Move or Stay Still? Your Guide to Cardio on Rest Days

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Yes, 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.

Cardio Can Aid Recovery

James Fitzgerald, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist: "Even if you're training hard, you can still benefit from some low-intensity movement on rest days. It can help you de-stress, improve mental focus, and even aid in sleep quality, all of which contribute to better 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.

Then again, trying to perform that 5km run the day after leg day will probably feel horrible to everyone.

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.

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.

Bret Contreras, Strength Coach and Author: "For maximal muscle growth and recovery, complete rest days are crucial. If you absolutely have to move, stick to very light activity like walking or yoga."

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.

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.

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.

Joe Friel, Author of "The Cyclist's Training Bible": "Active recovery should be the default option for most athletes most of the time... It improves circulation, flushes metabolic waste products, and can promote recovery."

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.

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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Are Rest Days Important?

Rest days are crucial for anyone engaged in regular exercise, especially for those who are into weightlifting and resistance training. 

When you work out, especially during intense sessions, you create microscopic tears in your muscle fibers

It might sound concerning, but this process is actually the key to building stronger muscles. 

However, for the muscles to repair themselves and grow, they need time. 

This is where rest days come into play.

Bret Contreras, Strength Coach & Author: "Rest days are not days off, they are essential building blocks for progress. During rest, your body repairs itself, adapts to training, and prepares for your next challenge."

During rest days, your body isn’t just idling; it’s hard at work repairing those micro-tears, adapting to the stress you’ve put it under during workouts, and getting stronger.

Furthermore, rest days help to replenish your body’s energy stores, which are depleted during exercise, and reduce the risk of overuse injuries. 

Overtraining without sufficient rest can lead to a plateau in your performance or even a decline, not to mention the increased risk of injuries.

Beyond the physical aspects, rest days are important for mental health as well. 

They provide a mental break from the rigors of continuous training, helping to prevent burnout and keep motivation levels high. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger, even when he was training twice a day for 6 days a week,, emphasized the importance of listening to your body and incorporating rest days into your routine to allow for recovery and growth. 

This approach helps maintain a balanced and sustainable fitness journey, making sure you’re able to stick with it for the long haul. 

So, while it might feel like taking a day off is a step back, it’s actually a crucial part of moving forward in your fitness journey.

What is Zone 2 Cardio?

Zone 2 cardio refers to a specific intensity level of cardiovascular exercise that is often described as being at a low to moderate pace. 

It’s based on heart rate zones, which are typically calculated as percentages of your maximum heart rate (MHR). 

Zone 2 specifically is where you’re exercising at about 60-70% of your MHR. 

This zone is significant because it’s at this intensity that you’re primarily using fat as your source of energy, enhancing your aerobic fitness without overstressing your body.

When you’re exercising in Zone 2, you should be able to carry on a conversation without too much difficulty. 

This level of effort encourages improvements in your body’s ability to transport and utilize oxygen, which is a foundational aspect of endurance training. 

Dr. Stephen Seiler, Exercise Physiologist: "Zone 2 training is a powerful tool for building endurance, improving fat metabolism, and promoting recovery. It's a comfortable pace where you can maintain a conversation without getting too out of breath."

Over time, training in this zone can help increase the volume of blood your heart pumps with each beat (stroke volume) and improve the efficiency of your muscles in using the oxygen delivered to them.

Experts like Phil Maffetone, a well-respected coach and exercise physiologist, advocate for the benefits of Zone 2 training, particularly for building an aerobic base. 

This foundational fitness component is crucial not just for endurance athletes but for anyone looking to improve their cardiovascular health, lose weight, or enhance overall fitness levels. 

The beauty of Zone 2 cardio is that it’s sustainable, making it possible to engage in longer sessions that are less likely to lead to burnout or overtraining. 

It’s a key part of a balanced training program, providing a bridge between rest days and more intense training days, allowing for recovery while still staying active.

Is Zone 2 Cardio Best For Fat Loss?

When it comes to fat loss, Zone 2 cardio holds a special place due to its effectiveness in burning fat as a primary source of fuel. 

Operating at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate, this moderate intensity encourages your body to tap into fat stores for energy over carbohydrates. 

This makes it particularly appealing for those looking to reduce body fat.

Trent Lowe, Sports Scientist: "Don't underestimate the power of Zone 2. It's not about going hard, it's about going long and consistent. This training builds a foundation for higher intensity workouts and improves your body's ability to utilize fat for energy."

However, it’s important to understand that while Zone 2 cardio is effective for fat burning, the best approach for fat loss incorporates a variety of factors. 

These include a balanced diet, strength training to build muscle (which in turn can increase your resting metabolic rate), and a mix of different types of cardiovascular exercise.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), for example, also plays a crucial role in fat loss for many people. 

HIIT can lead to what’s known as the afterburn effect, where your body continues to burn calories at an elevated rate even after the workout is over.

Experts like Dr. Stephen Seiler, a sports scientist well-known for his research on endurance training, point out that while lower intensity exercise like Zone 2 cardio is effective for improving aerobic fitness and can contribute to fat loss, a well-rounded approach is usually most effective. 

This approach should be tailored to an individual’s fitness level, preferences, and lifestyle for it to be sustainable and enjoyable, thus leading to long-term success.

So, while Zone 2 cardio can be an efficient way to burn fat, it’s best viewed as one component of a comprehensive fat loss strategy. Incorporating variety in your workouts, paying attention to nutrition, and ensuring you’re getting enough rest are all key pieces of the puzzle.

Key Learning Points

  • It’s absolutely fine to do cardio on rest days.
  • Choose a form of cardio that won’t impact your training days.
  • 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.
  • Stretching or foam rolling could dramatically improve your overall recovery from muscle soreness.
  • Rest days are crucial, as when you exercise this causes microscopic tears in the muscles. Rest days are when these tears repair themselves.
  • Zone 2 cardio, exercising at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate, and therefore still able to hold a conversation, is a great form of cardio for rest days.
  • Zone 2 cardio is great for fat loss, as at 60-70% of maximum heart rate the body will use fat for energy.

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