The Science Behind Muscle Recovery: Understanding Active Recovery

Recovering from Strength Training Sessions

When training hard, it is imperative that you recover well from training bouts if you aspire to improve and stay injury-free. Muscle recovery is a huge part of fitness.

Although the importance of muscle recovery has been known for a long time, our understanding of this process is constantly changing and the methods adapted to align with scientific findings.

Even within the past 25 years, methods have radically changed. Previously the understanding was that after a hard session you must rest for 1 or 2 days to give the body time to recover.

This is no longer the case and doing nothing for 1 or 2 days is less than ideal for recovery. So, if taking a few days away from the gym isn’t the ideal recovery method, what is?

Passive and Active Muscle Recovery

There are two methods of muscle recovery which are known as passive and active recovery.

We’ve touched on passive recovery already – it involves doing little and allowing the body time to recover.

Active recovery meanwhile utilizes physical activity in order to accelerate the recovery process.

Many of you will be able to relate to the feeling of being stiff and sore the day following a hard training session.

Often on these days, you feel stiff immediately but as the day goes on and you increase your physical activity, feelings of stiffness and soreness reduce.

The Benefits of Active Recovery

There are a number of benefits associated with active recovery that can speed up the process and alleviate the byproducts of a hard training session.

Reducing Stiffness and Soreness

It is highly likely that after a heavy training session, you will feel sore and stiff for a few days. Delayed onset muscle soreness (or DOMS) is normal however it can be frustrating and may impact movement.

The issue with passive recovery is that by doing very little, these feelings tend to become amplified and the time taken to fully recover can be extended.

However, by increasing activity levels, blood flow and general circulation increase. This enhanced circulation may help to reduce the feelings of stiffness and soreness (1).

Enhanced Mobility

With strength training, one fitness component that we can often neglect is mobility. As a result, although the muscles strengthen and grow in size, mobility can actually decrease (unless specifically practiced).

Active recovery sessions provide an excellent opportunity to practice mobility drills and improve movement efficiency. Keeping mobile and flexible is essential for performance and injury prevention.

Improving Aerobic Fitness

Performing aerobic exercise regularly is important for those who want to perform at a high level.

Not only will it improve the efficiency of the heart and lungs, it can also have a positive impact on the nervous system as there is a link between the aerobic and parasympathetic nervous system (2).

Therefore, it is often valuable to add an aerobic element into your active recovery sessions.

4 Guidelines for Active Recovery Workouts

There are many considerations to be made when designing an active recovery workout. The following points highlight 4 crucial guidelines to keep in mind during the design process.

1) Keep it Light

If you are to make substantial progress towards your training goal, it is important that you maintain focus on the goal of each and every session.

With active recovery sessions, that means ensuring that the intensity is at the right level. The session is not supposed to be another heavy, hard workout.

For most individuals, light fixed weights, body weight, and resistance bands are more than enough.

The goal of the sessions is to promote recovery through movement and light exercise. Avoid the temptation to start adding heavy weight, it’s not needed.

With each and every exercise, the goal is to make the movement feel as fluid and relaxed as possible. If it doesn’t feel this way, look to reduce the intensity by decreasing the load.

2) Use Compound Exercises and a Full ROM

One of the most critical principles of active recovery sessions is to ensure that a full range of motion is used with each exercise.

The exercises that you choose should be compound exercises; these are simply movements that involve a number of muscles across a range of joints.

Some excellent examples of exercises that you may want to incorporate into these sessions are lunges, squats, and push-ups.

There is very little point in performing isolation exercises during these sessions as the goal is to mobilize as many joints as possible. Isolation exercises only work the muscles around one joint.

In addition, small isolation exercises will not promote blood flow and circulation in the same way that large compound exercises will.

3) Prioritize Key Muscle Groups

There are a number of muscles that can be difficult to isolate and “feel”. These include:





If you are struggling to feel these muscles work during your training, the active recovery sessions give you an opportunity to spend time focusing on them.

One of the best things about concentrating on specific muscle groups is that it will often inhibit problematic muscle groups at the same time.

Two of the most common problem areas are the lower back and hip flexors. “Turning off” these muscles may promote better movement and enhance overall recovery.

4) Select Exercises That Enhance Circulation

Finally, it is vital that exercises which promote blood flow and improve circulation are prioritized as this may promote a faster recovery (3).

Undoubtedly the best method of doing this is through cardiovascular activity. This does not mean high-intensity sprint intervals, rather a lighter, low-impact aerobic session.

If you find that you are having to take prolonged rest periods after any exercise, you are more than likely working too hard.

Example Active Recovery Workouts

The following two active recovery workouts utilize supersets to effectively work all muscle groups of the body and accelerate the recovery process.

Day 1

Superset Exercises Sets x Reps
Goblet Squat / Arm Bar Series 3 – 4 x 15
Reverse Lunge / Push-Up to Downward Dog 3 – 4 x 15
Half-Kneeling Cable Press / Swiss Ball Crunch 3 – 4 x 15


Day 2

Superset Exercises Sets x Reps
Counterbalance Squat / Banded Leg Lowering 3 – 4 x 15
Low Cable Split Squat / Push-Up to Single Arm Support 3 – 4 x 15
Half-Kneeling Landmine Press / Russian Twists 3 – 4 x 15


Common Muscle Recovery Questions

There are often many questions revolving around active recovery and it’s implementation. This section will answer a number of these common questions.

Can I Perform Circuits Instead of Supersets?

Yes, it is absolutely fine to perform circuits if that is your preference. Many individuals do prefer to work in a circuit and there are definite benefits of doing so.

If you find that you have the space and access to all the equipment then there is absolutely nothing stopping you from completing the workout as a circuit.

However, considering the wide range of equipment that is required for these exercises, it’s likely that you will need a large space which can be problematic in a busy gym.

Do I Need To Lift?

No – you do not have to lift if you don’t want to. Performing only cardio will help to improve blood flow and circulation and therefore can be considered an effective active recovery tool.

For many, cardio can quickly become mindless and mundane. Lifting gives you an opportunity to mix your training up, keep it interesting and maintain motivation levels.

Perhaps you want to focus solely on cardio but are finding it a little boring. Consider changing up your cardio by pushing a lightweight prowler or walking in the swimming pool.

Can I Just Do Some Home-Based Mobility Drills Instead?

Yes – you don’t need to go to the gym in order to perform an active recovery workout.

Performing workouts at home is the perfect tool for when you are short on time, don’t have great access to the gym or simply need to take a day away from the gym.

For these home-based workouts, the recommendation is to select 8-10 warm-up exercises or mobility drills and perform them in a continuous fashion for 20-30 minutes.

How Important is Nutrition and Supplementation for Recovery?

Nutrition is a key component of muscle recovery and another full article could be written on this topic. But briefly, here are a couple of key points in regards to nutrition and optimizing recovery.

Consume Adequate Protein

Protein is the macronutrient that is responsible for repair and regrowth within the body (4). The recommendation for protein intake is between 0.8-1.0 grams of protein per day.

Keep Hydrated

Failing to drink enough alkaline water per day can have a negative impact on muscle recovery and performance (5). Look to consume half an ounce of water per pound of bodyweight daily.

Eat Carb-Dense Foods

Carbohydrates will provide the body with energy and therefore should be consumed regularly. Consuming them before and after training can boost performance and enhance recovery.

Muscle Recovery Wrap Up

While active recovery sessions may not be as thrilling as heavy lifting days, they can facilitate greater improvements in strength through enhancing movement and recovery times.

As a result, it is imperative that active recovery days are incorporated into your strength training program.

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1-Dupuy, Olivier; Douzi, Wafa; Theurot, Dimitri; Bosquet, Laurent; Dugué, Benoit (April 26, 2018). “An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis”. Frontiers in Physiology. 9. doi:10.3389/fphys.2018.00403. ISSN 1664-042X. PMC 5932411. PMID 29755363.

2-LeBouef, Tyler; Whited, Lacey (2019), “Physiology, Autonomic Nervous System”, StatPearls, StatPearls Publishing, PMID 30860751

3-Borne, Rachel; Hausswirth, Christophe; Bieuzen, François (2017-2). “Relationship Between Blood Flow and Performance Recovery: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Study”. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 12 (2): 152–160. doi:10.1123/ijspp.2015-0779. ISSN 1555-0273. PMID 27139812

4-McGlory, Chris; Devries, Michaela C.; Phillips, Stuart M. (March 1, 2017). “Skeletal muscle and resistance exercise training; the role of protein synthesis in recovery and remodeling”. Journal of Applied Physiology. 122 (3): 541–548. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00613.2016. ISSN 8750-7587. PMC 5401959. PMID 27742803.

5-Ayotte, David; Corcoran, Michael P. (June 4, 2018). “Individualized hydration plans improve performance outcomes for collegiate athletes engaging in in-season training”. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 15. doi:10.1186/s12970-018-0230-2. ISSN 1550-2783. PMC 5987390. PMID 29866199.

Jacob Ladon
Jacob Ladon is a staff writer and former amateur bodybuilder. He has been passionate about bodybuilding since he was 15 years old and discovered the joys of training in the gym. He reports and comments on all bodybuilding related matters.