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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
March 13, 2022
We can spend so much time trying to decide on a range of training variables and what can produce the best results; such as, how fast should we lift the bar, what kind of rep scheme to use, and what's the optimal training frequency? However, the one variable which you literally don't have to do anything is screwed up the most. We're talking about resting!
Our rest time is supposed to be a period where we recuperate from our last set and allow our physiological levels to return to normal. Doing so will allow us to perform at our maximum potential each set, optimizing our training.
Interestingly, the majority of people rush this and almost think that resting is a waste of time with no benefit. In reality, your rest is vital and could be the one variable, with some simple tweaks, that drastically improves your training.
Part of the problem is trainees don't understand the purpose of the rest so that's just one of the things this article will clear up. In this, you're going to learn:
Let's learn how doing nothing can mean everything in our training.
When writing out our training programs, we must consider several variables that can affect the outcomes. For instance, some different training variables include:
And this is where rest comes into play. "Rest" is a training variable that dictates how much time we wait between sets. Traditionally, rest periods looked a little something like this:
Now to be clear, the above times are just to give you a basic idea, and they could differ depending on who you speak to. Regardless, none of that even matters as no one ever explains why we rest for those periods, and when it is, the answer is usually wrong. But we're getting ahead of ourselves…
These rest periods were initially given as it was believed that they were needed to optimize the training. For example, it was thought that shorter rest breaks for hypertrophy training allowed a trainee to "break down" the muscle to a greater extent. This would then result in more repair being needed, which would mean more significant growth. On the other hand, it was believed that longer rest breaks were needed for strength and power training as the body required greater time to recover from using heavier loads. Meh…not precisely.
So how long should you rest between sets? Well, that depends on several factors, but before that, we need to understand WHY we rest.
This question can actually invoke a lot of different answers. Here's just a couple of common answers:
And to be clear, this is not to make fun of wrong beliefs; this is to point out the mass confusion that surrounds a critical training variable that can significantly affect the outcome. It's so important to know why we rest so that we can start taking this interval seriously.
When we train with high intensity, we can significantly reduce our bodies' stores of a compound known as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP for short. ATP has been given the title of "our bodies energy currency" as it's our bodies' true source of fuel at the molecular level. Even when you see athletes eating during long races, those nutrients will be broken down through a series of reactions until they eventually produce ATP. Literally, every single muscle contraction must have ATP to power it and if there's none to spare, muscle contractions stop.
Everyone knows that there is an inverse relationship between the intensity of exercise and its duration. Basically, the intensity must lower as the duration increases; think the 100m sprint, 5k run, and marathon. These differences in average speeds are all due to the body's ability to produce sufficient supplies of ATP, as our bodies are only able to produce so much in a certain amount of time.
However, performing an extremely high-intensity exercise, such as weightlifting, can deplete our ATP stores extremely fast. Studies have shown that we can see a depletion in our ATP stores up to 70%! What this means is that if we perform a heavy, intense set of lifting and then jump right back into another set, we will have no ATP to do anything! In fact, it has been reported that the quality of subsequent bouts of performance are regulated more so by ATP resynthesis than any other factor such as the buildup of metabolites or clearing of lactic acid (study). Therefore, the primary reason we must rest in between sets is to allow our ATP stores to replenish. If we rest too short, we won't be able to perform any kind of meaningful volume.
Still, other factors occur as well. For example, when we are doing large exercises such as squats, the heart can hit extremely high beats per minute; we're talking 170+. Studies have also shown that our blood pressure can shoot up to 345/245 mmHg! Obviously, we need to chill out and let these return to normal before we have another go. And sure, we should allow our lactate to clear and all that good stuff but all of these occur well before our ATP levels have been replenished so again, from what we understand now, the primary reason we rest is to allow our ATP stores to fill up.
Still, when we are talking about events like weightlifting, our bodies rely on what's called the ATP-CP metabolic system. This system is able to resynthesize ATP from our muscle's creatine stores in a very efficient manner. Therefore, when we are resting, we are really allowing our creatine stores to fill up, and in fact, our performance in weight lifting and bodybuilding are dependent on out creatine stores.
While some of the original thoughts regarding why we rest may be incorrect, there is some truth connected to the idea that training for strength and hypertrophy requires different rest periods. Therefore, we will run through each of these goals separately. This is because both answers result from looking at the evidence for optimal rest periods and then balancing that with other variables such as duration of workout and engagement. For example, let's pretend that science says resting 15 minutes in between sets can result in the most work during the next set. That's great, but nobody is going to hang out at the gym for the entire day!
Therefore, when prescribing the best rest period, we need to consider several variables. That being said, we first need to look at how long it actually takes to resynthesize our creatine stores. If this is the primary reason we even have rest periods, it's also an essential variable when prescribing rest periods.
That being said, completely restoring our creatine stores can take a very long time. However, to "kind-of" restore our creatine sores can happen relatively quickly. When looking at some general numbers, two lengths of time are usually given. After intense training, it can take 3 minutes to reach 85% pre-exercise levels but 10 minutes to return to base level. One study used a cycle ergometer to a group of trainees' creatine levels down to just 19%. The researchers were then able to monitor the increase of creatine as time went on. They mentioned 3 major intervals:
As you probably won't be going all the way down to 19%, we can just use the above number of 3 minutes to return to 85% and 10 minutes to return to base levels as long as we keep in mind these are approximate numbers. That being said, it's a pretty long time that most people have likely never hit.
So we know that it can take up to 10 minutes for our stores to reach 100% but at 3 minutes, the level is at 85%. Should we really wait that extra 7 minutes to gain the last 15% more, or is there some give and take? In other words, is the extra work allowed really worth 7 minutes? Let's look at what studies say about the best rest intervals for strength and hypertrophy work.
Even with traditional thinking, rest times for strength and power training are longer than hypertrophy. However, most people will use a 2-3 minute rest period, and we know that the stores are still filling up exponentially during this time. So should we be resting longer than 3 minutes? Probably.
One interesting study took this concept but then looked at rest intervals of multi-joint exercises and single-joint exercises. It utilized 4 different rest sets with the bench press and chest fly:
When using a 3RM load (strength), they found that participants utilizing a 2 minute rest period were able to maximally optimize their workload and time efficiency for the chest fly. However, for the bench press, the 3-5 minutes groups were able to perform significantly more reps than 2-minutes. This makes sense as a smaller amount of muscle mass will use less creatine/ATP and cause less disruption to physiological systems. It should also be noted that 5-minutes was the longest rest period so could waiting longer be even better?
In terms of workload performed, yes. For instance, a study looked at the effect of different rest periods (2, 5, 8 minutes) when using 85%1RM for bench press. As one would expect, there was a positive relationship between the rest period and performed reps; the longer the rest equated to more reps, with the 8-minute rest period producing the greatest volume.
However, notice we said, "in terms of workload performed". While a longer rest period can result in greater volume, it also takes a lot longer. We remember that the 3:00 minute mark seems to be the point in which ore stores are relatively full in the least amount of time. It also just so happens that the majority of studies examining long rest intervals use a range of 3-5 minutes. For example, another study found that a rest period of 3-5 minutes was optimal for producing the largest workload.
Therefore, we recommend resting 3-5 minutes between your strength sets for your average recreational lifter, assuming you are using compound movements. Still, it makes sense to alter your rest period depending on what exercise you are doing. For example, exercises with larger amounts of muscle mass (squats, deadlift) may need the full 5 minutes while 3 minutes may be optimal for smaller compound movements such as lat pull-downs.
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Sure, strength training may need longer rest periods because you're using heavier loads. But hypertrophy we're just trying to break down the muscle, so it doesn't need as much rest, right?
When looking at hypertrophy, metabolic stress and muscle damage are a couple factors that can enhance muscle hypertrophy. This is one of the primary reasons that shorter rest intervals have been so popular in the past. However, this theory ignores muscle hypertrophy's primary driver, which is total working volume. This was proven in a study from 2016, which examined the difference between using a 1-minute rest period and a 3-minute rest period between sets of bench press and back squats. The researchers found that the 3-minute rest group saw more strength gains AND more significant muscle hypertrophy!
A review from 2014 titled "The Effect of Inter-Set Rest Intervals on Resistance Exercise-Induced Muscle Hypertrophy" looked at all of the available data on rest intervals to date and made a similar conclusion. The researchers commented:
"...the literature does not support the hypothesis that training for muscle hypertrophy requires shorter rest intervals than training for strength development or that predetermined rest intervals are preferable to autoregulated (we'll talk about this below!) rest periods in this regard."
The vast majority of other studies that have looked at this have also concluded similar results. And it makes sense if working volume really is the main driving force of muscle hypertrophy. We would then want the rest period that allows the most work: the longer rest periods.
However, we can also remember that compound exercises will need longer rest periods than isolation exercises, especially the smaller muscle groups such as biceps or lateral delts.
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So let's put all that together to see how we can optimize our training session by manipulating the training variables. Remember, we want a good balance of ultimate gains while being time-efficient. Below might be an example of what a "Back" session may look like. Notice the main lift (deadlift) utilizes the full 5 minute rest period. Then the next 2 strength movements are at 3:00; the next bigger hypertrophy movements are at 2:00; and the last 2 hypertrophy isolation exercises are at 1:00. Still, assuming you move quickly between exercises, this session will still last about an hour (without warm-up). Again, this is just an idea and you could alter depending on your needs:
The above times are awesome to start, and you can't really go wrong with those. However, the one drawback is that they are objective means to rely on when determining your rest break. In other words, if you choose a 3-minute rest break, you are assuming you are going to be ready to go. However, you might be able to go before 3 minutes and you might even need more.
Well, timed rest periods aren't the only effective method to use when determining how much rest is enough. Let's look at two other forms of regulating rest that have proven to be effective.
Autoregulation will make anyone who needs structure flip their wig. Well, maybe not entirely as autoregulation still utilizes structure yet in a very relaxed way. As it kind of sounds like, using autoregulation to select your rest periods quite simply means that the lifter decides when they are ready to go. This is why it's also known as self-selected rest intervals. However, a trainee doesn't choose a specific rest period to reiterate. Rather then, they decide when they want to do the next set for every set. Basically, it assumes the body knows what's best and will let a person know when they are ready to perform more work. With this in mind, autoregulation should only be performed by lifters who have experience and can read their bodies well.
Anyways, does it work? In a nutshell, yes, it does. There have been numerous studies that show people are able to recognize when they are ready to work and can improve their performance without a set time period.
For example, recently in 2021, researchers showed that trainees were able to benefit more effectively from post-activation potentiation when using self-selected rest periods rather than a set rest time. Basically, trainees performed a heavy back squat for post-activation potentiation and then a counter movement jump which was measured for height. There were several tests, some utilizing a 4-minute rest interval, a 5-minute rest interval, and then self-selected. As mentioned, the self-selected group improved their jump height to a higher degree.
In 2022, a study also showed that when participants were allowed to determine their own rest periods, they were able to perform more volume and saw greater activation.
When previewing the literature on self-selected rest intervals, one interesting variable comes up continually. That is that almost every time a participant was allowed to choose their rest time (can't say for sure as we haven't read every study), they chose a longer rest period than the fixed interval. Again, this follows what was discussed above: we have likely been resting too short of optimizing our training.
What to take away from this is to get rid of the "grind til I die" attitude. The more research that has come out tells us that the opposite is true. If you want to maximize your training, you may need to take a chill pill and actually rest between your sets. A great way of doing this is to listen to your body.
As more science is performed, we learn more, and when we do, we should take advantage of what's discovered in the lab and use it in the gym. Other than learning to chill, the other lesson to take away from this is we can't force our muscles to grow by going fast. When we go into the gym, the main goal is to lift as much weight as possible, and that's done with longer rest intervals. So next time you’re about to start your next sit, sit back and give it another minute and we promise you’ll be lifting more.
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