Should You Take An Active Recovery or a Full Rest Day?

“That’s as far as I can extend it back,” I explained to my doctor with an overwhelming sense of embarrassment. My right arm was fully extended and reaching far back behind me. My left arm was bent and hardly extended at all. My jaw was clenched from the pain shooting through my shoulder. And my mind concluded that from now on, I would never underestimate the importance of rest days.

Luckily, when recovering from a shoulder injury, there’s a lot of time to focus on rest and recovery. I spent most of my free time walking, foam rolling and doing yoga. When I was ready to start to introduce my regular weight lifting, HIIT and cardio classes back into my routine, I wanted to make sure I did it right this time around. I began to research rest days and active recovery days, which are better to incorporate into my routine, and how often I need to take both of them.

As it turns out, just as there is no “one size fits all” advice for working out, there is no such thing for rest and recovery days. Whether or not you take full recovery days or active recovery days, and how often you schedule either all depends on your weekly fitness routine and your goals.

What if you’re new to certain type of exercise?

If you are a beginner to a new exercise program or to exercise in general, Shape Magazine recommends that you make every third day a rest day. What should you do on your rest day? Well, it depends on what you did on your two active days. If your active days included high intensity workouts, your rest day should be a full rest day. If your active days included low or moderate intensity workouts, you should consider an active recovery day that includes yoga, playing a sport or a taking a longer walk.

What if you’re not sure which type of recovery would benefit you?

The Beachbody Blog explains that, “The objective of a rest day is to boost mental and physical recharging.” So, if you’re feeling too overwhelmed and/or wiped out to think about yet another consecutive HIIT class, that could be both your body and your mind asking you for a break for a day.

Of course, you can also boost mental and physical recharging while still remaining active, if you’re up for it! Consider taking a family bike ride or a long walk. Intramural sports are also a fun way to get moving. Swimming, rock climbing or jogging can also be fun for some. The keyword here is “fun.” No mention of “timed,” “personal record,” or “until failure” should be involved in this sort of active recovery.

What are the benefits of active recovery?

It might sound contradictory that low impact activity can still help your body recover. Men’s Health explains that, “Doing low-impact slow and steady cardio that keeps your heart rate between 120 and 140 beats per minute has been shown to increase blood flow, negate soreness, reset your central nervous system and help your body adapt to new training loads, so you’re bigger and stronger in the weight room.” If cardio isn’t your favorite, the linked article also explains a circuit workout that focuses on mobility.

What if you’re a seasoned exerciser?

For those who are more experienced and have been training for a long period of time, rest still needs to be incorporated into your workout program. However, it may look a little different. Fitness Blender suggests minimizing the amount of rest days your body will need by working different muscle groups on different days. So, if you follow your arms and abs day with leg day, you will rest your sore biceps and abs while training your quadriceps and hamstrings. Still, you should take 1-2 days a week for either rest or active recovery.

“If you don’t implement enough rest into your workout program, you are putting yourself at risk for overtraining, which increases your chances of health repercussions and otherwise avoidable injuries,” the article explains.

For those working frequently at high intensity, deep stretching, yoga and foam rolling are great active recovery activities. If you’re new to foam rolling or looking to freshen up on your skills, check out our guide to Foam Rolling 101.


The bottom line: rest and recovery is important no matter what shape or form it comes in. Find what works best for you as you continue to make strides towards your goals. We’re cheering for you!

Move Recovery & Mobility

About Ashley McCullough

Ashley McCullough has been an active advocate of weight lifting, taco eating, city living and not running for as long as she can remember. A lifelong Notre Dame fan, she graduated from Saint Mary’s College in 2012 with a degree in Elementary Education. By day, you can find her organizing objects by color, singing, chanting, dancing around, and reading with her kindergarten class. After the school bell rings, well, not much changes. She continues to do all that. But she also thoroughly enjoys conversing and interacting with adults at group fitness classes and #Sweatworking events. Ashley was born and raised in the suburbs and moved to the city 4 years ago. She never plans to leave… unless she is able to find a beach house on a mountain in a major industrial city on a private island. Then she just might.