Active Rest Days

Whether you’re an athlete, a regular gym goer or you just like to keep fit, rest is an essential tool to stay fit and healthy, reach your goals, and avoid any time out of the game due to overtraining or exhaustion.

Better yet, taking an active rest day allows the body (central nervous system and muscles), to recover while still remaining mobile.


“Active rest involves performing light exercises (such as swimming, walking, yoga, cycling and body weight exercises) that stimulate the recovery process without imposing undue stress on the injured body part.” (12 Minute Athlete, September, 2012).

To fully understand why we need rest, first it is important to understand how skeletal muscle grows. Don’t worry - this isn’t going to be a science lecture, so stay with me.

We know in order to have movement from a muscle, the fibres in the muscle must contract. This is due to motor neurons (a pathway in which nerve impulses pass from the brain or spinal cord to the muscle), and is driven by your central nervous system (CNS).

Ever heard of ‘the mind to muscle connection’?, well this is it, and the stronger these pathways are developed, the more contraction through the muscle i.e the greater performance from a muscle/muscles.

It is common knowledge that weight training causes micro tears in muscle fibres. In recovery, your body metabolises protein (protein synthesis) to rebuild these fibres slightly thicker and stronger.

This is your bodies’ way to ‘stop the damage happening again’. However, we know as soon as we get back into the gym, we’ll be repeating this process.

Muscle growth occurs whenever the rate of muscle protein synthesis is greater than the rate of muscle protein breakdown (Young sb Kwon, M. a. 2004). What does this mean? The process of muscle adaptation (muscle growth), occurs during rest.

Need I mention that ‘calories burnt’ does not necessarily mean ‘fat burnt’, and what if I also told you that with the correct training and nutrition, your body can actually burn fat during rest.

Isn’t active rest sounding more and more appealing?!


There are two types over overtraining which are important to understand and be able to identify.

Firstly, muscular overtraining refers to not giving your muscles significant time to heal. Generally this is very easy to identify as you’ll be sore and your muscles won’t give you the performance you’re used to.

To avoid muscle overtraining, many gym goers will train muscle groups in a ‘split’ (back and biceps, chest and triceps, leg day and so on), however it is still important to allow your whole muscular system time to rest.

Ever step into the gym for a workout and feel a bit sluggish, weak and unmotivated? Great news, you haven’t lost the drive nor do you need to ‘harden up’, you need to rest.

This is generally a sign that you central nervous system needs some down time. Unlike your muscles, we can’t use our CNS in a ‘split’ routine, it’s working all of the time.

Your CNS isn’t just working in the gym - under stress at work?, going through a time of emotional hardship?, not sleeping well? - your CNS is under stress.

It is important to note that your CNS doesn’t just involve your muscles and physical health, it involves your mind and your mental health as well. Need I mention the negative health effects long periods of stress can have on our bodies (sickness, fat gain, muscle loss, inflammation, injury).

Trainer tip: adapt your training program to fit your life, your week, your day. You may plan a hard session, but then have a day from hell and feel generally exhausted. Have a light train, a good sleep and start the day fresh tomorrow. Look after your body.


So the big question - how much active rest do we actually need? The short answer - it’s different for everybody due to training load, intensity, training duration, outside stressors and sleep patterns.

Listen to your body, your body will tell you when it needs to rest.

Trainer tip: take an active rest day before you are totally whipped out and forced to rest due to a ‘burn out’ or general exhaustion. Feeling sore and lacking a bit of spark? Take an active rest day today and notice the difference in your body when you hit the gym again. Rest will move you closer to your goals, not set you back, so get resting!

Kellee Henton
Personal Trainer
BSc Chemistry
Level 3 & 4 Exercise Science
Diploma in Nutrition

The Kellee Collective, Flex Fitness Hamilton CBD


12 Minute Athlete, September, 2012. How to take an active rest day.
How do muscles grow? Young sb Kwon, M. a. 2004.

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