Active Recovery, WTF Does it Actually Mean

Hey fitness enthusiasts, this week’s topic is “active recovery.” I am going to explain what it actually is, what it can consist of, and how to program it into your routine or your athletes’ routines! Let’s get to it.

I believe we all have heard the phrase “active recovery,” but there are many definitions to have to sort through to discover a true meaning. For example, says it is like a cool down…which is just not enough information; gives a little more insight, but with a bias towards endurance athletes (which if you are an endurance athlete it is a quick read that you can check out). But from what I have found, nothing gives a cold cut definition that can stick and is simple. So, this is how I define active recovery – a training stimulus that provides an appropriate volume and intensity level to increase blood flow to a desired musculoskeletal system. If you read this sentence as “training stimula blah blah blah, big words, level, muscles,” then let me elaborate!


Active recovery is a day spent being active after a moderate to high intensity workout. For example, if you hit the weights really hard yesterday and are sore and stiff today, then you do some form of activity (training or recreationally) to loosen up, get the blood pumping, and feel better. Now, I know what most people think and decide to do instead when they wake up really sore and that is to be lazy and take the day off. Let me just say that that decision wastes opportunity to be better and only slows your recovery, performance, and “gains” down. Regardless of how easy it is to hit snooze, skip the gym, and lay on the couch with your favorite show or book for entertainment, you should move. If you know anything about anything, you know that blood is your main transporter of nutrients and that fresh blood to muscles and other tissues that have been damaged will help them recover more quickly; it’s a simple as that. Some secondary advantages of active recovery are more calorie expenditure in your day, increased repetitions or practice in your specific sport, correcting faulty movement patterns, increasing your mobility or flexibility (if you do not know the difference please email me or you can wait for the post about it) and ENJOYING LIFE! Yes, believe it or not, going outside and moving around in society and/or Mother Nature is a component of a happy life. However, with this many options to recover actively, you should know how to pick and program to get the most out of it.

For my athletes, I determine their active recovery off of how they feel, what their sport is, and what their previous training day consisted of (see list of examples at the bottom of the article).  If my athlete is a powerlifter then I stick to low impact cardio for a few minutes (just enough to break a sweat) then move into high volume and super low intensity free weight training that is isolated to what was worked previously. For example, if we had a bunch of pulls yesterday-such as deadlifts and lat work- then we would do a couple sets of 20 rep back extensions, rear flys or lat pull downs, bicep curls and maybe hamstrings depending on where they are sore. I would follow this with some movement practice based off of their specific needs. If they need squat-form work then we can take an empty barbell or pvc pipe and knock out a bunch of reps; or if they need hinge work for their deadlifts then we can do the same and not worry about being too sore. These activities promote recovery AND get more movement practice in. After this, we could do soft tissue work such as foam rolling, flossing, or accumobility (blogs to come about those) and limber up. If my athlete needs more active range of motion in any joint, then we can work on that as well. Now, the reason knowing how your athlete feels is important is because that will determine if you use weights or resistance bands for recovery. Too sore or stiff can make flawed movement patterns and be counterproductive. So, we can use resistance bands to isolate more so and get similar results. However, if you or your clients are beginners and not necessarily an athlete or competitor, then you can scale down all of these strategies.

Beginners can take longer to recover from challenging training days, and I KNOW you have experienced this; that is the five day soreness train you ride after your first workout session or after “getting back into the swing of things.” If this is the case, high volume general activity/low impact cardio for up to 20m will help get you going again. This can be walking around your neighborhood, taking a leisure bike ride, doing house chores ect. Just moving, NOT being lazy. You do not need a barbell or free weights to accomplish this either which means NO EXCUSES! Add some foam rolling and stretching where you lack flexibility and you will feel like a million bucks. As you become less sore and you can start adapting better, you can add movement practice into your recovery routines. Now, this could be as simple as an air squat, lunge, overhead press, pelvic control, etc. or a little more dynamic like a push press, weightlifting movements, or beginner plyometric work. As long as you don’t go too “hard in the paint” then you will recover more quickly, learn your movements faster, and progress faster. 

To sum it up and give you a template for programming this into your training, always consider these five things:

  1. Training level (beginner, intermediate, advanced etc.)
  2. Sport
  3. Previous training modality (type, volume, intensity)
  4. What do you need (mobility, better movement patterns, more practice on skilled movements, etc.)
  5. How you or your client actually feel (body and mind)

I hope this helps and thank you for reading!

Below I have provided some general examples that may assist you more in how an active recovery prescription should look like. If you have ANY questions in regards to this article, or about resting, do not hesitate to ask at, or Facebook!

Previous training day: High volume, moderate intensity hypertrophy with free weights (a lot of reps with reasonable weight that did a lot of muscular damage)
Feel: Extreme muscular soreness, joints feel fine, “a little tired”
Prescription: 10m low impact, low intensity cardio (til they break a sweat), 1 set of 20 reps with 30% training weight as isolated as possible to the muscles trained yesterday, 10m of skill training, 10+ minutes of mobility or flexibility training which can include foam rolling or soft tissue work.

Weightlifting (snatch and clean & jerk)
Previous training day: Skill biased training at 80-85% with moderate strength training
Feel: Joints feel sluggish, movement is slow, upper back is stiff
Prescription: 5m low impact cardio, 5m of moderate impact cardio (jump rope, jumping jacks, beginner plyometric drills), 15m empty barbell skill movements (turnovers, jerks, high pulls etc.), 10m+ of mobility and soft tissue work in upper back, shoulders, and neck.

Endurance Athlete (runner)
Previous training day: 1:2 intervals for 400 and 800m (lactic threshold training; high intensity work)
Feel: Hamstrings, calves, and abs are sore and stiff; ankles and knees feel a little sluggish and tight
Prescription: 20m of low to no impact cardio (bike, elliptical, or swimming recreationally), soft tissue work on calves, hamstrings, and quads; 2x 20 empty barbell or air squats paused; 1x20 forward AND backward lunge.

Previous training day: Generic upper body training – arms and chest
Feel: “sore all over”
Prescription: Low impact cardio either in the gym, outside, or chores for ~15m; some type of hanging stretch (holding themselves on a lat pulldown bar, from an actual pull up bar, off the side of a bed or couch in extreme lazy circumstances and stretching in this position for bouts of 30+ seconds; shoulder circles small to large and large to small.

Previous training day: “I hate my life” met con
Feel: Like death
Prescription: 10-15m low impact, low intensity cardio, full body stretching or consider a 30m yoga class, Resistance band joint work – shoulder rotations, hip rotations, and hinges. Depending on the met con, can do dumbbell isolated high volume work at 30% intensity.

Don’t see your sport? Have questions regarding football, soccer, basketball etc? Email Me!!