Last updated on September 19th, 2022 at 11:07 am
I see this asked quite often, “Can You Do Cardio on Rest Days?”
You’re never really sure whether you should completely rest or perform some light activities on your non-training days.
However, we all have days of the week when your muscles ache, you feel short on energy, and so a rest day is definitely in order.
With that being said, much of your training is geared towards lifting weights, so it’s difficult to know exactly when to fit your cardio in.
Allow me to explain what you need to know about cardio and rest days.
Can You Do Cardio on Rest Days?
You can do cardio on rest days, although this does depend on your overall goals. Light cardio sessions on your non-weight lifting days can actually speed up the recovery process. However, super-intense cardio may actually impact your ability to lift weights the next time you’re in the gym. An example of the difference would be going for a walk on a rest day compared to an all-out sprinting session. You should aim to be active most days of the week, while varying the intensity.
1. Cardio Can Aid Recovery
I actually think doing cardio on rest days is a great idea.
However, when I talk of cardio, I simply mean getting your heart rate up and being active.
I guess it’s what many of us would refer to as “active recovery”.
Unfortunately, many of us view “cardio” as a session where we are drenched in sweat, breathing extremely heavily, and absolutely whacked by the end of it.
I completely agree that some cardio sessions should actually be like this, but definitely not all of them.
When I talk of a rest day I’m referring to the days you have off from lifting weights in the gym.
It’s actually a great idea to get the heart pumping and the blood flowing on rest days, as it’s likely to speed up your recovery.
Just the simple process of blood flowing around the body can carry essential nutrients to the muscles.
This can actually help with delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which means that you hopefully won’t be aching next time you set foot in the gym.
However, what type of cardio you do on a rest day completely depends on your own level of fitness and ability to recover.
Whereas, one person may view a 5km run as a perfectly acceptable form of cardio for a rest day, this could be a really tough workout for someone else.
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So, you have to take your own abilities into account.
Personally, I think there’s no better form of cardio than walking.
And I walk every single day, whether I’m in the gym hitting the weights or having a “rest day”.
The only thing I will say is that you should never view a rest day as lying on the couch and eating crap food for the entire day.
You should aim to be active every single day, even if this means just getting up off the couch to go for a 20-30 minute walk or having a light stretching session.
2. Intense Cardio May Hinder Recovery
I have alluded to this above, and once more this comes down to your own abilities.
However, if you’re going to hit an extremely hard cardio session on a “rest day” then you may hinder your progress in the gym.
A prime example of this would be doing a super-intense session of sprinting and then expecting to go to the gym the following day and train legs.
You’ll probably find that your legs feel like jelly and your hamstrings are extremely sore.
Then again, your rest day cardio session may involve doing various bodyweight exercises which could hamper what you do in the gym the next day.
Okay, I know I’ve spoken of varying abilities, but I’ll often do a straight 20-minute session of non-stop bodyweight squats and push ups as rest day cardio.
This will typically see me perform over 500 bodyweight squats and over 200 push ups.
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However, my body is fairly used to this kind of intensity.
With that being said, there will be many people who would need to completely avoid either a leg or chest workout the following day.
There will even be some that would also consider my bodyweight workout an extreme training session and would therefore require a rest day afterwards.
So, as I say, it will vary from person-to-person.
But, one thing’s for sure and that’s that you don’t want to hinder your workout the following day.
So, I’m not saying that an intense cardio session should be avoided by all on a rest day, but simply stick to something that you know won’t affect your main training.
3. Non-Traditional Cardio on Rest Days
I’ve spoken of “active recovery”, which in my mind simply means keeping the body moving and the blood flowing.
However, some of the best forms of cardio for a rest day are the ones that you don’t even consider as exercising.
By this I mean perhaps doing things that you enjoy that also happen to get your heart rate up.
Once again, you don’t want this to impact on your main training sessions, but the choice is huge.
Perhaps you enjoy going for a long bike ride with your family.
Maybe you’re into indoor rock climbing.
Do you enjoy playing tennis or some other type of ball sport?
Even activities like skateboarding, rollerblading, or having a day out Zorbing can all be considered as cardio.
And the best part is that because you’re doing something that you really enjoy you won’t even notice that you are actually performing cardio.
I can guarantee that with most of these activities your heart will be pumping and you may even break into a sweat.
Additionally, I often view a rest day as mental as well as physical.
Not only are you looking to recharge your batteries, while allowing your aching muscles a break, but your mind should also get a break too.
Plus, any one of these activities will undoubtedly be better for you than lounging around on the couch and watching Netflix all day.
4. What Are Your Overall Goals?
Okay, I’ve spoken about doing cardio on rest days that is within your abilities and that won’t hamper your upcoming workouts.
However, something else to consider is your overall training goals.
What you do on a rest day can also be affected by what you’re actually training for.
Some of you are specifically looking to get as strong as possible.
Others want to pack on as much muscle as they can, but without gaining too much body fat.
There are those of you who want to lose weight or burn body fat.
And there are even those who are training for a specific event of competition.
I will say that if you are specifically training for something, and therefore working out extremely hard on the other days, then perhaps cardio on a rest day is best avoided.
In fact, I would suggest that the only activities you do on a rest day involve stretching, foam rolling, or some gentle yoga.
You’ll still be moving, and therefore working the heart and getting the blood flowing, but just not as intensely as some other activities.
Plus, a good 15-20 minute stretching session on a rest day can do wonders when you’ve been training hard.
Then again, if you are training purely for strength or even looking to bulk up then you’ll need to be wary of how much and what type of cardio you do on a rest day.
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But, this comes down to your starting point and capabilities.
For some of you a gentle stroll on a rest day will suffice, whereas for others you may want to go for a 3km run just to keep fat at bay.
If your aim is to lose weight or burn body fat then you may even be looking at performing some HIIT cardio on a rest day.
Basically, it’s all relative.
Active Recovery & Stretch Workout For Day Off
So, as you can see it’s absolutely fine to do cardio on rest days.
However, it’s important to choose a form of cardio that won’t impact your training days.
Therefore, what may be a suitable form of cardio for one person could be too strenuous for someone else.
The best form of cardio will simply involve getting your heart rate up while increasing blood flow.
This could range from walking, to HIIT, to sprints, to rock climbing, depending on your current fitness levels and overall ability to recover.
Furthermore, using a day for stretching or foam rolling could dramatically improve your overall recovery from muscle soreness.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.