If you walked into my gym in Baltimore, you'd notice my clients and athletes never stop moving. Doesn't matter if they're bodybuilders, powerlifters, combat athletes, injury-rehab clients, or people training for general fitness. They all keep moving.
If nobody explained what these clients were doing, you'd probably get the wrong idea. You might say "circuit training," which would make me strike you. You might also guess "supersets." That would be true in a technical sense – they're usually alternating between two exercises – but the exercise pairs are probably unlike anything you're familiar with.
You'd have to watch for a few minutes to figure out that there's a complete mismatch of intensity between the two exercises. The first one is hard and heavy. The second one doesn't appear to require much effort at all. In fact, the client's breathing tends to return to normal during the second exercise.
What we're doing is active recovery. Sometimes we're using the second exercise to help with recovery from the first one, which means the athlete can then work harder in subsequent sets. And sometimes we're using the second exercise for a separate goal, like core stability, neck strength, or injury rehab.
That's why my clients never stop moving, and why they tend to accomplish a lot more than a typical gym rat would in the same amount of time.
Like a lot of trainers, I discovered years ago that if I stick with traditional workout programs, there's only so much I can accomplish in the limited amount of time I have with my paying customers. Nobody can bang out sets and reps nonstop for 50 or 60 minutes. If they're working hard and pushing themselves to get bigger and stronger, they'll spend more time recovering between sets than they spend lifting.
I eventually figured out that the only way to accomplish more was to use that downtime productively, without making them so exhausted that they couldn't go hard on the primary exercise. It's called active recovery, and it's something you can incorporate in your own training. You'll accomplish more work in the same amount of time, without compromising anything or requiring more rest and recuperation in between workouts.
You could think of dozens of ways to use active recovery, and they might all be valid, as long as they adhere to these three simple rules:
- You must have a damned good reason for doing whatever you're doing in between sets. It can't be random.
- What you do can't interfere with the primary exercise. It can't exhaust those muscles, or require some type of recovery of their own.
- It can't make the time in between sets of the primary exercise longer than it would be without the AR exercise. In other words, it can't extend the workout, or compromise the training effects you're trying to attain.
With that out of the way, let's look at some of the ways you can use AR to get more done the next time you're in the gym.
For Bodybuilders: Diverting Exercises
In a diverting exercise, you do light contractions of the muscles opposite the ones you're focusing on with your primary exercise. So you'd do push-ups after heavy rows, or recline pulls (aka reverse push-ups) after heavy bench presses.
Quoting from Serious Strength Training, by Tudor Bompa and Lorenzo Carnacchia: "Such physical activities can facilitate a faster recovery of the prime movers.... As the muscle becomes more relaxed, its energy stores are more easily restored."
Thus, just as your brain is trying to limit the work an exhausted muscle can do, you're sending the opposite message, disabling the disinhibition.
Here's an example of how to use diverting exercises as active recovery in a traditional three-day bodybuilding split.
Day 1: Chest and Triceps
|Primary Exercise||Diverting Exercise for Active Recovery|
|A||Bench press||Recline pull|
|B||Incline bench press||Face pull|
|C||Pec flye||Rear-delt flye|
|D||Triceps pushdown||Biceps curl|
Day 2: Legs
|Primary Exercise||Diverting Exercise for Active Recovery|
|A||Squat or deadlift||Reverse pull-through with cable or band|
|B||Leg extension/leg curl||Leg curl/leg extension|
|C||Calf raise||Dorsiflexion march with miniband|
As the name implies, this is the opposite of the pull-through. You're facing the cable stack, or whatever the band is attached to, and working your anterior muscles, rather than your extensor chain. With arms straight, pull the bar or handles straight down between your legs. Bend at the hips, not the back; you want to keep your spine in its optimal spinal alignment. If you like the exercise, in future workouts you can employ a more challenging load and use it for core training.
Use a light resistance mini band. Stand tall and march in place while maintaining ankle dorsiflexion (foot flexed upward, as if you were trying to walk on your heels). Set your arms in the prisoner grip, and keep your torso stable to increase the core demand.
Day 3: Back and Biceps
|Primary Exercise||Diverting Exercise for Active Recovery|
|A||Pull-up, chin-up, or lat pulldown||Shoulder press|
|B||Bent-over or seated row||Push-up|
|C||Biceps curl||Triceps extension|
For Powerlifters: Four-Part Squat
Even the most serious and knowledgeable lifters restrict their mobility work to a few minutes during their warm-ups. That's fine if you have no mobility-related restrictions to your lifting technique. But even the best lifters can tighten up in a max-effort workout with squats or deadlifts. And the ones who start the workout with mobility issues will probably get a little worse as the training session progresses.
I learned the four-part squat from Gray Cook, and use it with a lot of my power athletes. It's a great drill to employ between sets of Olympic lifts as well as power lifts.
Start with a wide stance, as shown in the photos at right. Begin by bending forward and grabbing your toes.
Now drop your hips as low as possible into a squat position, making sure to keep your back straight. You also want to engage your glutes to pull your knees outward, away from your elbows, as shown in the third photo.
The third step is to raise your arms overhead, so they're in line with your torso.
Finally, stand straight up.
As you repeat the drill, be sure to repeat each of the four steps as a discreet movement.
This isn't the only way to use dynamic mobility drills for active recovery. You can also work on mobility for unrelated movement patterns – lower-body mobility on the days you're doing bench presses and other upper-body exercises, and upper-body mobility on the days you're squatting or deadlifting.
Or you can do movement prep for the next primary exercise in your workout.
For Power Athletes: Neck-Strengthening Exercises
The neck is technically part of your core, which means that everyone could benefit from some neck-specific training. For wrestlers, MMA fighters, and football players, neck strength and stability are crucial. And yet, almost nobody does any type of conditioning for this crucial body part.
I showed some good strengthening and stabilizing exercises in "Stick Your Neck Out," an article posted on T Nation a year ago. Using them as active recovery gives you a chance to add a new dimension to any workout. You work your neck without adding time to your workout or taking any focus away from your primary training exercises.
Exercises for neck stability can pull double duty when you use them for AR. Take one I show in that article, called the head-off-the-bench hold. It's pretty simple: do a dumbbell chest press on a flat bench or Swiss ball, but with your head and neck all the way off the bench or ball, and thus unsupported.
You can use the dumbbell chest press with light weights as AR for a rowing exercise, and by doing it with your head unsupported, you add the benefit of training neck stability. Shoot for 8 to 12 reps per set.
For Everyone: Core Strength and Stability Work
Pick any three trainers, and chances are you'll get three different opinions on when to do core work. Some say to do core training at the start of a workout, before you get exhausted from heavy lifts. Some say you should never do it before heavy lifts, since you don't want those muscles to be tired when you need them to support your spine. And others work it in with other types of training, in a separate workout.
Personally, I like to do core exercises for active recovery, except when the primary exercise is a squat or deadlift variation, or another movement that requires spinal stability, like the bent-over row.
But that still leaves more than three-quarters of the exercises you might do in your workouts. I find my clients get better results with shorter, less intense bouts of core training than they do with longer, more intense sessions.
Here are two of my favorites, which you probably haven't seen before:
Kneeling Posterior Reach
You can use a band or cable. (The photos at right show it with a band.) Position yourself on one knee with your back to the cable machine, or whatever the band is attached to. Hold the cable with both hands over your head, and start with your back extended. (If you feel this in your lower back, you may be extending too far.)
Now you have several options: You can do it as a static hold for 15 to 30 seconds per side, or you can do reps, straightening your torso to the position shown in the second photo at right.
Or you can start in the second position, if the first is too awkward or uncomfortable. From there you can do perform isometric holds or short-range-of-motion reps pulling forward slightly.
As you can see in the photo, I'm holding an isometric position while positioned sideways on the glute-ham apparatus. You can also use a Roman chair or two flat benches set up parallel to each other, with your feet under one and your hip resting on the other. You can maintain that position for time using just your body weight, or you can add resistance with a dumbbell or weight plate, as shown in the photo.
Make sure you hold for the same amount of time on each side.
One last note about core training: I don't like to use rotary exercises for active recovery, since the movement patterns are more complex. They should be used as primary exercises so you give them the focus they require.
For All Athletes: Reflex and Reaction Drills
I don't like the term "sport-specific training." If you're an MMA fighter, sport-specific training is what you do when you're sparring or working with your coach. If you're a baseball player, you train for your sport by hitting, throwing, and fielding. What I do is strength and conditioning, making you bigger, stronger, faster, and leaner so you can get more out of whatever skills you develop on the field, court, or mat.
That said, I don't have a problem with practicing sport-specific skills as part of my training sessions. With a fighter, we might use shadow boxing for active recovery, or even some controlled sparring, especially if he needs to practice new holds and combinations for an upcoming fight.
If I'm training a tennis player or golfer, I might have him bring his racquet or driver to the gym, and practice strokes or swings as AR. This is especially important if his coach has recently altered his mechanics. Practicing the stroke or swing helps him groove the new motor patterns without interfering with our workout or requiring extra practice time with his coach.
You can also do drills that aren't specific to any sport, but help improve some useful athletic quality, like reaction time. One of my favorites is the card catch, which you see in the video to your right. I learned it from Todd Durkin, and like to use it for AR toward the end of the workout, when the athlete is tired.
For Injured Lifters: Rehab Exercises
When I had ACL reconstructive surgery on my right knee a few months back, I was a mess. I'd lost a significant amount of muscle in my legs, especially the right one.
By doing my rehab exercises as AR three times a week, I was able to double the amount of time I devoted to rebuilding my size, strength, and range of motion – three sessions a week with a physical therapist, and three workouts of my own. I was back to running and coaching athletes through complex speed and agility drills in just seven weeks.
I won't go into detail about what I did, since every injury is different. I just want to stress that low-intensity rehab exercises are perfect for active recovery, since they don't create any new fatigue in the uninjured muscles you're using for your primary exercises.
Wrapping It Up
These are the major points I want to make about active recovery:
- You can get more out of your primary lifts if you do light, low-intensity exercises for opposing muscle groups in between sets.
- You can use mobility exercises in between sets of Olympic and power lifts to help improve your form and range of motion.
- You can do exercises for your neck and core that improve strength and stability without adding to your time in the gym.
- If you play a sport, you can practice key movements – punch or kick combinations, throws or swings – without creating additional fatigue.
- Athletes who add drills that challenge their quickness and reaction time, especially toward the end of workouts when fatigue has set in, can help themselves perform better outside the gym. If the deciding moment of your contest comes in the final minutes, the athlete who performs best when he's tired will have the edge.
- And if you're coming back from an injury, you can cut your recovery time by doing rehab exercises in between sets with the uninjured muscles.
Even with all those applications for active recovery, I'm really just scratching the surface. You can work on any fitness or athletic quality during your down time between sets of your primary exercises – agility, mobility, flexibility, balance, hand-eye coordination. You can save time by doing movement-prep exercises for whatever primary exercise comes next in your workout.
Most of the time, it's better to do AR exercises for time, rather than for reps. (One exception is the neck-training exercise I mentioned earlier.) If you're taking long rest periods between sets, you can incorporate some unilateral exercises, since you have time to hit both limbs. But if you're taking short rest periods, stick to bilateral exercises so you finish them within that time.
The most important rule is that whatever you do for active recovery can't be fatiguing, and it especially can't be fatiguing to the specific muscles you're using for your primary exercise. So you don't want to do push-ups in between sets of heavy bench presses, or core exercises in between sets of squats, deadlifts, or any other exercise that requires a lot of core strength and stability.
The other two rules, as I mentioned, require that you have a reason to select the exercises for active recovery, and you don't choose anything that extends the rest period between sets of your primary exercises.
But other than that, you're only limited by your imagination. Use active recovery diligently and creatively, and you could end up with much more productive workouts without spending one extra minute in the gym.