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Why You Shouldn't Totally Rest Between Sets During Your Workout

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If your rest intervals at the gym (between sprints, lifts, or burpees) serve as your prime time to catch up on your entire Instagram feed, Snapchat stories, or Bumble messages, you're doing your body a disservice. (And getting your phone super germy, BTW.)

Even though, yes, it's important to recover in between moments of all-out exertion, you shouldn't just flop on the floor or park your butt on a bench till the next round. New research found that active recovery beats passive recovery when you're resting between bouts of intense exercise.

The study, conducted by the High Altitude Exercise Physiology Program at Western State Colorado University and commissioned by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), looked at three different things: 1) the effect of active/passive recovery on endurance, 2) the effect of active/passive recovery on power, and 3) the effect of different intensities of active recovery on exercise performance. Overall, they found that moderate-intensity active recovery is more effective than passive recovery in helping you go harder and longer during the next round.

What, exactly, does active recovery entail? And how can you make it work for you?

In this case, the researchers had 15 people participate in several treadmill and indoor cycling tests. The exercisers either immediately rested after the interval or actively recovered for a specified amount of time—either a slow jog or slow cycling at 50 percent of their max intensity. Then the runners and cyclists completed another intense round of exercise.

The results were pretty clear: When the runners used active instead of passive recovery, they were able to run longer. When the cyclists used active recovery, they were able to maintain their power in the second round of exercise (versus when they did passive recovery and their power output actually decreased).

So active recovery is better, great. But the key is that you don't want to be too active or go too hard. When the researchers had runners recover at a vigorous intensity instead of a moderate intensity, their endurance during the subsequent round of running suffered. Here's the active recovery sweet spot: You should be able to speak, but not comfortably. (Wondering how it would work while lifting? Here's a strength workout with active recovery exercises built right in.)

So even when you've totally smoked yourself during a sprint or an especially long round of burpees, you shouldn't totally stop your wheels. The ACE researchers found that continuing to move and engage in active recovery actually helped dramatically reduce blood lactate concentrations post-exercise—high levels of which give you that burning, can't-go-any-longer feeling. It's not just a cardio or lower-body thing, either. In a study with professional climbers, active recovery made a second bout of climbing feel easier and resulted in lower blood lactate levels compared with those who did passive recovery, according to research published in the Journal of Sports Medicine & Science.

FYI, the same advice applies to your "rest days," too. If you're just lying on the couch bingeing on Netflix, you're probably going to struggle more when you get moving the next time. It's all right here: Rest Days Should Be About Active Recovery, Not Sitting On Your Butt Doing Nothing.

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