(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: I’m currently working out 4 days per week and was wondering what I should do on my off days from weight lifting? I was thinking of maybe doing some cardio on those days, but I wasn’t sure if that was okay?
I’ve also heard people say that the best thing to do on your off days is to just rest completely and let your body recover. Or maybe do something to help with recovery such as stretching, foam rolling, mobility work, epsom salt bath, massage and that kind of thing. What do you recommend?
ANSWER: What should you do on your off days? Hmmm, I dunno… read a book?
But seriously, this is one of a handful of questions I get asked over and over again that I kinda hate getting asked. Not because it’s a stupid question, but because there is no single universal answer to it. And typically the best answer I can give is a combination of annoying, complicated and lacking real direct concrete advice (you’ll see in a second).
Why? Because what you should be doing on your off days is one of those things that just depends.
It depends on all kinds of stuff, all of which are specific to you. For example…
- It depends on YOU and YOUR exact situation.
- It depends on YOUR specific needs and preferences.
- It depends on what YOU actually want to do.
- It depends on what YOU actually have the time, capability and work capacity to do.
And possibly more so than all of the above, it depends on YOUR goals.
- Are you trying to lose fat?
- Build muscle?
- Get stronger?
- Improve cardiovascular health?
- Are you training for some kind of endurance or power event?
- Do you have some type of athletic goal in mind where you’re training for some other sport or activity?
- Are you trying to improve mobility or flexibility?
- Trying to increase your vertical leap?
- Are you trying to burn additional calories?
- Are you trying to optimize recovery or minimize soreness?
- Trying to improve your overall level of fitness and conditioning?
I can keep going. There’s just a ton of individual factors specific to you that play a role in determining what, if anything, you should do on your off days from weight training.
Based on those factors, the potential answers can be all over the place and range from one extreme (do a lot of something) to another (do none of that same thing).
For example, maybe your off days would ideally involve doing a certain amount and type of cardio. Maybe a certain amount and type of stretching or mobility work. Maybe some form of active recovery. Maybe some other unrelated form of training for some unrelated sport or activity you happen to be training for.
Then again, maybe you should be doing absolutely nothing on your off days.
That’s why I hate this question. I get a ton of people who tell me they’re using The Beginner Weight Training Routine, or The Muscle Building Workout Routine, or a program from The Best Workout Routines, and they follow that up with “so um, what should I be doing on my off days?”
I really don’t have all that great of an answer for them.
The Best Answer I Can Think Of
So, what should you do on your off days? The best possible answer I can give you is this:
Do whatever the hell you need/want to be doing for your specific goals in accordance with your specific needs and preferences.
See… a nice combination of “annoying, complicated and lacking in any real direct concrete advice” just like I promised. But, it’s honestly the best answer I can give without knowing every other detail about your exact situation.
It sucks, I know.
But rather than leave you with a glorified “it depends” and send you on your merry way (although something tells me the answer above won’t leave you feeling all that merry), let’s pretend I know at least one thing about you… your goal.
Now let’s also pretend this goal of yours is to build muscle or lose fat (or both), as opposed to something like training for performance or a certain sport/activity.
With me so far? Awesome. Now just based on the many people with these goals who have asked me this question, I’ve found that the two most common “off day” options being considered are usually:
Here’s my advice.
Should I Do Cardio On My Rest Days?
Guess what? It still depends. Only now we can come a lot closer to a useful answer.
If your primary goal is to build muscle, then there is no need for doing any cardio on your off days. Similarly, if you want to lose fat but you’re creating your required caloric deficit through diet alone, then again there is no need for doing any cardio on your off days.
In both of these scenarios, the only thing you truly need to do on your rest days is… rest. Cardio isn’t needed at all and you can avoid it completely. That doesn’t mean you MUST avoid it, it just means that these are two common examples of people who CAN avoid it and still reach their goals just fine.
So if either of these examples describe you AND you have no other reason or preference for doing cardio, then your answer is pretty clear. Don’t do any.
And then there are separate examples of people who should probably not do any, but less because there’s no need (like our previous examples) and more because it will cause problems.
Take for instance the skinny guy/girl (aka an ectomorph and/or hardgainer) trying to build muscle who has a hard time eating enough calories to support growth. Burning additional calories through off-day cardio would just make that problem worse.
Another example would be people who do their off-day cardio in a way that makes it detrimental to their goal by cutting into recovery and making it harder for them to build muscle when that’s the goal, or maintain muscle when fat loss is the goal. Step 1 for this person is to reduce the duration, frequency, and/or intensity of their cardio so it’s less problematic. But if that’s not something they can do for whatever reason (some people just can’t hold back a little… they must overdo things), then they’d probably be better off doing no cardio at all on these days.
Now let’s change the scenarios around.
Let’s say you’re trying to lose fat and you aren’t able to create your required deficit through diet alone. Meaning, you flat out NEED to do cardio on your off days in order for that deficit to exist. In this case, the above advice would change since a true need for doing cardio has now presented itself.
Or, maybe you CAN create your deficit through diet alone, but you just don’t want to. You’d prefer to use cardio anyway (in conjunction with your diet) to help create that deficit. That’s fine. In these cases, you most definitely can (and most likely should)… so long as it’s kept to a sane amount to avoid that previously mentioned point of detriment.
Just like if a person with either goal (fat loss or muscle growth) had some other aerobic/endurance related goal or interest in mind… or just wanted to do cardio for whatever other reason (cardiovascular health, maintain or improve conditioning, you just enjoy doing it, etc.).
These again are examples where cardio can be done on your off days.
I think I can sum it up like this…
If you have some legit need that requires cardio OR a personal preference for doing cardio, then some can be done on your off days.
But if not, then none is needed and you can literally just use those days to rest and recover with no form of training being done.
Like I said before, this is one of those things that just doesn’t have a good universal answer that’s right for everyone. It always depends on individual needs, goals and preferences… and you’re the only one who has that information.
So I guess my answer for you is… maybe. You’ll have to take it from there.
What About Me?
As for me personally, any regular reader probably knows by now that I’m not much of a fan of cardio… as least not as a tool for improving body composition.
When the goal is something else — perhaps something endurance oriented — that’s another story altogether. But strictly for losing fat, building muscle and just looking great naked?
I consider it completely optional, HIGHLY overrated and occasionally counterproductive.
I don’t find it very fun, either.
So when muscle growth is my goal, I tend to avoid cardio because A) my calorie needs in a surplus are high enough as it is, so burning additional calories via cardio on my rest days just makes my job harder, B) I recover better without it, and C) I just hate doing it.
When fat loss is my goal, I tend to do little to no cardio because A) I have no problem whatsoever creating my deficit through diet alone and prefer doing it that way, B) I recover better without it, and C) I still just hate doing it.
But hey, that’s just what’s ideal for me based on my specific needs and preferences.
You should do what’s ideal for yours.