated: Dehydration has a negative impact on performance and recovery. Shoot for half an ounce of water per pound of body weight, and consider using a sugar-free hydration and recovery supplement for extra flavor and additional benefits.
- Stack your starch: Use carbs strategically to support your training by placing them in the meal before and/or after your session. Eating them before will help keep energy levels up and intensity high, while eating them after will increase glycogen resynthesis and prep you for your next session.
Give Active Recovery a Try
Active recovery days may not be as cool as hitting a PR in the squat or bench press, but they set the stage for bigger and better training sessions down the line. Make them a part of your training plan for the next couple of weeks, and who knows? You may just like them—as well as the results they provide!