The Role Of Active Rest in Training

If you are anything like me, then you might have a problem when it comes to putting the brakes on. When it gets to Thursday or Friday and I am feeling bushwhacked from the previous 4 or 5 workouts, I know that I need to take at least 1 day of rest for some recovery. The only problem is that I either don’t want to lay around for a whole day doing nothing, or I don’t want to do a half-assed workout when I am surrounded by iron plates that are begging to be used.

Lets delve a little bit deeper into the role that a “half-assed” workout can play in your recovery VS. laying on the couch all day playing L.A. Noire (yes please).


Active rest, or active recovery refers to a workout done at a reduced intensity and volume of loading (relative to a normal workout). For example, a weightlifter could use a light day of training at about 75% of 1RM for sets of 3-5. Keep in mind that at 75% you should generally be able to do 10-12 reps at this weight, so 3-5 is very sub-maximal for an active rest day. In simplest terms, active rest is meant to be an easy/light day.


Weightlifters found out early that alternating harder and easier days helped avoid problems, which eventually evolved into various cycling themes (including the fairly popular heavy/light/medium approaches).

This idea further evolved and easy days were taken to be active recovery days. The arguments for active rest days vary from person to person. Some argue that active rest days stimulate the metabolic pathways of recovery without contributing to fatigue.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, others argue that active rest has no truly active role in hastening recovery. Instead they argue that active rest simply doesn’t contribute to training stress, while allowing some light work to be done, and that recovery will occur at the same place regardless.

For myself, the difference that active rest makes is noticed on my perceived level of soreness or stiffness. I have continuously noticed that when I have a heavy squatting day, and I do some air squats, running, and mobility work the following day then my tightness and soreness seem to diminish.

Benefits Of Active Rest

For sports that have a technical component (ie: all of them) active rest can basically double as a technical workout. Since the intensity is low, you are able to focus on some aspects of your technique and do it under conditions where proper performance should be achievable.

This is especially true for sports with a huge “feel/groove” component, like Olympic weightlifting. These kind of activities require athletes to keep in touch with them almost daily or they lose their feel for the movement. The more precise the movements are, the more this tends to be the case. Getting in some light work on active rest days will allow you to keep you greasing your groove in addition to technical benefits that can be gained.

Active rest days can also be beneficial for those who are wishing to achieve a loss in bodyfat without increasing stress to already exhausted muscles. Burning the extra calories on an active rest day can make the difference in the end.

Drawbacks Of Active Rest

You can basically look back at the list of benefits and just reverse them for the list of drawbacks. Some of you simply just don’t do well on active rest days. As defined in the definition section above, an active rest day is meant to be a light, low volume workout . The active rest day itself is not the problem, the actual problem lies with human nature. Humans can have poor self-control. Sometimes you head into an active recovery workout, and then you notice that you actually feel pretty good.

Then you start screwing it up.

If you notice that you feel pretty good, you start pushing the intensity up and before you know it, you have just turned it into an actual workout. Understandable, since you just drove or walked 20 minutes to the gym, you want to feel like it was worth your trip, you decide to just do a full workout. This will negate any possible benefit that active recovery can offer. I have been guilty of this in the past, and I am fairly certain it contributed to my big burnout in June.

The Rules Of Active Rest

There are pros and cons to everything in life, and if you are reading this, I am going to assume that you will or have already implemented active rest workouts into your training. Lets go over a few quick rules.

1.Volume should be 1/2-2/3 of a normal workout.

2. Intensity should be perhaps 60% maximum heart rate for endurance athletes and up to 75% of 1RM for weight trainers.

3. You should finish the workout feeling better than you started.

Number 3 is key. If you leave an active rest workout feeling worse than before, you went too heavy or your intensity was too high. Keep experimenting with intensity levels until you find on that keeps you technically sound but doesn’t fatigue you. Remember that nutrition also plays a huge role in recover, so make sure to implement proper nutrition for recovery as well.


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