How long should you rest between sets?

JT

June 26, 2021

Appropriate rest intervals between sets are a key factor in maximizing strength and hypertrophy adaptations to your training.

When it comes to programming our resistance training, we tend to obsess over exercise selection, total number of sets, the number of reps per set, what weight to use,  and whether or not we should go to failure. Of course, all of these are important variables, and I will create a separate article looking at each one, but today I want to talk about the often overlooked importance of employing the appropriate rest intervals between your sets. 

Article key points:

  • 01

    Long inter-set rest periods produced superior gains in both strength and muscle mass 

    Longer rest periods allow for the completion of more total volume on subsequent sets which equates to greater gains.

  • 02

    Three minute rest periods appear optimal for compound, multi-joint exercises such as bench press, squats or deadlifts. 

    Whereas two minute rest periods appear optimal for single joint, isolation exercises such as bicep curls or leg extensions.

  • 03

    Shorter rest periods may lead to higher transient androgen levels, but this does not lead to greater gains

    Performing more total work per training session is the key to optimal strength and hypertrophic adaptations, not acute increases in anabolic hormone production.

  • 04

    Shorter rest periods may be used as an efficiency technique

    Both shorter and longer rest periods produced significant gains in size and strength. Whereas longer rest periods was the superior methodology, shorter rest periods are a viable alternative when time constraints are a factor or if preferred for greater adherence.

“The more you are optimizing for strength and hypertrophy, the more you will want to adhere to longer rest periods”



The first step to identifying how long you should rest between sets is to clearly identify your primary training objectives.  

Is your primary goal to develop maximal strength? 

Are you training for maximal hypertrophy? 

Or maybe you are trying to achieve better strength/endurance and to improve your overall conditioning level.

The reason that it is critical to clearly define your goals is that your rest periods between sets will be similar if you are trying to optimize for strength and/or hypertrophy, but they will be much shorter in duration if the goal is to optimize for strength/endurance and overall conditioning. 

It is important to note that muscle mass and strength adaptations can and do still take place with shorter rest periods. In fact, shorter rest periods, 1 minute or less between sets, have been shown to lead to greater increases in circulating anabolic hormone levels around the training bout than longer rest periods.  (1)

Because of this increased anabolic hormone response, many in the bodybuilding/fitness world perpetuated the hypothesis that short rest periods and a quick tempo throughout the training bout would lead to greater strength and hypertrophy adaptations over time. 

Of course, hypotheses are meant to be tested, as is the case of the shorter rest periods being superior for size and strength gains. A 2016 study in young, resistance trained men demonstrated that longer rest periods were indeed superior for promoting strength and hypertrophy adaptations. (2) This is due to the longer rest periods allowing the trainees to move more weight/reps on subsequent sets allowing greater total volume and adherence to progressive overload which are greater drivers of strength/hypertrophy than the acute anabolic hormonal response to shorter rest.

Importantly, both short and long rest period groups made significant gains in both strength and hypertrophy, so programming short rest does not preclude you from making gains.

This is a key finding because what is optimal is often the enemy of progress.  What is optimal from an exercise programming standpoint is often very time consuming and simply requires a much larger commitment that most people find sustainable. 

For example, if optimizing your program for hypertrophy, it may be optimal to perform anywhere from 14-20 sets per muscle per week. Factor resting three plus minutes between sets, and programming enough exercises to effectively target the entirety of your musculature, and you can very easily be looking at four or more sessions per week of one to one and a half hours per week. 

This level of time commitment is simply incompatible with the time that many people can commit to training, between professional commitments, family etc. 

Additionally, long rest periods with the goal of optimizing for strength and hypertrophy greatly reduce the average heart rate of the training session and, in  my opinion, create the need to introduce additional training to improve overall cardiometabolic conditioning. This is a topic we will dig into in detail in future articles, but to give you an idea of what I am talking about, during my own strength training sessions, I have been resting 3+ minutes between sets. These long rest periods are indicated as I am currently working on very high intensity bodyweight strength elements such as planche, iron cross, side lever etc. Though these exercises are very high intensity, my heart rate just after a set never breaches 130bpm.

Similarly, though I can count the times I have deadlifted in the last six years on two hands, a set of 295lbs for 16 reps barely got my HR to 141, and even then only for a few seconds. 

So as you can see, when I am training for max strength and my rest periods are long, I must perform additional general physical preparedness (GPP) work, to maintain my overall fitness levels. In this case I choose to run, but GPP can be any number of activities, and I will expand upon this concept in future posts.

Strength and hypertrophy are not synonymous with high levels of fitness, and if you are interested in optimizing your exercise for health and longevity, then I believe that establishing and maintaining adequate  cardiorespiratory fitness, in addition to strength, is important. 

I find that the vast majority of trainees are looking for a blend of strength, hypertrophy, and cardiometabolic adaptations out of their training. Additionally, most are trying to accomplish these three things within the confines of a limited time availability to train. Meaning, efficient becomes more important than optimal. Not to mention, many trainees find resting 3 to 5 minutes between sets boring.


To help you program your rest periods to suit your needs, here are some tips that may allow you to employ shorter rest periods between sets while minimizing any negative impact on gains in strength and hypertrophy.


1. Perform exercises that use opposing or agonist/antagonist muscles back to back. An example of this would be to perform one set of pull ups, rest 60-90 seconds, then perform one set of push ups or dips and rest 60-90 seconds. In this way, you are resting more than three minutes before training the same primary/agonist muscles again, even though they are being used to a degree as antagonists every other set. 


2. Perform a circuit of exercises that progressively get easier and do not use the same muscles with little/minimal rest between sets. Take a longer rest period at the end of  the circuit and then repeat. 


An example of this would be: 

Pull ups >  push ups>  squats>  rows>  pike press/HSPU>  hanging leg raise> rest then repeat


Both of these techniques are examples of how you can attempt to allow each muscle some extended level of recovery time while not directly employing long rest periods. 


These types of techniques are excellent for efficiency, just make sure that you are increasing in either intensity (making the exercise harder over time by adding weight or scaling difficulty) or in reps. If you aren't adding intensity or reps over time, then you are not going to continue to make strength/hypertrophy adaptations. 


The above point is key, if you find yourself not getting stronger or no longer building muscle, then you may be at a point where you simply need to employ longer rest periods. 


And if you are stuck and have tried trouble shooting on your own to no avail, I am always happy to help get you on the right track. 


-JT


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6 comments

  • nancy

    Great article Jerry! Question: trying to determine which should be a priority. since October I have lost 3.5 pounds fat mass and increased muscles mass 2.5 pounds. I find that swimming 3x a week and full body training 3x plus a week is using the same muscles every day, thus not benefitting either way of workout. At my age, almost 70, should the focus just be on the strength training and less on the cardio. Thanks for responding!

  • David

    Thanks Jerry, much appreciated. Your articles and twitter have helped me transform my health and my life. Can’t thank you enough!

  • Jerry Teixeira

    David, You can certainly spread the sets out and from a strength and hypertrophy perspective, and working on back to back days is fine, however, I would suggest not working the same muscles on back to back days if still sore, and or allowing one day of rest before working the same muscles again. Basically cycle through the exercises every other day or something similar as you suggested. At the end of the day, its the weekly volume you perform that really matters, but by allowing a day off between training the same muscles twice you may find that you are able to complete more work per set from that extra rest. Hopefully that makes sense.

  • David

    Thanks Jerry, great article. Recently, I’ve been spreading my sets out of over the course of the whole day, maybe getting seven or eight sets in a 10 hour period. If I’m doing whole body movements, would you say it’s OK for me to be doing these without a full days rest in between as long as I’m switching up the primary muscles worked? I like doing pushups, squats, pullups, sprints…repeat

  • Jerry Teixeira

    Andrew, you can certainly take longer rest periods, from a strength and hypertrophy perspective, longer inter-set rest is fine. You can spread your training session up throughout the day even and it’s fine

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