Active Recovery: How to Not Suck at It

In my early commercial gym days, I used to do this: Sit down on a machine, do some curls, sit some more on the machine, look at my phone. The bulk of my training time was spent sitting down. Now I use my time between sets productively and get stronger while resting.

Most of us spent the majority of our day sitting down. I know I do, because I’m a programmer and I won’t get a standing work station any time soon.

It bothers me that almost everyone I see in a training environment carries on with that habit. Before we get to the meat and potatoes of Active Recovery, let’s first establish some ground rules:

1. No phones.

I mean it. Put it away or don’t even take it with you. You don’t need the timer app. Be old school and use paper and pen to track your workouts. If there is no way around using the phone productively, put it on airplane mode.

2. No sitting.

The butt may be used to swing kettlebells or lift a heavy barbell from the ground. You may not sit on it during your entire training session.

Do other things instead.

3. No chit-chatting.

Don’t get caught in lengthy conversations. Avoid the creepy guy who gives you his biography every time you make eye contact. The occasional fist bump and “whazzup bro?” is fine.

Now that that’s outta the way, let’s talk about what these “other things” (rule #2) are.

Relaxation Techniques

Active recovery does not have to be fancy. Simple breathing drills, walking around and shaking out your muscles will do a lot more than you might think.

They key to high performance is the ability to quickly turn the central nervous system (CNS) on and off. Fighters recommend taking a nap before a fight. If you can pull this off, you’re really in control of your psyche.

Lifting near-max weights (think big deadlifts and squats) or high-skill work (handstands, pistol squats) not only fatigues your muscles. It drains your CNS.

Side note: The CNS is kinda like the computer that controls the output to your muscles. Little electric signals are sent to your muscles, telling them to contract. The stronger the signal, the harder the contraction. Fun fact: People that get struck by lightning can break their bones just from the sheer force produced by their own muscles. The CNS is a smart son of a bitch. Under normal circumstances, it limits the signal so you’re not hurting yourself. The more fatigued your CNS becomes, the more limited the signals will be. The message is “yo this guy just handled some shit load of weight. Don’t let him do this again and limit his power”.

So when your CNS is “drained”, you want to fill it up so you can hit it again with all the power that is physically available to you.

Therefore, after a big effort, you want to tell your body, at full volume: “I’m A-okay. All sunshine and rainbows. Let’s go again!”


There’s a good chance you’re doing this wrong all day. Let’s use our gym time and practice this.

Breathe only through your nose and into your belly.

A good drill for this is Crocodile Breathing: Lie with your belly on the floor. Rest your head on your forearms. Breathe so that your hip and lower back move up. Do this privately at home for about 5 minutes and see how it makes you feel (hint: it’s gonna be awesome).

Most people are chronic chest breathers, meaning you expand the chest and shrug your shoulders to inhale. You’re basically doing thousands of shrugs a day for no good reason. This leads to tension in your neck and shoulders and releases stress hormones (cortisol). Chest breathing is something nature invented for emergencies, what they call fight-or-flight-mode in psychology.

Breathing into your belly might not look super sexy. Everybody is sucking in their stomach to look more like a cover model from a fitness magazine.

But belly breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing) has so many benefits. It can improve posture, regulate hormone levels and simply relaxes you (i.e. refreshing the CNS).

Try the 4-1-7 breathing drill between sets:

  1. Inhale through your nose, into your belly, for a count of 4.
  2. Hold it for 1.
  3. Exhale for 7.

How long is 1 count? It can be a second. Or more. Or less. The important thing is to count evenly. Let your body tell you what the right speed is. Once you get good at this, 1 count will be longer naturally.

Do the 4-1-7 for 3-5 sets. You may do this standing or in the bottom position of a squat. Then walk around and shake out your muscles if you need some more time to recover before your next set.

Generally, just try to relax between sets. To quote The Icemaker, Wim Hoff: “Breathe motherfucker.”

Loose Hang

I just recently implemented this into my training. It’s genius.

Hang from a bar that is taller than you … and that is pretty much it.

The key, again, is to relax. You obviously need a solid grip for this. But even just 30 seconds of hanging already delivers benefits, such as:

  • Decompressing the spine
  • Decompressing shoulder and wrist joints
  • Working your grip strength (duh)
  • Opening up your shoulders (goodbye tight lats)

I do this after almost every work set of every exercise.

When you lift a heavy weight, it compresses your spine. This can lead to injuries such as herniated discs (literally a pain in the ass). Other joints in the body can be compressed as well, such as the wrists during handstands and other pushing movements.

That’s were the CNS kicks in again.

My coach at the gym did an eye-opening little drill with me: I lay on the floor, one leg bent at hip and knee. My coach grabbed the leg and I tried to straighten the leg. My task was to resist this and keep the leg bent (this is just a simple strength test). Then he took my thumb and pushed it into my wrist for about 30 seconds (compressing the joint). I did the strength test again and was considerably weaker (like, a lot)! Then he pulled my thumb for 30 seconds. Afterwards, my strength was back to baseline.

The compression in this tiny joint (my hands were not involved at all in the strength test, by the way) caused my body to go into safe mode. Somehow, the CNS senses that something’s wrong and puts on the brakes.

I think that’s one of the reasons why I feel so much stronger after the Loose Hang. Even with deadlifts, where you’d think that the tiring of my grip matters, every set done after hanging feels easier.

The impact on your grip might be bigger in the beginning, but you’ll get accustomed to it quickly. Simply stop when you feel your grip loosening. You can use a pull-up bar or a set of rings. The grip should be overhand (as if you were about to do a pull-up, not a chin-up). Putting the hands closer together (about shoulder-width) makes it easier to relax and provides an extra stretch for the shoulders.

Mobility Drills

What if you could …

  1. … improve your mobility so you’ll perform better in the next set?
  2. … keep your heart rate up to give conditioning and fat loss a little extra kick?
  3. … shorten your total time spent in the gym while getting more done?

You can have all of the above by doing mobility drills between your sets.

Preferably, choose a drill that specifically improves the strength move from which you are taking a rest.

For lower body moves, work on hip and ankle mobility. For upper body work, wrists and shoulders are the limiting links.

Make this as simple as possible. Choose 2 drills (one for shoulders, one for hips). For the next 4 weeks, spend your time between work sets practicing these 2 moves.

Improving hip and shoulder mobility will solve 90% of your problems. This way, you don’t have to do endless warm-up and cool down sessions to do your corrective work.

Warm up with 10-15 minutes of Loaded Yoga and sprinkle in the rest of your mobility drills in between sets.

To get you started, here are 2 drills you can use right away.

Shin Box

This stretches your hip flexors and simultaneously works on internal and external hip rotation.

WTS Drill

I just call this the WTS (wrist, thoracic spine and shoulder) drill from now on. It mobilizes — you probably guessed it — wrists, t-spine and shoulders. Check out Max Shank’s article for detailed explanations.


To sum this up: The 3 things that are better than sitting around at the gym are:

  1. Mindful breathing
  2. Loose hang
  3. Mobility drills (hips/shoulders)

You don’t have to implement all of this at once. I promise, even if you manage to do just one of the 3 things consecutively for 3 weeks, you’ll feel an irresistible urge to hug me.

Move freely.