Contrary to popular belief: You don’t build muscle in the gym. Your body actually builds muscle when you recover from your workouts — which makes rest just as important as any sweat session.
When you’re resting, you’re getting stronger, bigger and more lean, reaping the rewards of yesterday’s hard work. Without it, you could sabotage your gains. But even on rest days, you might need to relieve some stress or you’re motivated to move, even if you’ve worked out hard the day before.
Instead of doubling down on an intense strength training workout, which could slow your recovery or even result in injury or overtraining, try some of these six moves recommended by top strength coaches. They’ll help your body work better, improve mobility, stave off chronic disease, build strength in neglected places and, of course, make you sweat.
“You know, it’s funny: Because I’m a trainer dude, and I’m supposed to be an exercise snob, I used to scoff at walking,” says Frank Nash, owner of Stronger Personal Training in Worcester, MA. But now, Nash says, he’s a big proponent of this low-impact, high-benefit exercise — both for himself and his clients.
And no wonder! Sitting too much can increase your risks for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions. A 2012 Australian study of more than 200,000 adults found that sitting for more than four hours a day increased risk of death by 11 percent.
Getting out of your chair to take a walk every hour can help mitigate these risks: A 2015 study from the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found that walking for just two minutes each hour reduced the risk of all-cause mortality by 33 percent. And most of us would say we can find two minutes to extend our lives.
2. Hang From a Bar
Because most of us sit so much throughout the day, our postures aren’t always great, meaning we don’t get extension in our middle and upper back, says Mike Perry, founder and co-owner of Skill of Strength, a performance-based training facility in Chelmsford, MA. One way to get that upper back extension is to channel your inner kid on the playground and hang from a bar.
“Maybe at first your feet are on the ground, and you’re only really hanging with half your bodyweight,” Perry says. “It does so much for your upper back, your scapular mechanics, your shoulder mobility — and it’s really easy. I’ve had people coming with with chronic shoulder issues; we get to the point where they can hang from a bar for 30 seconds, and everything’s fixed.”
Hanging from a bar like this can also help decompress your spine, which feels great, and can help strengthen your grip — a key indicator of overall health and a key to doing more pull-ups.
3. Turkish Get-Up
“If there’s one thing we should be able to do, it’s getting up off the ground, and getting back down under control,” says Evan Marcantonio, owner of Elevate Strength & Performance in Worcester, MA. He prescribes daily get-ups to his clients to help them know how their body’s working that day.
“It’s a good indicator of how the training session is going to go," Marcantonio says. "If you’re able to get up and down and it feels light, you’re probably going to have a strong session. If [not], we taper down a little bit.”
Here's how to perform a Turkish get-up:
- Lie flat on your back with your legs in a narrow V shape. (If you’re performing the exercise with a weight, hold it in front of your right shoulder.)
- Bend your right knee so your foot is flat on the floor and place your left (non-weighted) arm on the ground beside you.
- Press the weight straight up above your right shoulder; if you’re performing the move without weight, extend your arm as if it were weighted.
- Keeping the weight straight above your right shoulder, roll onto your left forearm and push through your right foot, lifting your back off the floor.
- Transition from your left forearm to your hand, keeping the weight in the same position. Your upper body should now form a T shape.
- Lift your butt off the floor and bring your left leg under your body as you place your knee on the ground beneath you.
- From this position, transition into a half-kneeling position — like you’re doing a lunge on the floor, with your left knee down, both legs at 90 degrees. The right arm should still be straight up.
- Stand up before reversing the move to return to the floor to complete one repetition.
“[The squat] is a great exercise, and you can get strong. But idea of putting a bar on your back doesn’t make a ton of sense functionally,” says Alwyn Cosgrove, owner of Results Fitness in Newhall, CA. “But everybody picks stuff up.”
Cosgrove says that if you’re going to have to pick things up, you might as well practice it: “A deadlift is key,” he says. But that doesn’t mean you have to use a barbell or pick the weight up off the floor. “The biggest issue is range of motion, especially for females — a lot of gyms don’t have plates that are all the same width, so they try to deadlift from a bigger range of motion when they’re using smaller weights.”
Cosgrove means that when you’re using a lighter weight, a smaller diameter of plate means you have to bend over even further to pick up the bar — beyond a range of motion that you can “own.” Instead, whether you’re deadlifting a bar, dumbbell or kettlebell, Cosgrove suggests placing the weight on a box or lifting the bar off a rack so you don’t go too far in your range of motion.
Here's how to perform a deadlift in this way:
- Place the weight on a box around mid-shin to knee height.
- Push your hips back to initiate the movement. Imagine you’re holding a box or a big bag of groceries in your arms in front of you as you stand straight, and you’re going to close a car door that’s behind you using your butt.
- Bump the door closed with your butt — doing this will push your hips back.
- Keep pushing your hips back — instead of thinking of bending at the waist — to push your chest towards the floor and keep your back flat.
- Grab the weight with straight arms, and then push your hips forward to stand back up, keeping your weight in your heels.
5. Total-Body Extension
Squat jumps and burpees are great for getting your heart rate up, but many coaches worry about workout injury risk with both: Burpees can result in wrist and shoulder injury, and squat jumps can be rough on the knees for those who haven’t learned to land properly.
Total-body extensions provide similar cardiovascular benefits without pounding on your joints, which is why Mike Whitfield, a trainer, weight-loss coach and author of Rise and Hustle, prescribes them daily.
“[The calorie-burning] is just the beginning. The total-body extension also activates your glutes, especially if you sit a lot, and improves your shoulder mobility,” he says.
Here's how to do a total-body extension:
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.
- Keeping your chest up, drive your hands behind your glutes and bend your knees as if you’re going to initiate a jump.
- Then explosively extend as if you’re jumping straight up, bringing your hands up overhead into a full-body extension while coming up onto your toes — but without jumping.
- Return to start, and repeat.
- For a daily “energy surge,” Whitfield suggests performing 2 to 3 sets of 15 to 30 reps each day.
6. Bear Crawl
To increase intensity and make sure they’re leaving every bit of energy in the gym, serious trainees love a shirt-soaking workout finisher. Usually lasting anywhere from one minute to 10, these conditioning schemes can include plyometrics, ballistic lifts, sprints or other intense work.
For a finisher that provides that calorie-torching, sweat-pouring benefit with additional benefits to help outside the gym, try a daily bear crawl, says Jeremy Frisch, owner of Achieve Performance Training in Clinton, MA.
“It improves coordination. It’s great for conditioning, and provides a level change, which improves balance and body awareness,” he says. And unlike highly technical moves that require skill — meaning you have to learn them first, and then do them correctly to avoid injury — you already know how to bear crawl!
But just in case you need a refresher, here's how to do it:
- Get on all fours with your hands and the balls of your feet on the ground, then crawl.
- Try going for 10 or 20 yards hard to start — it’s more difficult than it sounds.
- Rest and repeat.
- As time passes, try to increase the number of rounds you can perform while maintaining a fast, controlled pace.