The Best Recovery Exercises
You know the feeling all-too-well. The soreness, the aches, and (sometimes) pains that can result from starting a new workout routine or pushing yourself harder than before.
On one hand, it can feel like a badge of honor and “proof” that you made the most of your workout. On the other hand, it can make it harder for you to go back for your next planned session, see progress, or stay on track with your routine.
While soreness is not the only indicator of a great workout (you can have incredible results without feeling sore), it’s something that you’ll inevitably encounter if you’re active.
And, if you want to see results, one killer workout alone won’t get the job done. That means you need a way to recover quickly so that soreness doesn’t shut you down.
The Two Foundations of Recovery
It might be hard to completely prevent tired muscles, but there’s a lot you can do to speed recovery, help your body rejuvenate, and make it very unlikely that you’ll get hurt or be as sore.
But, before we go into some of the best recovery routines you can do before or after your workouts — or even on your off days — it’s important to remember two of the most effective techniques: sleep and walking
Sleep is a necessity for every human being, but for someone who exercises regularly, getting a good night’s rest is non-negotiable.
And walking, despite not feeling like much, is an incredible way to add movement and increase blood flow in a way that will make your joints and muscles feel better. When in doubt, low-intensity movement is a very good way to help reduce soreness.
Need something a little bit stronger than rest and relaxation?
Put down the Gatorade because these recovery routines are exactly what your body really needs to bounce back faster, so you can go into your next workout feeling amazing.
Best for Weight Lifting Recovery (The Mobility Tonic)
If you: Love to lift weights
Try: Dan John’s Tonic/Mobility Workout
There are certain muscles in your body that tend to tighten when they get tired. Physician Vladimir Janda, MD, classified these tissues—which include your upper trapezius, pectorals, biceps, psoas, piriformis, hamstrings, and calf muscles—as “tonic.”
If that list looks a lot like the usual suspects that cause your aches and pains, you’re not alone—they’re common trouble spots for a lot of active people.
John, a respected strength coach and author of several books, addresses these tight spots with a short workout that combines light weightlifting with static stretching.
The general pattern is to perform the following:
- 25 kettlebell swings (a dumbbell will work in a pinch).
- A single goblet squat where you hold the weight at the bottom.
- 10 high-knee marches in place.
- After the march, you hold a static stretch.
Then you do the entire circuit again until you’ve finished it 10 times total.
At the end, you’ll feel a lot more elasticity in those tight trouble spots—and you’ll have knocked out 250 reps of kettlebell swings, which is no small feat. You’ll feel stronger and more mobile as a result.
“It’s one of the best programs I know,” John says. (Watch him demonstrate the routine in this video.)
The Best Relaxing Recovery Workout
If you: Yearn for yoga
Try: A relaxed, restorative routine
When most people think of yoga, they picture lithe, bendy men and women contorting themselves into seemingly impossible positions. So, it may come as a surprise that in restorative yoga, you might never even get off of the floor.
In restorative sequences, you perform gentle poses for long periods of time, often employing props to make the moves more comfortable.
You’ll quickly find that something doesn’t need to be intense to have a serious impact—for proof, just try holding the “legs up the wall” pose for five minutes and notice how your lower limbs feel before and after.
Sage Rountree, author of The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery, says that it’s especially important for hard-chargers who get after it during their “on” days to ramp down the intensity during these sessions of recovery exercises.
“A few long-held, mellow, low-to-the-ground poses complement your workout with a work-in: paying attention to your body and breath, inducing the relaxation response, and jump-starting your recovery,” says Rountree.
Try her five-move floor-based routine, which makes use of blocks and bolsters. (Household pillows can work in a pinch.) Here’s an overview of what it looks like:
- Squirmy Cat-Cow Pose
- Supported Child’s Pose
- Supported Fish Pose with Cobbler Legs
- Supported Bridge Pose
- Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose
A Better Way to Foam Roam
If you: Feel a little bound up everywhere
Try: Foam rolling like you mean it
Foam rolling has caught on with the general public in recent years—a good thing—but as with most things in fitness, the more that people do an activity, the more they do it incorrectly.
For example, plenty of people roll back-and-forth against the roller too quickly to get any benefit, according to Dean Somerset, a certified exercise physiologist and author.
“The key to foam rolling effectively is to go fairly slow, and when an area feels very tense it should be even slower,” explains Somerset. “I’m talking glacial migration patterns slow, like a foot-a-year kind of thing.”
Another common mistake? Using one of the crazy-dense, crazy-intense rollers that have been growing in popularity.
The issue with them is that, unless you’re conditioned to foam rolling, the additional pressure they inflict causes your muscles to tense up, which is pretty much the opposite of what you’re trying to do when you foam roll.
For most beginners, Somerset says the typical low-density foam roller works just fine. Check out his lower body release routine in this two-minute video, and then try it yourself.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.