Rest Between Sets and the Effects on Your Workout

rest between sets

Rest between sets should be 30 seconds to 5 minutes.  True or False?
rest between sets
I’m sure by now you are well aware that rest between sets are just another variable you can manipulate depending on your overall objective (strength, muscle growth, endurance). What you may not be aware of is rest periods between sets have very different outcomes depending on your objective.   Improper use of rest between workouts can eventually lead to overtraining.  Here’s the scoop…

Fixed Recovery Time Between Workouts
Rest between sets can and will vary depending on your objective and the type of muscle fibers in your body.  You’ve probably been told to take 60 second rest periods between sets maybe a bit more and as you get more advanced, you take less rest towards 30 seconds to make the workout more intense.  While it can be that easy for a particular workout routine, your rest intervals really depend on several factors such as:

  • weight being used
  • goal of the training plan (strength, hypertrophy, endurance)
  • type of strength being sough after
  • explosiveness of the exercises

Taking a mere 30 seconds of rest between sets for weightlifting would be mistake and lend itself to sub-optimal training results.  Taking 3 minutes rest between sets for something like TRX exercises (not rounds) is sub-optimal as well.  Tossing a random number at your clients is great for the general population but when it comes to YOUR training, you need to know what the rest between exercises should be to obtain maximum results and replenish glycogen.

Ideal Rest Between Sets

The rest between sets has a primary goal to generate enough ATP (adenosine triphosphase) to get most of your strength back to complete the next set properly. In about 30 seconds of rest, 70% of ATP has been restored.  You won’t get near complete ATP regeneration until about 3 to 5 minutes of rest between exercises (useful for maximum lift attempts).  After about 2 minutes, you can get 84% of your ATP stores returned and 4 minute rest intervals can get your closer to 89%.  Somewhere about 8 minutes you’ll get complete restoration.
High Volume Training vs. Maximum Lifts vs. Muscular Endurance
Taking this into account, you should see that if you are doing high volume training utilizing alternating sets (or supersets), less than 60 seconds probably isn’t enough rest between sets to allow enough restoration to do another set with an adequate training load. If you are doing force and power generating type lifts, 85% of your 1 rep maximum, 2 to 5 minutes is better suited for regeneration. Resting longer while doing heavy lifts, you can lose approximately 12% to 44% of that force and power generating capacity! This still doesn’t mean you can’t lift heavy with minimal rest but it does mean you may not be at peak capacity.
For example, even with only 60 to 90 seconds of rest between sets, you could do single reps of 85% of your maximum lift with a mere 60-90 seconds of rest between reps. It’s an extended set for sure and just below what’s optimal for such a lift but the intensity will be much harder because of a shorter rest period and you might feel pumped. This is an advanced technique but it shows that rest between reps is a personal variable like anything else.
All this means if that if your goal is heavy lifting, somewhere in the range of 2 to 5 minute rest between sets are optimal. That doesn’t mean you have to wait that long, but don’t be shocked when you start to feel too fatigued and weak to do the workout properly.
Short rest between sets across many sets and reps are not optimal if you are trying to maximize muscular strength and power development. Meaning, if you are doing high volume training, you’ll want at least 60 seconds to 2 minutes so you can continue to lift moderate amounts of weight.
However, if it’s muscular endurance you are after, it is almost common sense that shorter rest between sets would be advantageous in this training situation. In fact, some adaptations can occur with shorter rest intervals and high volume training such as:

  • increases in blood flow
  • buffer capacity
  • mitochondrial density

You know that annoying lactic acid build-up that stops you short of doing those last few reps? The burn is so bad you have to quit before it’s over? High volume, short rest between sets may increase that buffer and allow you to move moderate weight over longer periods of time. It’s why going from a regular training program to a high volume program can be a really painful experience if your buffer capacity is very low.
That being said, if you do any type of high volume training (many sets, 10+ reps per set) I’d suggest 60 second rest between sets at a minimum to generate enough ATP to perform your sets at optimal levels. Anything less and you might start off fatigued (heart rate, waste products not flushed, low strength output) to really give it your best effort.

How Rest Between Sets Effect Hormone Response to Exercise

If you haven’t heard, shorter rest between sets might improve hormonal responses that are thought to be responsible for greater stimulus for hypertrophy. Specifically, weight training programs that utilize shorter rest intervals, with higher repetitions (10+) with 55%-75% weight loads, greater growth hormone is released!
However, high levels of growth hormone have been shown to be released in weight training programs that use longer rest between sets (2 to 5 minutes), compound exercises with moderate to high intensity and lower repetitions. Translation, lift heavy with sub maximal intensity and plenty of rest periods between sets.
What you don’t see is short rest between sets utilizing isolation movements or high repetitions with low training loads. To be even more blunt, how much growth hormone is released and how that directly translates into actual muscle growth is not known.
Shorter rest between sets as you can see don’t lead to complete recovery and generally decrease the amount of workload you can do (weight lifted; volume load). If you believe that muscular hypertrophy is the resulted of weight lifted (tonnage) then shorter rest between sets for strength training may not be optimal.
It really comes down to your ability to recover that determines your rest between sets when targeting muscular hypertrophy. If you can recover well enough to lift moderate weight loads for higher reps, then 30 seconds may be all you need. If you are not that advanced, you may need longer rest periods between sets to move the same amount of weight.
The difference is really the training objective of the entire program down to the objective of the actual workout training session. On a heavy training day, longer rest between sets for strength training of 2-5 minutes are best. If you are lifting less weight but higher repetitions, you can opt for short rest intervals IF indeed you can recover.
Predetermined Heart Rate
Instead of using fixed time rest periods between sets depending on the training load and objective, you can use a predetermined heart rate. One method is to set a heart rate rate of 120 to 130 beats per minute as a cutoff for the next set (muscular endurance). A second method is to set the recovery period as however long it takes to get your heart rate back to 65% of maximum.
The first of these methods is better suited to help determine rest periods for cardio interval training. The second method can be used for weight training. After your set, watch your heart rate, when it gets back to 65% of your maximum, initiate the next set. As you get more advanced, your heart rate should decrease faster, and your rest between exercises grow shorter.
The Bottom Line
If your goal is to use heavy weight (85% of maximum and higher), you’ll require longer rest periods between exercise sets in the range of 2 minutes to 5 minutes. If you are using moderate weight (55% to 85%), your rest intervals between sets can be shorter from 30 seconds to 90 seconds.
Taking Creatine Can Help with Your Rest Between Sets Variables:

Bring your stopwatch to the gym and test different rest time intervals.  The primary objective of the rest between sets is to recover the strength required to complete the next set properly.
Be Fit, Stay Strong!
Marc David – CPT

2 Replies to “Rest Between Sets and the Effects on Your Workout”

  1. The Insanity Workout, which proposes high intensity with little or no rest between sets seems to provide impressive results. Most of the participants seem to get ripped, especially abs, in a short period of time. I understand that this does not equate as much to strength training as endurance, but something good is happening here. Also…surge training has short breaks. So…that being the case, do you think that the rest periods may be unique to each individuals hormone response, not just the training protocol?
    Also, our bodies only metabolize about 10 grams of whey protein an hour…so frequent low doses of whey should provide better results.

    1. Rest periods are unique to the individuals ability to recover. You will need less the more advanced you are. That being said, if you are looking for certain aspects of recovery, the training protocol will be more important.
      Instead of 2 minutes, maybe I need just 1:15 seconds of rest to do the same workout. But going below 1 minute regardless, won’t allow my ATP to recover even though my endurance has recovered. So rest periods can be adjusted on an individual basis.
      Shorter rest periods have some hormonal benefits as well.
      Where did you find that the human body can only metabolize 10 grams of whey protein per hour?

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