Rest intervals are often overlooked. But the amount of rest you take between sets is a fundamental workout variable. Change your rest, you change your workout. And your results.
You finish your set and rack the weight.
Thinking about your day, you grab a quick sip, and get back at it. You have things to do and can’t spend all day in the gym.
Struggling to finish your set you wonder if the quick turnaround was too much. You drop the weight and get your last set in.
With your workout behind you, you wonder if you move too fast, and if the minimal rest breaks minimize the effectiveness of your workouts, and the results you see.
So the big question becomes…
“How long do I rest between sets without sabotaging my efforts?”
Why Rest At All
In recent years the average MLB playoff game lasted about 3hrs and 35mins. But, there’s only 17 minutes and 58 seconds of action.
So, for over 3 hours of the game, not much happens. The ball’s not in play.
Well, workouts aren’t much different.
You do a set. Send a text MSG. Grab a drink. Check Facebook. Then…
Not the most productive use of your time.
We’re all busy. So saving time and blasting through your entire workout seems like a good idea. With this approach your complete workout wouldn’t take more than 15 – 20 minutes.
Some gyms are set-up so you can do that.
Super efficient. But not effective.
For ANY muscle contraction/force exertion, a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is required. When an ATP molecule is combined with water it splits apart and produces energy. This allows your heart to pump, your lungs to fill with air, and your muscles to contact to pump out every rep of your set.
However, there are limited stores of ATP. Once it runs out more ATP is needed to keep going. But, regeneration isn’t instantaneous. So, you either slow down or stop the exercise to recharge.
There are three different methods of producing energy to perform exercise….
- Phosphagen System or ATP-PC System
- Anaerobic System / Glycolytic System
- Aerobic System
Each energy system has different characteristics.
The Phosphagen System provides a quick powerful burst of energy. Think golf swing, 100 mph tennis serve, or a 100m sprint.
While the Phosphagen System is powerful, it doesn’t last long. About 5 – 10 seconds. And it’s slow to replenish. So don’t expect to complete two heavy sets of squat with a 30 second rest period.
For activities that last longer than 10 seconds, like a ¼ mile sprint, a 15 rep set of squats, or a few back to back fast breaks in basketball, a second source of energy production is needed.
Enter the Glycolytic System.
While this system can produce more energy, power and speed declines. The tradeoff is sustained output.
But this system has its limits too.
After the Glycolytic System taps out the Aerobic System takes over.
The Aerobic System is our primary energy system. It’s the most efficient. Able to produce energy indefinitely.
However, it’s weak. You can’t rely on it for anything more than a brisk walk or lifting anything more than 1 pound dumbbells.
By the 5 minute mark of an exercise, the Aerobic System system dominants. In a 1km run, it’s already providing more or less, half your energy needs. In a marathon, it provides around 98% of your energy needs.
So, how long you rest between sets depends on the activity you’re doing and your goal.
I found a great video that goes into all the details. Take a look as Dr. Mike Israetel of Renaissance Periodization lays it all out for you.
I also break it all down for you further down the page.
So… How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?
What muscle are you training?
What type of exercise are you doing?
What’s your goal?
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets to Maximize Hypertrophy?
Past articles mapped out the mechanisms of hypertrophy. So we won’t dig into that now. But, what’s important to this discussion is, volume.
Recent studies suggest that an effective muscle building set requires at least five reps that approach failure.
So, if your rest intervals are short and limit your next set to one or two reps, then you’re not helping your quest to build more muscle.
However, rest until you can get 10 reps that push you to the brink, you know that you got plenty of rest. And that counts as an effective muscle building set.
The limiting factor within your set needs to be the target muscle. If it’s fatigue from being out too late, chasing the kids all week, or a cardiovascular limitation, then you’re not optimizing your muscle building.
You are looking for failure of the target muscle.
Assuming the targeted muscle fails at rep number eight, waiting another two or three minutes to get 12 or 15 reps doesn’t help your cause.
In the short term, the difference between 8 reps to failure and 12 reps to failure doesn’t exist. You build the same amount of muscle.
Expect your strength to decline as you progress through your workout. However, drastic drops tend to indicate a lack of recovery.
The more you rest, the more your energy stores recharge.
More energized, you pump out more reps with more weight. The added volume maximizes your workouts. But, rest too long and you spend all day in the gym.
So we need to find an equilibrium.
A great option is to alter your rest periods.
When you’re fresh, take short breaks. Like 30 – 90 seconds. Then, as the weight and fatigue increase, up your rest.
Take a high volume squat session for example.
After a thorough warm-up, you jump under the bar and bang out your first set.
So, you add weight.
By the time you add the weight, record your set, and take a sip of water you’re eager to go again.
Even though it’s only been a minute and a half. You bust out your second set.
You’re starting to breath heavy. So you give yourself an extra 30 seconds of rest and take two minutes this time around.
The added weight and cumulative fatigue make the third set more challenging. It takes 90 seconds for your heart rate to drop. Then, an additional 2 minutes before you muster up the will to tackle the last set.
Now that the major movement is over it’s your chance to make up for lost time by cutting your rest intervals on the smaller isolation movements.
Exercises like seated calf raises don’t require much rest. Sure they burn like they were dropped in molten lava. But that doesn’t linger. After a 30 second rest, you’re ready to plunge back in and do another set.
It’s just the larger movements that need more recovery. However, you only need one, max two, major movements per workout. So, after those one or two exercises, feel free to push the pace. Just make sure you’re getting at least 5 reps.
Another way to make your workouts more efficient it to perform supersets of no competing muscle groups. But, that’s an article for another day.
What About the Pump
In the bodybuilding world, short rest intervals rule. This creates an incredible pump, which is believed to maximize muscle growth because short intervals produce greater testosterone and growth hormone production.
From that, more intensification techniques sprouted up than Facebook likes for cute cat videos.
However, turns out that post-training hormone responses don’t correlate to muscle growth.
If you like getting a pump. Or want to save time. Intensification techniques that utilize short rest intervals like rest-pause, high-rep sets, drop sets, and burnouts are best saved for isolation exercises at the end of your workout.
For your major compound exercises you’ll be best served by following the Rest Interval Checklist.
Muscle Building Rest Interval Checklist
Don’t look at your watch.
Rest intervals aren’t time dependent.
Go through your checklist.
When each box gets a check, you’re ready.
- Has the target muscle recovered enough to do at least five reps?
- Has your breathing returned to normal? (Cardio / lungs isn’t the limiting factor. Usually only an issue with high rep compound exercises like deadlifts and squats.)
- Has your CNS or local nervous system recovered enough? (Will your mind give up before your muscle gives up.)
- Have your synergistic muscle groups recovered? (Will something like your grip / forearms be the limiting factor and prevent you from doing exercises like pull downs or bent over rows.)
Central nervous fatigue impairs the connection between your muscle and brain. Thus your ability to recruit and train the powerful muscle fibers is limited.
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets to Maximize Strength?
Back in the day strength folk recommended 3 – 5 minute breaks between sets.
That’s because building strength requires the powerful contractions produced form the ATP-PC system. But, remember? While this system is fast and powerful, it’s slow to recharge.
So, the old adage of taking 3 – 5-minute rest interval isn’t bad advice. However, that’s a big variance. And, not all muscles are the same.
Smaller muscles require less time. While bigger muscles need more time.
The big guy in the gym demands 8-minute rest intervals when doing heavy squats. But, the newcomer only requires a minute maybe two.
So, I think we can do better with our checklist.
Strength and building muscle are closely related. Thus, it makes sense that the rest periods for strength training follow a similar checklist to hypertrophy.
Check all the boxes and you know you’re ready.
- Am I breathing normally again?
- Has my CNS or local nervous system recovered enough?
- Are the supporting (synergistic) muscle groups ready to go?
- If unsure, err on the side of more rest.
You don’t want a strength session to feel like a cardio workout.
More muscle means more recovery.
Pushing more weight requires more muscle.
So, a full body movement like a deadlift requires longer rest periods than a heavy shoulder press.
Because more muscle means more metabolic demand and more recovery. Push really heavy weight, and it can take 8 – 10 minutes to recover.
Just like your big compound leg exercises require more rest than your smaller arm exercises, bigger stronger people need more rest. A 400-pound strongman needs more rest between squats than a 165-pound guy.
However this is only in the case of heavy compound exercises.
Definitely not an issue with an exercise like biceps curls.
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets to Maximize Power?
This one is easy.
If you don’t rest long enough and your peak power output drops below 90%, it’s not effective. You’re no longer training for power. . You’re just wasting your time.
Now, I know not everyone has access to a device that measures power. So, follow the same guidelines you do for strength.
if you’re unsure, err on the side of more rest. More rest is scarcely ever a detriment to performance.
The typical set for improving power production falls between 1 – 3 reps. While your effort is 100%, fatigue doesn’t accumulate like it does in high rep muscle building sets. So, recovery is quicker. But to be sure, go through your checklist.
Power Rest Interval Checklist
- Is my cardio an issue? (This rarely comes into effect when training for power.)
- Is my CNS ready to produce the most amount of power?
- Are my local and synergistic muscles ready?
- Error on the side of more rest
Don’t rush it. Power production saves lives.
As we age, the fast powerful fibers type 2 muscle fibers decline. It’s these muscle fibers that keep older adults independent and prevent falls.
While strength helps maintain strength it doesn’t develop power. Heavy weight can’t be moved fast so you never reach that magical 90% peak power level. Thus power needs specific training.
Working on power in your 30’s 40′ 50′ 60’s and beyond ensure it’s there when you need it in your golden years. And it keeps your golf, and tennis balls wizzing.
Maintain your power production and you can maintain your footing.
Maximum Results in Minimum Time
Time is precious. So why waste it.
Maximize your efficiency. Turn your rest intervals into supersets by group noncompeting exercises together.
Take a leg day for example.
Superset squats with band pull aparts. Sit, catch your breath and work the small muscles of your upper back. Because you’re working a small muscle in a noncompeting muscle group, your legs get a change to recover. And get some needed back work without hurting your workout.
On an upper body day a tri-set consisting of seated dumbbell bicep curls, band tricep push downs, and resistance band lateral walks for the glutes makes a nice combination of exercises.
An antagonist superset of biceps and triceps fatigues your arms. Then, during your rest time, your glutes get some attention without compromising upper-body recovery.
I get the desire to rush through workouts.
But in doing so you’re missing out on the benefits of strength training.
You want to be strong, lean, and powerful. Just like an athlete.
But, some exercises take time. So follow the appropriate checklist to keep you on track.
When in doubt, rest a little longer. It’s only for a few sets. And the extra time is worth it.
Quality trumps quantity.
So if a longer rest means fewer sets, don’t fret it. Take the amount of rest you need.
Cut your rest intervals when appropriate.
If you’re a new lifter rip through your workout.
You’re not as big or strong as your future self, so you don’t need as much rest. Now’s a great time to, minimize your rest periods.
Then, as you progress, increase your rest periods to match the Rest Interval Checklist.
As a seasoned lifter, you only need to watch your rest on the first or second exercises in a workout.
Make up time on the backend.
Utilize shortcuts like noncompeting supersets, and the 5 rep rule to maximize your workout efficiency.
Follow the guidelines above. You’ll maximize the effectiveness of your workouts while you minimize your time in the gym. And get the lean athletic physique you deserve.
- Rest Interval Between Sets in Strength Training
- American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults
- Agonist-antagonist Paired Set Resistance Training: A Brief Review
- Effects of Low- Vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men