Active recovery

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As with anything in life, finding the balance between doing too much and too little is often difficult. This concept is crucially important when discussing different aspects of recovery during training. One way we like to describe this relationship is by comparing the amount of work we’re completing to the amount of time we’re recovering from that work, or put simply, work:rest/recovery ratio. If we’re putting large amounts of load on our bodies through training or competing, but not allowing it the chance to recover from these loads, then our performance will begin to suffer and injuries will develop as a result of too much overload.


Active recovery, as opposed to passive recovery (cryotherapy, massage, NormaTec boots, etc.) allows us to recover by actively using our bodies to facilitate a healing response while still training.

Active recovery involves performing low-intensity exercise and may enhance recovery by elevating our HR and inducing a pumping effect. Repetitive mechanical squeezing by the muscles during contraction and relaxation may increase blood flow and improve ROM, which may increase the translocation and removal of markers of inflammation and metabolites, such as lactate, from the muscle.

Also, performing mobility/flexibility drills while focusing on things such as breathing or even mindfulness training is going to facilitate this aspect of active recovery even more. By tapping into our parasympathetic (rest/relax/heal) nervous system, as opposed to our sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system that is stimulated during high-intensity training, this will maximize the benefits of our active recovery.

The goal of this article is to discuss 5 active recovery exercises that can be implemented into rest days or deloads to allow our bodies to heal and recover effectively.

Here are my top 5 favorite exercises for recovery days:


They’re a staple in most CrossFit gyms and have been around since the 80’s. If you’re not familiar with assault bikes, they’re essentially a typical stationary bike with the added benefit of having pedals for the arms, as well; essentially a seated elliptical.

Thinking back to to the goal of improving blood flow during our active recovery, nothing is better at achieving this effect than the assault bike (sorry rower).

Biking at low to moderate intensities is a great form of active movement but without the impact and added stress to the body. In addition, it effectively works all joints through active ROM. We as PTs like to say “motion is lotion”, meaning that taking our joints through active motion will allow for improved joint lubrication and synovial fluid moving through the joint. This is essential during heavy bouts of training when we’re fighting heavy loads and compression forces throughout the body.

Finally, the assault bike is a great form of active rehab when we’re dealing with lingering injuries. Woke up and that ankle isn’t agreeing with the workout you have planned for that day? 20-30 minutes on the bike at mixed intensities is a great alternative.


In addition to the kettlebell being my favorite piece of gym equipment, the goblet squat may be my favorite exercise on this list. By holding a kettlebell at chest height and sinking down into a full squat we are essentially completing what is known as a goblet squat. Simple? Yes. But effective? Very much so.

Holding the kettlebell in front of our center of mass provides a counterbalance that allows us to sink into the squat and achieve a full depth of movement that otherwise may be “sticky” or “irritating.” Furthermore, once we’re in the bottom of the squat, we can then work on things such as improving our hip flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, and thoracic extension which are all common limitations with the athletes we work with.

When applying to the goblet squat to our active recovery, I typically prescribe these to be completed as slow as possible with a focus on the eccentric portion of the lift. 5-10” lowering, 10” hold in the bottom of the squat while searching for stickiness and performing self-mobilization in the ankles/knees/hips, 2-3” concentric squatting out of the hole.

Goblet squats: great warm-up drill, great exercise, great cool-down stretch, great for active recovery.


Yoga poses are frequently incorporated into the accessory work we program for athletes and for good reason. They do a great job of blending mobility and flexibility while adding a certain degree of stability and strength, as well. A perfect example of this is the downward dog.

This exercise is a great way to improve end range overhead mobility and thoracic extension but while working through the full kinetic chain of the body.

On the lower half of the exercise, we’ll be working on the mobility of our posterior chain. Hamstring and calf mobility yes, but also the neural tension we often experience following a heavy day of lifting. Pushing the heels toward the floor while in the bottom of the stretch with provide this stretch and neural mobilization that will facilitate improved recovery/mobility following a heavy workload the previous day.


There’s no better feeling than grabbing a bar and letting gravity do its job of stretching out your entire body. Decompression is just one benefit of including hanging variations into your recovery day protocol.

While passive “dead hangs” will achieve this effect of full-body stretching, one issue we often see is undesired consequence of shoulder pain and impingement. Therefore, we often incorporate different variations of hanging including active hangs, scapular pull-ups, hip taps, kip to hollow, etc.

Active recovery days are meant to allow your body to heal and recover while training. However, incorporating skill work such as gymnastics movements into recovery days is often warranted as these sort of movements require practice and high levels of skill in order to be completed effectively.


If we think back to this concept of having balance, this applies both to our training and programming but also to having balance with mobility and strength in our bodies.

The TGU has several benefits in regards to improving the durability and overall longevity of our bodies.

These include:

  • Promotes reflexive stability of trunk and extremities
  • Improves overhead stability through varying ROM and body positions
  • Improves feeling of “connectedness” during lifting movements
  • Stimulates visual/vestibular/proprioceptive systems
  • Identifies and improves asymmetries right vs left

Few exercises provide as much “bang for your buck” as the TGU and, in my opinion, should be a staple of any recovery day. Incorporate these into your programs and still achieve a training effect while allowing your body to recover effectively.

Here’s a sample workout that can be used:

5 rounds:

-10″ dead hang

-10″ hip taps (hanging from bar)

-5 downward dogs (5″ hold)

-5 goblet squats (5″ hold in bottom of squat)

What are some of your favorite recovery exercises or protocols you use in your training?

Leave us a comment below and let us know your thoughts.


Ryan (@ryan.summers.dpt)