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Gus's Barbell Club

Active Rest

By Gus

Different philosophies abound in the world of fitness. Just like the Cynic versus the Epicurean of ancient Greece, the CrossFitter and Powerlifter care a great deal about their disagreements. To the outside world, both appear to be zealous on trivial matters. To the un-thinking, joining with either would be significant upgrade to their direction in life.

How to handle a rest day – days scheduled to intentionally avoid training – is one of these matters. For the 90% of the world who engage in no training regimen, every day is a rest day, and how they choose to handle it is nobody else’s business. For the 10% who train, how you handle rest days is just as much a matter of culture as it is effectiveness.

What is Active Rest?

Some athletes have taken to scheduling a rest day, giving the body a break from normal intense training, but still doing something that looks like exercise at a lighter intensity. Almost always this means some kind of steady cardio like jogging, swimming, or cycling.

If one has designed their life around time for exercise everyday, it makes sense that it becomes a reliable mental health mechanism. It could be a social outlet, a time to think to yourself, or maybe to just feel like you’re better than other people. Depriving them of that time may feel like a net harm, so getting something easy on the agenda just makes sense to them.

As Misnomer

Elite-level athletes may genuinely need to workout nearly everyday to accumulate the necessary stress over many weeks of their training program. A day that’s meant to be very light might be labelled “Active Rest” giving some leeway as to what actually gets performed. From a true definition though, this is not rest at all – just part of an advanced program.

Inescapable Truth

What cannot be avoided is the nature of stress and recovery. If you perform a physical act at the threshold of what your body has adapted to, you will cause a stress. You either recover adequately from that stress and cause an adaptation, or recover sub-optimally over a longer length of time, failing to cause an adaptation. Or you fail to recover at all and die. Let’s assume you stopped jogging before hitting that point.

So if you do any work that crosses that stress threshold, it’s foolish to think of it as rest at all.

Should I take an active rest day?

Probably not.

If you are strictly adhering to a training program. Stress your body according to that plan, and recover on the rest days. Stick to your typical activity level.

If you’re not following a program, then there’s not much distinction between an active rest day and exercise in general. So stop bogging yourself down with the distinction. Enjoy your routine exercise of choice and don’t call it rest.

Shouldn’t We All Be Moving More Everyday Anyway?

Yup, I’d say so. But there’s a great difference of activity to be had between sedentarism and a stress. As your health and fitness improve, that gap will only increase.

Say Johnny walks 8000 steps a day, even on days he’s strength training. 8000 steps a day is not going to be a stress for Johnny. His body is already adapted to 8000 steps. If Bobby walks only 3000 steps a day, 8000-10000 might require enough un-adapted walking that it hurts his recovery. But most people would 8000 is an average number of steps of a healthy, active person, so shouldn’t Bobby be trying to move that much? Sure, but as Bobby’s training days improve his health, he can find his rest days to include 3600, then 4000, then 4500 steps, and so on gradually over time. Our capacity for natural, unloaded movement increases quickly as we become stronger.

So if you consider Active Rest taking an extra walk after dinner to make sure you hit your average 8000… have at it. I love it.

Active Rest Day as Habit Formation

Beyond social value, the best argument for an active rest day (in my personal opinion) is regarding the habit formation of exercise. Daily habits are stickier than the same thing done only three days a week. There are few novices that start at Gus’s Barbell Club with a program more intensive than three days a week. So for the brand new trainee that doesn’t even want to train in the first place, how best to make those three days a week stick?

Active rest suddenly becomes an option. The intentional 30 extra minutes of walking, the jump rope practice, the insert-whatever-activity-you’ll-find-kinda-fun… fit it in. Check off another day. Celebrate the win. Part of this though, is still offering deference to the training days. So nailing down exactly what you can and cannot handle needs to be top of mind when deciding on what these routines will be.

A foggy gym.