Stories from Active Recovery

9 rest day workout ideas that take your recovery up a notch

Rachel Lapidos

Rachel LapidosMay 13, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Tara Moore

Regardless of the types of workouts that you sweat through throughout the week, taking a day (or three) to recover is essential. But just because you’re not going hard on your recovery days doesn’t mean that you can’t do a little somethin-somethin to get your blood flowing. Doing a rest day workout is even recommended by fitness trainers.

Exercise on a rest day is not going to look like your HIIT session or power yoga flow—the name of the game is to take it easy. “You get strong when you properly recover,” says Eric Von Frohlick, trainer and founder of Row House. “If you don’t recover well, then you can’t train well. But it’s important to recognize that a rest day doesn’t necessarily mean inactivity.”

Instead, active recovery is something that trainers say can actually aid in your body’s recoup process after more intense workouts. Long walks, stretching, and restorative yoga are all ways to get some movement on your off-days. Keep scrolling to learn more about rest day workouts, example workouts that you can do, and signs that your body could use one.

Benefits of a rest day workout

Even though it’s totally fine to take a rest day and spend it in repose, you’ll gain added benefits to your overall strength by doing light activity. “Strategically planned recovery days give your muscles the chance to repair and rebuild, your nervous system the chance to reap the benefits of your effort, and your energy stores the ability to replenish for the next bout,” says Andy Coggan, senior director of fitness for Gold’s Gym, who adds that these days are key for any physical goal that you may have. “Blood flow to the muscles and tissues actually aids in the recovery process as this shuttles healthy nutrients to the body and encourages repair.”

“Blood flow to the muscles and tissues actually aids in the recovery process as this shuttles healthy nutrients to the body and encourages repair.” —Andy Coggan

Because working out intensely every single day is taxing on your body, rest day workouts benefit your body so that it gets a necessary break from high impact or hitting your max effort. “Rest days are mandatory if you want to avoid injuries and let you stay efficient during your regular workouts,” says Justin Norris, co-founder of LIT Method. “The best thing to do on these days is mobility work, light cardio, and stretching, which will help with your recovery process and keep your body moving at the same time.” He recommends foam rolling as another great activity to do since it increases blood flow and oxygen to your muscles on days when you aren’t going HAM at the gym.

On a psychological level, doing an active recovery exercise can get you doing something different that breaks up the monotony of your regular workouts. “Rest day workouts should be fun and something to look forward to since they’re easy and feel good,” says Coggan, nodding to massages, self-myofascial work, yoga, and dance as great options to do. “They get you to engage in a different environment or social network,” adds Von Frohlich, since recovery activities like walking, hiking, or bike riding can be done outside or with others to add to their enjoyment.

Signs you need a rest day workout

Too much stress on the body leads to an over-production of cortisol, the stress hormone. “A recovery day activity is important since it helps to reset your central nervous system,” says Von Frohlich. “If you burn it out, your body puts out a cortisol response, and you ultimately get a diminishing return for your training effort.”

If you fall into the habit of training hard all of the time, you could be experiencing a sort of workout burnout. “When exercising, the goal should be maximum result for minimum effort,” he says. “But overtraining is extremely common, and people can think that more training is better—but this isn’t true.” This can also lead to over-use injuries that can set you back from your fitness goals.

What to do on your recovery day

Generally, a rest day exercise will be low impact and a welcome break from the more rigorous workouts you do on other days of the week.  “As a general rule, if your heart rate is getting up and you’re feeling out of breath, you probably want to back off if you’re truly looking to have an effective rest and recovery day,” says Coggan. So the activities should be light, not hit anywhere near your max heart rate, and not produce as much sweat as, say, a boxing workout.

As for what to avoid, make sure you’re not doing anything high intensity or that involves resistance. “You will want to avoid resistance training on your rest day to help avoid injuries and give your body time to recover,” says Norris. Heavy weight lifting or speed work are also not going to make the cut. “Light jogging is great, but sprints would be counterproductive,” says Coggan. “Lightweight or bodyweight movements are great, but heavy weights will work against your recovery efforts.” Sports can also be considered high intensity, he adds, unless you’re highly conditioned to them.

Rest days could be a perfect opportunity to try something that involves totally different movement patterns than what you typically do. “Physically, it’s important to mix up your movement patterns,” says Von Frohlich. “The most benefit will come from integrating something new with different movement patterns, which could include rowing, biking, hiking, swimming, yoga, or a different modality of exercise than you’re used to doing.” Keep scrolling for all of the best rest day workout activities you can try for your next recovery sesh.


1. Foam rolling: Norris recommends about 15 minutes of foam rolling on an off day (even better if it’s followed by mobility work and stretching). Try the quickie foam rolling routine above if your lower body muscles are especially tight.


2. Walking: Trainers are big fans of walking if your leg muscles are sore, because it increases circulation and helps to shake out soreness. If you want to take it up a notch, try one of these walking workouts, or these indoor walking videos to guide you.


3. Stretching: Of course, one of the most recommended things to do for your body on a rest day is to stretch, since stretching is one of the best ways to lengthen out tight muscles. Try the full-body stretching video above, or search for other stretching routines on Well+Good’s YouTube channel.


4. Yoga: Plenty of trainers nod to yoga as a star option for active recovery. “Deep stretching and yoga can make for some great rest day activities,” says Von Frohlich. It gets your blood circulating and works as a moving meditation. Choose whatever kind of flow you like, from a more restorative yoga class to a vinyasa style flow.


5. Swimming: If you have access to a pool, swimming is an incredibly low-impact form of easy exercise. Take it easy if you decide to go for a dip, rather than attempt to reach your PR when swimming laps.


6. Biking: Experts also recommend hopping onto a bike (either a regular bicycle or an indoor spin bike) for a low-impact recovery day sesh. This is especially good for sore leg muscles since they get your lower body moving but not at an intense level (as in: don’t take the pedal to the metal). Bonus points for doing water cycling for added resistance on your muscles.


7. Dancing: Doing a little dance may be one of the sneakiest ways to work your body—it sometimes feels like you’re not doing a workout at all. Try a beginner dance cardio class like the one above, taught by trainer Amanda Kloots, or play your fave track and just go for it.


8. Hiking: As Coggan points out, a rest day is a good opportunity to switch up your environment… which you can do by going on an easy hike. Find a trail that you’ve never been to before, or hit up the closest hill or mountain for a light cardio activity. Or, ya know, if you don’t have one, you can take a virtual hike with a scenic video like the one above as you get your steps in on a treadmill.


9. Rowing: Von Frohlich says that his favorite rest day workout is rowing: “It engages 85 percent of your body’s muscles and lifts your heart rate without any impact,” he says. “If you’re sore from a heavy lift, rowing is a great way to lengthen and strengthen your muscles, move your joints through a large range of motion, and get blood flowing to your soreness.” Try the rowing workout above on your next recovery day.

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