One element in training that is sometimes overlooked is rest times. Sure we have our sets, reps and maybe even tempos, but how much time should we rest between sets, and does it even matter?
On one side of the coin I see people with their stop watches, or those clock watchers, who won’t pick up a load until they have had their designated rest.
Then you have individuals who just wing it. I’ve had people ask me to spot them for a 5 rep max till failure, then in a blink of an eye, they try and attack the weight again. I’ve also seen people hog squat racks for hours on end, seemingly not having anything better to do.
Who’s right? The tenacious timers? or the sit back & go with the flow-ers?
Why Might You Time Your Rest?
As a personal trainer part of my course covered rest times, and my organisation and others seem to recommend between 30-120 seconds rest between sets. But, I have been in the trenches long enough personally to know sometimes I need more than 2 minutes rest, and this is backed up through what I have read and seen with my clients.
To answer why you might time your rest periods we first need to know why we need rest in the first place. I mean it’s pretty obvious, we need it so we can do more work after, we cannot just complete rep after rep forever (although some people seem to think they can). However, it is more complicated than that, different exercises put contrasting demands on our energy systems, muscles, neuromuscular systems, and therefore our ability to recover from them differs.
Take Mike, he is doing preacher curls, going pretty hard but not to failure vs. Linda who is squatting to a 5 rep maximum. Who is going to recover quicker? Easy isn’t it, Mike, because the intensity is lower, the movement is using fewer muscles and therefore the exercise is less fatiguing. So we can clearly see a case for resting for more or less time depending on the work done.
So if you’re that dude who is going to failure each set and taking minimal rest periods, you might want to re-think your strategy depending on your goals. So rest periods are important because you need different amounts depending on what you’re trying to achieve, whether it be; max strength, muscle growth, power or endurance. I’m going to go over each.
Rest Times for Max Strength
First things first, lets look at what training for maximum strength looks like. In basic terms if you’re training for strength you’re lifting heavy weights with few reps, more specifically lifting with loads 90%+ of your 1 rep max for 3 or less reps.
To improve your strength you need progressive overload, and the most imperative factor when it comes to getting stronger is an increase in intensity i.e. you’re increasing your rep maximums. Therefore, you want to be able to use the heaviest weight possible for the given number of reps, every set.
In one review of rest times they recommend 2-5 minutes be taken between sets when training for strength. Which makes good scientific sense too, because when we get into these short but intense bouts of exercise we use the CTP energy system. For that energy substrate to recover it needs more time than a minute, thus if we want to maintain our heavy load for the given reps, we need more rest. Plus think about when you lift maximally, like testing a 3RM, you really have to focus, psych yourself up, that in itself is tiring, but mentally rather than physically.
A final point needs to be made about the movement you are doing. I mean there are only a handful of exercises that you perform with fewer than 5 reps. These are big, compound movements, that utilise a large amount of musculature, things like squats, deadlifts and presses. Due to the sheer quantity of muscles used the movements in themselves are more inherently fatiguing. Let’s be honest, who the hell tries to go for a new 1RM leg extension? No one. At least no one should be.
Something else that needs to be touched on is your own lifting ability. For example, someone new to lifting may still have a few technique flaws and therefore struggles to maximally exert themselves. So even when training with say 1-3 reps, the weight is light, so they don’t actually get overly fatigued. Although mentally draining, they may still get away with a shorter rest time than someone who is advanced, lifting multiple times of their body weight.
So you can see there will be a range and not a set period of time required for resting for max strength.
Rest 2-5 Minutes for Maximal Strength
Rest Times for Muscle Growth
Bodybuilders tend to train with short rest periods of say 30-90 seconds to achieve that illusive ‘pump’. This is partly down to the hormonal (principally an increase of Growth Hormone) response that short rest periods bring which were thought to promote muscle growth.
However, there is no convincing evidence that, within a commonly trained muscle, the average cell size in advanced bodybuilders is significantly larger than that of advanced powerlifters or weightlifters who do no consistently train with short rest periods. Of course there is some cross-over there as bodybuilders do train with longer rest periods and powerlifters will do some higher rep work, but the point still stands.
Furthermore in a recent study by Henselmans and Schoenfeld they found that rest periods do not make much difference to the hypertrophy gains by bodybuilders and physique athletes. And that rest times should be based on practical issues, such as safety, length of workout and intended volume of training.
In Get Big, Stay Lean I go through all the avenues of hypertrophy (muscle growth), including; muscle damage, metabolic stress and mechanical tension. These three do not occur within a vacuum but each is emphasised through different training protocols. Essentially to get maximal muscle growth you want to hit all three, and therefore you need to lift heavy, create new stresses and get the pump. So as you can see, getting the pump is important for maximal muscle growth, but it is only one aspect, and arguably one of the least important aspects.
So for growing muscle both longer and shorter rest periods may well have their place, because we do want to lift heavy and we do want to create metabolic stress to grow muscle. Thus, when lifting heavy, as per strength training, allow 2+ minutes of rest, and when training for the pump, say 10+ reps give yourself more along the lines of 1 minute of rest.
Furthermore, think about the energy system being used when you’re doing higher rep work. Anything over 10 seconds starts using muscle glycogen, so therefore the energy demand gets spread across our CTP, ATP and glycolytic energy systems, making recovery quicker. Also when you do higher rep work it is normally done via isolation movements, such as a bicep curl, in which you’re only moving at one joint. These exercises are much less demanding due to the reasons explained above.
Always take more rather than less rest, the worst thing that will happen with more rest is you get out of your ‘groove’ but if you take less rest you’ll potentially short exchange yourself. Imagine taking only 15 seconds of rest between each set, you’re not going to be able to keep up that weight for the same reps for long. And as Henselmans and Schoenfeld found there is no real reason to purposely shorten rest times. Thus, your overall volume and load will have to come down, and this is a massive issue for growing muscle. Volume and tension progressions are very important when it comes to hypertrophy.
Rest 1-5 Minutes for Muscle Growth
Rest Times for Power/Dynamic Effort
Power can be defined as speed x load, therefore for maximal power development you want to move heavy things quickly. When training for power we typically use loads 50-75% of our 1 rep max for 2-5 reps, this combination seems to be heavy and fast enough to produce maximal power.
Within the review the recommended rest time is 3-5 minutes between sets. This makes good sense to me, because when you are aiming to lift weights as fast as you can with quality form it is very demanding on our neuromuscular system. Thus, we want to be fresh before we attempt each subsequent lift. Also this sort of work is fuelled by our CTP and ATP energy systems, and therefore to replenish these sufficiently we require more rest. Again typically this is done via compound and not isolation exercises, which are more fatiguing.
However, with many of my athletes I utilise Dynamic Effort based work, typically during their deload or as a ‘light’ workout. When I do this I like to programme between 1-3 reps with 60-70% of their 1RM for sets of up to 15. For this sort of work you really do not need such long rest periods, simply because the fatigue is much lower due to each set being so short and light. Thus, I typically recommend rest periods of between 30-60s, and this allows them to get them done in good time while maintaining lifting quality.
Rest 30 Seconds to 5 Minutes for Dynamic Effort
Rest Times for Endurance
When we train for endurance we are training to reduce fatigue, and to get better at resisting fatigue we need to produce it. This is generally done with light weights and high reps in the plus 15 rep zone, this sort of stuff is going to be heavily fuelled by the glycolytic system, it is also not mentally tough.
Our ability to recover from it is quick, and so generally rest periods of under 1 minute are used. Plus depending on the exercise used it could even become slightly aerobic and start using our lactic acid energy system, demanding even less recovery.
Rest <1 Minute for Endurance
Practical Implications for Rest Times
As you have seen above, there is clearly a reason to take note of your rest times. Different training goals require different rest times, and thus if we do not take any notice of this we will substantially diminish our success.
What I will note however, is that there is a lot of inter-individual variation for rest times. So much so that I do not personally actually programme set rest periods for my clients. I do however, provide the framework as above, to give the client an understanding of what sort of rest they are likely to need. But I find a much more compelling approach to be self-selection of rest periods, these would be guided by your goals, thus if you are training for strength or muscle growth you rest enough so you can maintain intensity and volume, yet if you are training for endurance you are less worried about the weight and reps, you just want to get yourself knackered.
Plus as said, if you’re new to weights, you simply cannot handle heavy taxing loads, so the relative fatigue is low, yet you can still be training for strength, but will not require such long rest periods. Also, day to day our ability to recover varies, thus self selection allows us to autoregulate our rest periods. One day you might sleep like a champion and therefore recover fast, but a week later you might sleep like a dog and not eat very well, making your rest periods longer.
The fact of the matter is to date, for muscle growth and strength there is no positives for reducing rest times, so I would always be cautious and rest longer. When it comes to fatigue and pump work, you’re focussing on a different goal, and thus you can shorten your rest periods. For dynamic effort work I personally do like to make sure rest periods are somewhat controlled, largely down to the sheer amount of time the session would take. So for strength and hypertrophy training I have come up with the following autoregulated guide:
Another implication is isolation vs. compound exercises, and machines vs. free weights. Whatever goal you are training for whether it be strength or power etc., compound, free weight exercises will take more time to recover from. Thus for an individual trying to get grow muscle and get more volume in a set period of time might benefit from adding in isolation and machine work.
Something else that I must note is the use of antagonistic supersets, in which you perform one exercise and then move onto another exercise using an opposing muscle group without taking a rest period. Such as doing a bicep barbell curl and then tricep dips. The potential benefit of this was brought to my attention via Eric Helms Muscle & Strength Pyramid,  in which the muscle that was initially moved under goes some sort of active rest, in which it actually recovers better for subsequent work which can allow for higher muscle activity and performance.
Thus, using such superset protocols could augment hypertrophy further, and I cannot discredit the benefit here for that specific purpose. I will note you are then resting after you have performed the two exercises, so you are effectively halving your rest periods. However, it must be stated that this is only suited to isolation movements, it will actually be detrimental if used with compound movements such as a squat, and this has been shown to be the case in studies. Antagonistic supersets is something I outline as an option in Get Big, Stay Lean for all assistance work where appropriate.
Therefore, you can see that the need to time your rest is by and large not required, you are better off going by the autoregulated guide I have provided above. Furthermore, in general if your goal is strength and size, then short rest periods do not have much place, you’re better focussing on maintaining your performance. However, there are some places where short rest periods can be utilised, such as for isolation, machine and antagonistic superset movements. These could promote hypertrophy further, but that is very much specific to hypertrophy, such movements do not really lend themselves to building strength or power.
The Importance of Rest Times Summarised
- Varying levels of intensity use distinct energy systems that require different amounts of rest to be fully recover.
- The Intensity and rest time chosen should depend upon our overall goal, as different goals demand varying rest times.
- For Strength Training the main goal is to maintain intensity, therefore you must rest sufficiently, 2-5 minutes should accomplish this for most people.
- When Training for Maximal Muscle you want to use a variety of rep ranges, which require distinctly different rest periods. Currently no studies show any particular benefit of short rest periods for promoting further hypertrophy. Thus we want to rest enough to keep volume, which depending on the exercise and intensity is between 1-5 minutes for most.
- Power / Dynamic Effort training depending how performed can produce quite different levels of fatigue, we want to rest enough to allow us to perform the movement with excellent technique at speed. This can range from 30 seconds all the way to 5 minutes.
- When we train for Endurance we are actively aiming to produce fatigue. Intensity and volume are less important here, and thus we can rest for relatively short periods of time as this will generate further fatigue, generally this is less than 60s.
- The Exercise and Modality can also influence the amount of rest required. In that Compound Free Weight exercises are more physically demanding, thus require long rest times. If we do not respect this we risk injury and reduced total volume and or intensity.
By and large for most goals trainees can autoregulate their own rest times with a lot of success. Having the knowledge that they need to rest more for higher intensity, more compound movements and can rest for less time when using machines, isolation exercises or antagonistic supersets should be ample to allow the trainee to autoregulate their rest.
So you don’t need to meticulously time your rest periods, and by doing so you could actually not rest enough or rest too much, depending on multiple other environmental factors (remember sleep, nutrition etc.). However, you want to respect that different goals, demands and intensities require quite distinctly different rest times. Best is to understand and have an idea of the sort of ranges required for rest, and then go about autoregulating your own training rest times.
I hope that helps you get more out of your training, as always if you have any questions hit me up, I will answer every email I get, seriously. Also if you think others might benefit from this, or you just want to be awesome, please share this article by clicking on the social media tabs below.
Thank you and #ReviveStronger.
- Willardson, J.M. A brief review: Factors affecting the length of the rest interval between resistance exercise sets. J. Strength Cond. Res. 20(4):978-984. 2006.
- Stone, M.H. Stone, M. Sands, W.A. Principles and practice of resistance training. Human Kinetics. 2007.
- Hall, S. Get Big, Stay Lean. 2015.
- Rippetoe, M. Baker, A. Practical Programming for Strength Training. The Aasgard Company. 2009.
- Henselmans M, Schoenfeld BJ. The Effect of Inter-Set Rest Intervals on Resistance Exercise-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy. Sports Med. 2014 Jul 22.
- Helms, E. Muscle & Strength Training Pyramid.