Active Recovery Ultimate Guide: What Should I Do on Rest Days?

This dog is chillin on it's off day. Smart move.

“Steve, what am I supposed to do on days when I’m not training?”

It’s a great question and one we receive quite frequently here at Nerd Fitness.

With our coaching clients, not only do we create workout schedules for them, we also help them utilize “off days” with active recovery. 

Today, we’ll share with you the exact same lessons (click to jump to that section): 

Is It Good to Work out Every Day? (Why You Need Rest Days)

Should this LEGO work out every day? Let's find out.

We advise our coaching clients to train 3 days per week with full-body strength training routines.

This would include lots of compound movements like squats, push-ups, overhead presses, and deadlifts

Rebel Leader Steve showing how to do a 420 lb deadlift at the gym.

These exercises work multiple muscle groups at once, resulting in an efficient, functional, strategy for strength building and weight loss.

Here’s the important science for today’s lesson: your muscles are actually broken down during your workout.

When challenged enough, they tear during the exercise and only start to grow back during the 24-48 hours after training.[1]

That’s why it doesn’t benefit us to train the same muscles every day; we don’t want to destroy them without giving them a chance to grow back stronger.

If you follow our advice and do full-body strength training workouts 2-3 times a week, the question “How many days a week should I rest?” can be answered with “around 4 or 5 days without heavy lifting.

So, does this give you free rein to binge-watch your favorite show on “days off from the gym?”

On days off from the gym, don't just watch Netflix! Do some active recovery...THEN watch Netflix.

While I’m not going to tell you to delete your Netflix account (the horror), I do want to talk about making the most of your time away from the gym.

What Should I Do on Gym Rest Days? (Active Recovery)

What should you do on your day off from the gym? Go outside like this LEGO!

The biggest problem most people have with off days is that they become cheat days! 

Because they’re not training, they’re not thinking about being fit and it’s much easier to slack off, eat poorly, and lose momentum.

This is bad news bears.

Don't lose momentum on your off days, and watch where you're going when catching a fly ball!

Remember, exercise is only 10-20% of the weight loss equation: how we eat and rest is the other 80-90%!

Personally, I know I am far less likely to eat poorly when I’m doing some active recovery than when I’m not doing anything deliberately.

So plan your off days!

They’re not “off days,” they’re “recovery days,” and they serve a vital role in building an antifragile kickass body capable of fighting crime (or roughhousing with your kids in the backyard).

Whether it’s scheduling one of the Rest Day Workouts below at the same time you normally train every day, or deliberately adding a morning mobility/stretching routine to your day, doing SOMETHING every day is a great way to remind ourselves “I am changing my life and I exercise daily.”

Try to be "active" every day so you can continue your streak of success!

Which leads us to the idea of “active recovery.”

Active recovery is any gentle movement designed to help your muscles heal after training. 

It’s a subject we discuss in our guide on DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)

When you exercise, you increase blood flow to your muscles. By moving your body, you’re actually speeding up your recovery.[2]

The trick is to be active enough to increase blood flow, but gentle enough that you allow the muscles to heal. 

Our Rest Day Workouts below will walk that fine line.

We'll walk the fine line between active and gentle with our workouts below.

On days when I’m not training, I try to block off a similar amount of time to work on myself in some way to maintain momentum, and I encourage you to do the same if you lose momentum when taking a day off.

It could be flexibility training, mobility training, meal prep, and more. I’ll cover these below! Whatever it is, do SOMETHING every day, even if it’s for just five minutes, to remind yourself that you are making progress towards your new life.

Need help building a weekly workout schedule, including rest days? I have two options for you.

The first is to get your hands dirty and check out our guide “How To Build Your Own Workout Routine.” It’ll walk you through everything you need to design a day-to-day exercise plan.

Alternatively, we can do all of the heavy lifting for you (well, not ALL the heavy lifting) – we’ll create a specific routine so all you have to do is log into your NF Coaching App each morning and do the workout your coach prescribed!

Rest Day Workout 1: Mobility

This cat is relaxing on his day off from the gym. Should he be doing active recovery?

We’ve all felt that soreness the day after (or two days after) strength training – our muscles have been broken down and are incredibly tight from all of the heavy lifting.

For that reason, one of the best things you can do on an off day is to work on your flexibility and mobility. After all, what good is strength if we can’t move our body properly to utilize it! Dynamic stretching and mobility work helps prepare our body for the rigors of strength training and keeps us injury free!

Regardless of whether or not you have a training day scheduled, start each morning with a mobility warm-up: a series of dynamic movements that gets your body activated and wakes up your muscles, joints, and tendons. If you live in an apartment or are just getting started, feel free to leave out the jumping jacks:

This gives us a chance every morning to check in with our bodies and reminds us mentally “I am leveling up physically, might as well eat right today too.”

Here’s another favorite mobility routine from my friend (and coach) Anthony Mychal. It says it’s a warm-up for tricking, but it’s quite helpful for those of us mere mortals: 

If you spend all day at a desk, doing some basic mobility movements throughout the day can keep your hips loose and keep you thinking positively. Here’s an article on how to dominate posture at your desk job.

Rest Day Workout 2: Fun Activities

Soccer is a great fun activity for your days away from the gym.

We are genetically designed to move, not sit on our asses for 60+ hours a week. Not only that, but we are genetically designed to have fun doing so too!

Which means we can spend time on our off days working on our happiness AND staying active at the same time.

What should you do when away from the gym? Have fun like these people playing soccer in hamster balls!

This fun activity can mean something different for everybody:

  • Go for a bike ride with your kids
  • Go for a run around your neighborhood
  • Play kickball in a city league (I play on Thursdays!)
  • Play softball
  • Swim
  • Go for a walk with your significant other
  • Go rock climbing
  • Learn martial arts like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu or Capoeira or Kung Fu
  • Take a dance class
  • Try Live Action Role-Playing (LARP!)
  • Play on a playground
  • Roll down a hill and run back up it

Check out our guide “40 Fun Exercises! Exercise Without Realizing It” for even more ideas!

I honestly don’t care WHAT you do, as long as it’s something you truly enjoy doing – it should put a smile on your face and gets your heart pumping.

If you enjoy it and it gets you outside, it can be active recovery, like this man is enjoying!

Exercise does not need to be exhausting or miserable. If you haven’t found an activity you enjoy yet, you haven’t tried enough new things.

The point is to get outside, remember it’s a damn good day to be alive, and that we are built to move.

Helping clients discover exercise they love is one of the key components of our Online Coaching Program. Whether it’s learning parkour, hiking in a nearby forest, or heading to the gym to grab a barbell, we help clients discover their passion so working out becomes enjoyable.

Rest Day Workout 3: Intervals, Sprints, and Walking

If you want to up your active recovery, sprinting can be a great way to do it.

“But Steve, I have this big party coming up and I really am trying to lose as much weight as possible.”

Okay okay, I hear you – if that’s the case, then 90% of the battle is going to be with your diet. You should focus your energy on healthy eating in order to lose weight. But there are SOME things you can do on your off days that can help you burn more calories:

1) Interval Training  In interval training, you’ll be varying your running pace. This means you may switch between jogging and walking, or walking and sprinting (there are few different methods of interval training). This training style can help speed up your metabolism for the hours after you finish.

2) Sprinting If you like the idea of burning extra calories and building explosive power and speed, check out our article on becoming the Flash. Find a hill, sprint up it, walk down, and repeat the process for 10-20 minutes. No need to overthink it!

The Flash does sprints on his days away from the gym, but really, the Flash does sprints constantly.

3) Long walks Walking is a low-impact activity that burns extra calories and doesn’t overly tax your body. What a “long walk” will be is different for everybody based on their level of fitness, but walking is one of the best things you can do for yourself!

If you want to take a more active recovery day, the most important thing is to listen to your body. Destroying ourselves for 6+ days a week can really wear us down, causing long term problems if we’re not careful.[3]

Rest Day Workout 4: Yoga

yoga-interest

You might not realize it, but yoga is the perfect complement to strength training:

Strength training makes us stronger, but it can tighten up our muscles and make us sore.

Yoga, on the other hand, lengthens our muscles and tendons,[4] aids in their recovery,[5] and helps our body develop better mobility and flexibility.[6]

Yoga is the perfect active recovery workout for your day off from the gym.

It’s the perfect way to create a strong AND mobile body, ready for anything and everything we throw at it.

It’s kind of like turning your body into a swiss-army knife: prepared to be strong, flexible enough to avoid injury, and truly antifragile.

Now, if you’ve never been to a yoga class before, it can certainly be intimidating, especially if you’re a ones-and-zeros programmer wary of the practice’s more spiritual aspects.

There can be a little "woo" at yoga so keep an open mind.

That was my concern years ago before I got started with it; I had to muster up 20 seconds of courage to attend my first yoga class, and I’m so glad I did.

Here’s how to get started with Yoga!

  • Nearly any commercial gym you join will have yoga classes.
  • Most yoga studios have classes throughout the day.
  • Follow a plethora of videos online if you want to get started at home.

In fact, here’s a beginner routine you can follow from Nerd Fitness right now:

If you like how we do things around here and that video piqued your interest, consider checking out our full-length course, Nerd Fitness Yoga:

  • 6 full 30-min workout routines you can follow along to:
  • Download or stream the routines anytime, anywhere, on any device.
  • Mini-mobility sessions to help you deal with a sore back, tight shoulders, poor posture, etc.

We’re super proud of Nerd Fitness Yoga, and I’d love for you to check it out! It comes with a 60-day money back guarantee!

Need help with any of the poses? Check out 21 Yoga Poses for Beginners for guidance on all positions.

Rest Day Workout 5: Foam Roller

A foam roller can offer you a massage, great for active recovery.

You’ll often hear using a foam roller as “self-myofascial release.”

You may be asking, “myofawhatnow?”

Rock learning about foam rolling and active recovery.

Don’t stress, because “fascia” is just the connective tissue covering muscle. 

Just know that “self-myofascial release” means giving yourself a tissue massage.

The important thing for today’s lesson: a rolling massage has been shown to help alleviate muscle soreness.[7] Which means it’s a perfect inclusion for active recovery.

Here’s some simple rolling exercises you can try today, courtesy of NF Coach Matt

Yes, that is in fact a T-Rex. Yes, it was 100% Matt’s idea.

If you want even more information, including recommendations on which type of roller to purchase, check out our guide “How to Use a Foam Roller.”

Making the Most of Your Days Off (3 Rest Day Best Practices)

No matter what you do on your day off, enjoy it!

No matter what you end up doing on your rest day, here are some best practices to keep in mind. 

Rest Day Best Practice #1: Meal Prep

As we know, a healthy body is made in the kitchen, not in the gym.

The Swedish Chef knows how to use the kitchen for active recovery.

It’s important to stay diligent with healthy nutrition even on days when you’re not hitting the gym.

One of the best ways to do that is to use one of your non-training days to prepare your meals for the week! NF Coach Staci Ardison does all of her meal prep for the week on Sundays, and looks at it like an activity that is furthering her fitness journey.

Interested?

Staci walks you through everything you need to start cooking for the week in our Guide to Meal Planning and Prep. Plus, here’s my exact recipe for batch cooking chicken:

Rest Day Best Practice #2: Engage Your Brain

I like to use one of my off days to break a mental sweat too!

On Tuesdays, I take fiddle lessons, which is a mental workout so taxing that I can’t wait to get back to deadlifts!

Learning an instrument can be a great activity for your day off from the gym.

Learn a language, build a table out of wood, or go play chess with a friend. 

Anything that forces your mind beyond its comfort zone engages your brain. A great way to spend your time away from the gym.

Rest Day Best Practice #3: Have Fun!

Whether it’s playing a video game, getting caught up on a movie or TV show, or reading a book, it’s important for us to do the nerdy or fun things that make us who we are.

As the Rules of the Rebellion state: fitness can become part of what we do, but not at the expense of who we are!

I’m currently playing through Batman: Arkham Knight, and as I collect the Riddler Trophies, I think to myself: “I am rebuilding muscle like Batman.”

Batman doesn't take off days. No rest for the caped crusader.

If you live for playing Dungeons and Dragons with friends, make room for it on your calendar. 

Just like it’s important to schedule health and fitness, it’s important to schedule fun.

This guide has provided you with all the tools you need to begin an active recovery practice and to make the most of your rest days.

If you’re looking to go a bit further, I have three options for you…

1) If you want step-by-step guidance creating a workout schedule, getting stronger, and even eating better, check out our killer 1-on-1 coaching program:

2) Good at following instructions and want a blueprint to follow? Check out our self-paced online course, the Nerd Fitness Academy.

The Academy has 20+ workouts for both bodyweight or weight training, a benchmark test to determine your starting workout, HD demonstrations of every movement, boss battles, meal plans, a questing system, and supportive community.

#3) Join The Rebellion! We have a free email newsletter that we send out twice per week, full of tips and tricks to help you get healthy, get strong, and have fun doing so. 

I’ll also send you tons of free guides that you can use to start leveling up your life too:

Alright, your turn: How do you stay on target even on days when you’re not “training?”

I’d love to hear from you – do you take the day off completely? Do you challenge yourself in a different way?  Do you try to do something every day to keep the momentum up, or do you actually take days off?

Leave it in the comments!

-Steve 

PS: Another good rest day activity? Take a nap!

Your body does quite a lot of its healing during sleep. Get some proper shut-eye.

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Photo sources: sleepyhead, A good Sunday to you, resting cat, Rain doesn’t stop a photographer, soccer player, Run, foam roller, back to vacation,

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