13 Active Recovery Exercises for Your Rest Days

We talk a lot about the importance of regular exercise for weight loss and maintenance, and for good reason: An object in motion (in this case, you're the object) burns far more calories than one that's chilling on the couch. And while it's true that cardio and strength training are essential to achieving results, there's also a third part of the equation that's just as important: rest and recovery.

"Exercise is good for the body, of course, but more isn’t always better. Intense, daily workouts can lead to symptoms of overtraining, which include decreased performance, insomnia, lack of energy and more," says SparkPeople Coach Jen Mueller. During rest days, the muscles you've been working—particularly during strength training—repair and rebuild to become stronger. And your mind and spirit get a much-deserved break from rigorous workouts.

When physical activity has become part of your daily routine, you might find it surprisingly difficult to lounge around watching Netflix—and that's where active recovery comes into play. According to SparkCoach Jen, this type of light activity keeps the blood flowing, alleviates muscle soreness and aids in tissue repair. It also maintains the momentum of moving every day, so you don't inadvertently slip into an extended series of off days.

But what exactly are you supposed to do on those rest days? When you're bored with walking and stretching, try some of these active recovery ideas.

Standing Cat Cow

From fitness trainer Melanie Kotcher

  1. Start by standing with your feet hip width apart, bend your knees, place your hands on top of your knees and keep a neutral spine.

  2. Inhale through your nose, arch your spine, tilt your hips up and gaze up to the ceiling.

  3. Exhale through your mouth, curve your spine and gaze in toward your abs.

  4. Repeat for 3-5 sets.


From Caley Crawford, director of education at Row House 

  1. Start with feet about shoulder width apart, hinge at the hips, keeping the core braced, reach your hands to the ground (trying to keep your legs as straight as possible) and walk your hands out to a plank position.

  2. Hold the plank for a couple of seconds (or add a push-up or any other plank variation), then walk the hands back up to the feet.

This is a great dynamic stretch for the posterior chain (backs of the legs: hamstrings, glutes, calves). It also warms up the shoulders and activates the core.

Cobra Pose

From Caley Crawford, director of education at Row House 

  1. Starting on your stomach, bring your hands to press against the ground, right outside your shoulders.

  2. Push up to lengthen and stretch your abdominals. Point the toes, shoelaces to the ground and keep the shoulders pressed down.

  3. Feel free to add a twist by looking left and right.

This one is especially good to do on recovery days if you row, because when rowing, our bodies are in this flexion position and your core is active the entire time, so it’s good to mobilize and stretch the abdominals.

Standing Side Bend Stretch

From fitness trainer Melanie Kotcher

  1. Stand with your feet hip width apart and arms by your sides.

  2. Bend your right knee slightly and raise your left arm up and around overhead. Let the right arm move down the side of your right leg as you lean your torso over to the right.

  3. Continue to push your left hip over to the left and take a few inhales and exhales to move deeper into the side stretch.

  4. Repeat on the other side.

Alternating Dynamic Pigeon Pose

From Caley Crawford, director of education at Row House 

  1. Hold a pigeon pose on the right leg for a few seconds, then move back to a plank position.

  2. Switch sides and repeat the stretch.

During the pigeon pose, keep the hips squared and lower down to the forearms or even keep the arms straight out in front of you to deepen the stretch.

Cross-Body Climbers

From Caley Crawford, director of education at Row House 

  1. Find a strong high plank position, with the wrists right underneath the shoulders, hips tucked (no arch in the back) and glutes squeezed.

  2. Bring the right knee to cross and reach for the left elbow, then bring the right leg back to the extended plank position.

  3. Switch to the other side, crossing the left knee to reach the right elbow. Keep it slow and controlled.

This movement will wake up your core, strengthen your shoulder stability and loosen up your lower back. On recovery days, it’s always a good idea to mix in dynamic stretches, stability movements and core work to keep the blood flowing.

Arm and Leg Balance Reach

From fitness trainer Melanie Kotcher

  1. Start with your hands on the mat directly below your shoulders and knees on the mat directly below your hips.

  2. Pull your abs in and up to protect your back as you extend your right arm out in front of you.

  3. Keep your abs engaged as you extend your left leg behind you.

  4. Round your spine, gaze into your abs and tap your right elbow to your left knee. Then move back to a neutral spine and extend your right arm and left leg again, engaging your abs.

  5. Repeat three to five times and then switch sides. 

World’s Greatest Stretch

From Caley Crawford, director of education at Row House 

  1. Start in a runner’s lunge, then bring the inside elbow to reach for the ground and twist the inside arm to reach for the ceiling.

  2. Return to the runner's lunge and send the hips up, attempting to straighten out the front leg and flex the front foot.

  3. Hold each position for three to five seconds, then switch to the other leg. 

This stretch targets the hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, calves, shoulders, chest, upper and lower back and the rotators of the hips and obliques.

Downward Facing Dog to Plank

From fitness trainer Melanie Kotcher

  1. Start with your hands on the mat directly below your shoulders and knees on the mat directly below your hips.

  2. Tuck your toes under and pike your hips up to the ceiling as you extend your arms and your legs. Shift the weight back into your heels as you engage your abs and lift your hips higher up to the ceiling.

  3. Shift forward on your toes and round yourself down to a plank position and pause with your hands below your shoulders and body in one straight line.

  4. Pike your hips back up to the ceiling, shift the weight into your heels and extend your arms and legs back into a downward facing dog.

  5. Repeat this transition five to eight times. 

Plank Stretch

From Caley Crawford, director of education at Row House 

  1. Start from a high plank position.

  2. Send the hips to the sky, bringing the left hand up and reaching for your right foot.

  3. Return to the high plank and reach the other hand to the other foot. Think of it like a "downward dog" position, but with one arm off the ground and reaching for the opposite foot.

This movement targets the hamstrings and calves, while loosening the lower back and strengthening the core and shoulder stability.

Extended Leg Pose

From fitness trainer Melanie Kotcher

  1. Start by standing with your legs together and arms by your sides.

  2. Bend your left knee in toward your navel and reach your left arm inside the thigh, cross it around your ankle, and grab onto the outside of your foot. (If you have tight hamstrings, another option is to hold onto a strap wrapped around your foot.)

  3. Extend your left leg in front of you and slowly start to swing the leg out to the side. There is also the option to place your right hand on your hip for balance. Hold this pose for 20 to 30 seconds, and then swing your leg back through center and place your foot back down on the floor and your arms by your sides.

  4. Repeat on the other side. (You can move through this stretch lying on your back if you want a hip opener without the balance element.) 

Child’s Pose

From Caley Crawford, director of education at Row House 

  1. With the knees open and feet together, bring your body down to the ground and reach forward, arms long in front of you.

  2. Surrender to the stretch and allow your body to completely relax as your lower back opens up.

  3. To deepen the stretch in your lats, walk your hands to one side and breathe, then switch.

Bird Dogs

From Caley Crawford, director of education at Row House 

  1. Start on all fours, on your hands and knees.

  2. Extend the right arm straight forward and left leg straight back, while squeezing the glutes.

  3. Bring the knee to meet the elbow, finding the stretch in the spine, then extend the arm and leg once again, squeezing the glutes, targeting the posterior chain.

  4. Bring the leg and arm back to all fours, then switch sides.

This move strengthens, stabilizes and mobilizes your thoracic and lumbar spine, core and the entire posterior chain.

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Member Comments

Good article
Thanks Report
I agree. Show us an example. What if we don't know what a pigeon pose is? Some of the exercises are very hard to imagine, less knowing accomplish. Report
Nice short little list. lol Report
no yoga for me Report
Pictures would be great. Report
Need PICS Report
This is a great frame work for my rest days. Report
i love yoga, minus the awkward poses Report
Thanks Report
Good suggestions sometimes hard to imagine without the pictures Report
.. Report
I had to use YouTube to figure out just how to do these poses. And believe you me, they are really very good.... Report
Wasn't sure about some of these without pictures. Report


About The Author

Melissa Rudy
Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.