Active Recovery vs Rest Day: Exercise Smarter

You know that feeling of being sore a day or two after a strenuous workout, and now you’re wondering is it an active recovery day or is a rest day.

The short answer is, it’s most likely an active recovery day unless you’ve worked out about as hard as you can and it was a high-intensity day. If you’re incredibly sore, movement is restricted (not just achy) and your tender to the touch, take a rest day or two.

If your soreness was caused by a low to moderate workout, then active recovery will benefit you.

In this post I’ll explain active recovery vs rest day, and when you should do which. I’ll also discuss how to prevent muscle soreness, so you don’t have to deal with it often.

Active Recovery vs Rest Day

What Is Considered a Rest Day

A rest day is pretty easy to explain, so I”m not going to belabor this more than it needs to be.

A rest day is simply taking a day off from working the muscles that you’ve fatigued. Unless you work out the entire body every time you lift, a rest day is easy. For example, if you’re doing an upper and lower body split, on the days that you’re doing an upper body workout, you’re lower body gets a rest. And vice versa.

If you’re a beginner it might take a couple of days to rest muscles you’re just recently started training. After a couple of weeks, your muscles will become a little more resilient to working out and will recover a bit better.

Rest allows your muscles to rebuild and grow, so it’s critical to provide rest days.

Signs You Need A Rest Day

  • You’re Tired – if you haven’t slept well or if you’re just exhausted and/or muscle fatigued
  • You’re Sick – working out regularly helps boost your immune system, but when you do get sick, it could be best to save that energy and let your body recover.
  • Sore to Touch – if you apply a little pressure to your muscles and they scream at you, a rest day is appropriate.
  • Feel Weak – if you’re muscles feel weaker than normal they need a rest day.
  • Not seeing results – it’s possible to overtrain and you can actually decrease in strength. Overtraining can occur when you’re not taking adequate rest days.

If you’re a gym rat and feel guilty about taking rest days you need to think of it as part of your workout routine. A rest day doesn’t mean you’re lazy, it means you’re working smarter not harder.

How To Maximize Your Rest Day

On rest days, you need to slow everything down, primarily your calorie intake. Since you won’t be burning through as many calories as a lifting day, your body doesn’t require that much fuel.

Make sure you’re giving your body adequate amounts of protein to repair muscles and make sure you’re taking in some carbs to restore your glycogen levels and as always, keep your fruit and vegetable intake up.

What Is Considered Active Recovery

Active recovery is in between a rest day and an active workout day.

I know I need an active recovery day, when I’m pretty darn sore, but not so sore that I should take a rest day.

Active recovery is low-intensity exercise a day or two after a hard workout. Active recovery helps keep blood flowing to your muscles and pumping fresh oxygen to those muscles for recovery.

The Benefits of Active Recovery

  • Reduces muscle soreness
  • Keeps joints and muscles flexible
  • Reduces lactic acid buildup
  • Keeps your workouts on schedule
  • Don’t get that guilty feeling

The best active recovery that I use is bodyweight circuit training at a low intensity or low-intensity cardio. For example, if my muscle soreness is primarily in my legs, I’ll do some stretching, foam rolling, and a 30-60 minute walk. I try to keep the hills to a minimum and seek out flat terrain. This keeps the blood flowing while allowing my muscles to repair. Even slight uphills can start to feel like a workout, so I try to stay on flat ground.

If the muscle soreness is primarily in the upper body, again, a lot of stretching and very light dumbbell workouts. Depending on how sore you are, I would even avoid pushups. I light chest workout will get the blood flowing, and stretch out the muscles.

Other Active Recovery Workouts

  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Low-intensity elliptical
  • Light or slow cycling (Best Spin Bikes for Short Riders)
  • Slow jogs

If done properly active recovery can provide more energy for future workouts that week, it can reduce muscle soreness and it can quicken your recovery. As you get to know your body, you’ll be able to decide whether a rest day or active recovery day is appropriate.

How To Prevent Muscle Soreness

No pain, no gain right? Well, reducing muscle soreness or eliminating it is pretty easy. Since it happens to everyone and so frequently, there’s even a cool name for it, delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). If you’re doing workouts and are constantly experiencing muscle soreness, I’m here to offer some tips on how to alleviate DOMS.

You can do static or dynamic stretches.
Active Recovery vs Rest Day

DOMS recovery will play a large role in whether you stick to your workout routine or not, so it’s best to know how to overcome muscle soreness.

What you do before and after your workouts can have a drastic effect on how sore you’ll be in the following days.

One of the biggest reasons you may be sore is you don’t exercise the muscles often enough. If you’re doing single muscle exercises once a week, you’re giving the muscles too much rest time.

At a minimum, you should be hitting the same muscles at least twice a week. For example, if you do squats once during the week, you’ll be sore for the next couple of days, and then when you do them again the following week, inevitably you’ll be sore again for a couple of days.

To avoid this issue, you need to be doing squats at least twice a week. You don’t necessarily need to be doing the same exact exercise twice a week but you need to be stressing those same muscles at least twice a week.

What Helps Muscle Soreness?

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure right?

Until recently you were always encouraged to stretch before lifting or exercise. However, this has become a point of contention lately. Proponents say that stretching prior to lifting will help warm up the muscles, get the blood flowing to those working muscles and reduce the chances of tearing and injury.

Other studies show that those who did stretching prior to lifting had decreased performance.

Learn how static stretching can help you alleviate muscle soreness.

The time of day you exercise also comes into play. Proponents say that if you’re exercising right after waking up or if you’ve been sedentary for a significant amount of time, it’s even more crucial to stretch.

The type of stretching you’re doing can also play a role.

Static & Dynamic Stretching


Static stretching is when you’re holding a stretch for about 30 seconds or more. You’re not moving during these stretches and are simply holding the stretch. To visualize this, think of sitting down, legs out straight, and reaching out to touch your toes. Some experts say these types of stretches relax the muscle and help with flexibility.


Dynamic stretching involves moving or warming up the body parts that you intend to stress. They are active stretches that usually mimic the lifting you’re about to do. To visualize this, think about doing body squats prior to doing squats. Walking lunges or hip rotations would be another dynamic stretch. Other studies show that those who did static stretching prior to lifting had decreased performance.

Two especially important joints you need to warm up to avoid injury are the hip joint for any lower body exercises and the shoulders for any upper body exercises.

Hip joint– is the largest joint in the human body. It has a wide range of functions and performs a multitude of movements. Prior to virtually any leg exercises, I would highly recommend warming up the hip joint with some lying lateral leg raises and some lying leg circles. The pigeon pose is also another great exercise for the hip joint.

Shoulder joint – is responsible for the widest range of motions in the entire body. Losing range of motion anywhere is detrimental to your mobility, flexibility, and longevity. It’s important to keep your joints healthy and active. To keep your shoulders healthy and free from injury, warm up the shoulder joint prior to any upper body workout. The infamous rotator cuff is usually the punchline in jokes but in reality, it’s crucial to using your arm. Internal and external rotation exercises will help with mobility and longevity. Grab a resistance band and attach it to a fixed position. While keeping your elbow locked at your side rotate your shoulder.

During Your Activities

This is primarily for weightlifters, but it’s a good idea to keep a journal of the exercises you’re doing. By taking notes you’ll not only get to see the progress you’re making but you’ll also be able to note how you feel.

Keeping a gym journal will help you track your progress and prevent overtraining.

If you wake up the next day really sore, the next time you’re in the gym, you might consider decreasing the weights for that muscle, or you might switch the type of exercise you’re doing to work it out.

Using good form is also crucial. A large number of injuries are due to lifting with poor form. Keep the weight under complete control throughout the lift will not only yield better results but it will keep you injury-free. Lower back soreness is extremely common when you’re either lifting more than you should or using poor form.

DOMS Recovery Postworkout

Stretching after your workout. As science progresses, it’s believed that stretching after your workout is more important than stretching prior to exercise. Some experts would say that stretching post-workout is the only stretching you need to do.

Simply walking around for 5-10 minutes and gently stretching the muscles you’ve just worked out can greatly reduce achiness and soreness. The goal here is to get oxygenated blood circulation to the body parts that tend to get sore.

Drinking plenty of fluids will help with muscle soreness recovery.

Drink lots of water. Surely you’ve heard this before. Drinking water daily will help eliminate excess acid buildup in the body. Just being dehydrated can cause muscle stiffness and soreness. If you can add a bit of lemon to your water and a pinch of natural salt, even better.

Foam rollers are one of my favorite pieces of equipment in the gym for delayed onset muscle soreness treatment. Foam rolling helps to break up scar tissue that is built up after working out. It will help stretch out the tissue and allow fresh oxygenated blood flow to the area and decrease tension. To use it properly you need to go slow. Slowly roll back and forth on the area, and feel free to pause over the areas that are sensitive. This part may be uncomfortable in the short-term, but the temporary discomfort will bring lasting relief. I highly recommend doing this after a hard workout, and the next day.

Use foam rollers to help with sore muscles.  Active recovery involves using a foam roller.

There are several types of foam rollers, so be sure to get one that is pretty stiff. I personally don’t use the hard PVC plastic ones, and I definitely don’t use the soft ones as they don’t dig into the muscle enough to do much good. The foam rollers are basically a self-massage so they need to dig into the muscle tissue a bit to get any good out of them.

Active Recovery or Rest Day

At what point do you skip the workout if you’re too sore?

Extreme muscle soreness will really kick in about 2 days after hitting a session hard. If you’re just getting into fitness/working out, you’re likely to go a little too hard. The first few times in the gym or doing a bodyweight workout, the muscles are going to be sore. If the muscles are tender to the touch, can barely walk, it might be a good idea to skip a day or two and allow your body to adjust to the new regiment.

If you have access to an ice bath I would encourage you to suffer a 10-minute soak after your workout session. The ice will help with inflammation and reduce muscle soreness. There’s a reason why college and professional athletes use them. They work!

When you’re this sore, I would recommend using a sauna or a hot tub later in the day too. Both of these will increase blood flow circulation and raise body temperature, which helps with aches and pains. Be sure to drink plenty of water post sauna time and avoid anything that will further dehydrate you (alcohol).

Post-workout, you’ll most likely want to kick your feet up and sit on the couch. This is not ideal. While rest is important to recovery and muscle building, you want to stay a little active after exercise. We’ve all experienced where you go for a run, sit down for a spell, and as soon as you stand up, the aches kick in. By doing a little walking it will help the joints maintain that flexibility and mobility that is so important. Don’t let the couch suck you in.

Recovery Drinks for Muscle Soreness

There is no shortage of recovery drinks on the market these days. There are recovery drinks for runners, weight lifters, Crossfit enthusiasts, and every kind of workout available. Pick one that works for you and stick with it. Be sure to stay hydrated during your workouts too.

Some say that good ol’ fashioned chocolate milk is best. Depending on how long and how hard you’re pushing yourself may influence what type of post-workout drink you need. If you’re a runner or doing workouts longer than an hour, something more than water is probably needed. Some drinks have caffeine, electrolytes, protein, or a combination of each plus more. It’s best to find what works for you and that won’t cause an upset stomach.

Wrapping up Rest Day vs Active Recovery

When it comes to active recovery vs rest day, it will become clearer as you progress in achieving your exercise goals. Soreness is kind of a given for fitness enthusiasts, but it can be greatly minimized. If you’re going really heavy every so often, it makes sense to be a little sore. But there are things you can do before and after lifting to help. If you’re constantly sore or tender to the touch, you might be doing something wrong, or you might be going too heavy too fast. If this is the case I would consult with a professional.

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