As the old mantra goes “muscles don’t grow in the gym, they grow while you’re resting”. Thus, it makes sense to give your body a break and include rest days in your training program. We’re all different, and we all recover at different speeds; however, the same rule applies: rest is mandatory. That said, many people associate rest days with being couch potatoes. I mean, that’s what a rest day implies at least. You just stay home, eat as much as humanly possible and let your body create new slabs of muscle. While that’s somewhat true, rest days don’t necessarily mean being completely inactive. In fact, being active on rest days will help you recover quicker and accelerate your progress. There are two types of recovery: 1) Active recovery. 2) Passive Recovery. The scope of this article will cover active recovery.
What is active recovery?
Active recovery refers to a workout that is inherently less intense and has significantly less volume than your regular workouts. The point of an active recovery workout is to help you recover quicker from a more intense workout by increasing blood flow to trained muscles. This, in turn, will promote recovery by activating protein synthesis, reducing residual fatigue within the muscle(s), shuttle more nutrients to the muscle, and improve circulation. Moreover, performing an active recovery workout will help you burn some calories that you can either eat back or put you in a caloric deficit (depends on your goals).
Frankly, the only relevant studies that have assessed the effectiveness of active recovery at speeding up recovery solely observed the effectiveness of active recovery on increasing lactate and other metabolic by-products removal between intense sessions. Other studies observed reduction in strength losses when performing active recovery workouts following intense sessions (Robert al. 2015, Donnelly et al. 1992, Strejcova et al. 2012, Weber et al. 1994), but the differences weren’t substantial in real world application. Also, these studies had a few limitations; short duration, small sample size, and irrelevant measurements (knee/elbow flexors). There is another critical problem with those studies; removing lactate and other by-products faster isn’t indicative of enhanced recovery. Personally, I haven’t come across any good studies that directly measure the effectiveness of active recovery on recovery from strength training sessions. Thus, you can consider this article mere speculation if you want; however, this would be foolish because the anecdotal evidence is in favor of active recovery.
Although direct studies don’t exist, we can somewhat predict the effectiveness of active recovery by looking at some recovery-relevant pathways. For instance, shuttling more nutrients to muscles will definitely accelerate recovery and tissue regeneration, which is one of the reasons why steroids work so well. Improving blood circulation should have a similar effect. Citing studies that show weightlifting improves nutrient partitioning isn’t necessary because that’s common knowledge. Another recovery-related pathway is protein synthesis. Once again, resistance training is known to increase protein synthesis. Thus, the more frequently you stimulate protein synthesis through intelligent dietary strategies and proper training, the faster your recovery will be.
Passive recovery is the act of being a couch potato. You just stay in and do nothing but eat. Many people who just started training have been led to believe that rest days should be solely passive recovery days. To compound the brainwashing, beginners are advised to eat food as they usually eat on their training days, if not more. As usual, there is time and place for everything, including rest. The human body is more resilient than most people think. Your muscles won’t collapse into piles of crushed amino acids if you do some activity on rest days. The idea of eating substantially more on rest days is what concerns more, though. If you decide to be a complete couch potato on a given day, don’t eat that much! You simply don’t need that much food. You barely did anything and consuming a substantial excess of calories will yield nothing but extra fat gain. Your body will use however much it needs to recover and store the rest as energy reserve.
By now, you might be wondering whether your rest days should include active recovery workouts or remain activity-free. Personally, I like doing both! I am a firm believer of autoregulation. In other words, your body knows best. If you energetic and feel the need to work out, go ahead and have an active recovery session. Another bonus is you’ll get to eat more while having fun. If your most recent training session has left you completely beat up, then I think it would be wise to just rest and eat. Autoregulating your rest days will be far superior to sticking to one style of “recovery days”.
Active Recovery Ideas
Even though active recovery commonly refers to a less intense workout, it can also include different types of activity. You need not go to the gym and lift weights if you don’t want to. Here are some active recovery ideas:
Light resistance training
I have a pair of light dumbbells in my house. What I usually do is I take them out of my dungeon and do 3 to 4 sets per body part. Nothing more, nothing less. Remember, the point of this session is to accelerate recovery, not prolong it. Sometimes, I feel like doing bodyweight exercises. So, I do some calisthenics with the same amount of volume per body part (3-4 sets). You should feel amazing after this session, not beat up. I also like to use resistance bands.
Look, I hate cardio as much as the next guy. I played soccer for 15 years. So, I have done enough cardio for 5 lifetimes in a row. Instead of doing resistance training, you can go out for a light jog at the park. DO NOT SPRINT YOUR LIFE AWAY! A short and brief jog combined with some sprints is more than enough. Go home, shower, and have a nice meal.
Contrary to popular belief, active recovery isn’t exclusive to an exercise session. In fact, doing daily tasks and just moving around qualifies as active recovery. So, feel free to move around, cook a nice meal, clean something, fix your car, go grocery shopping…etc. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, just move! Take your wife out on a date or something. Stop stressing so much about your gains. Go grab a bite with some old friends.
Stretching is one of those dreaded activities in the fitness realm. I am not going to lie and claim that I enjoy stretching, I loathe it, but it has its benefits. Stretching can improve blood circulation, improve range of motion, improve flexibility, and improve your “mobility” -I hate this word-. It’ll also help you address any problems you may have with some muscles’ range of motion and postural imbalances.
Rest is mandatory for recovery; however, rest days need not be activity-free. Utilize active recovery to accelerate recovery between intense sessions. Although active recovery will be better than passive recovery 9 times out of 10, passive recovery still has its place. Instead of painting all rest days with a broad brush, autoregulate your rest days based on how you feel. For example, if you just broke up with your boyfriend and have been under tremendous stress, it would make more sense to skimp out on active recovery sessions. Your recovery systems aren’t functioning optimally as it is, why add more fuel to the fire? May autoregulation be your guide!