Updated: Mar 5, 2022
Rest periods are a fundamental part of working out in the gym and making progress. It's vital for you to take rest periods between sets, as they allow you to regain your energy and continue to push harder for longer.
However, there's so much debate around this that it's often very confusing to lifters, and can quickly become overwhelming when they're trying to determine the ideal rest periods for themselves.
There are those that say resting 30 seconds or less between sets is the way to go, as it keeps the workout intensity high and the pumps feeling good.
Then, there are those that say you should be resting several minutes between sets, to ensure that you're not lifting in too much of a fatigued state. And of course, there are those in between.
But which side of the spectrum is right? Is there are any science behind this to prove it? In this post, we'll be going over what the ideal rest period is, looking into some of the science behind it and helping you make sense of all this and understand what it means for you.
First of All: Why Do We Even Need Rest Periods?
It should be pretty clear to begin with, but the primary reason that we need rest periods are simply to regain our energy, continue to push harder in our upcoming sets, and ensure that the reps we do are of the highest quality possible.
In order to maximize our muscle growth, we need to be training hard. This means taking all of our working sets within 3 reps of failure. Doing this will maximize our results, without taxing the body too much and causing our future sets to suffer.
By resting between these sets, we're allowing our body to get a chance to recover from all the hard work we did in the previous set, and giving ourselves the best possible opportunity to push hard in our next sets as well. Doing simply one or two high quality sets at the start of the workout won't get you where you want to be. You need to be ensuring that most of your sets are of high quality.
You'll also likely find that you feel more motivated before your working sets after a good rest period, as you're in a lesser state of fatigue and will feel much better going into the set.
However, it doesn't just stop there. Rest periods can also be helpful for us to assess how the previous set went, and for us to look for ways to improve and enhance the quality of the rest of our session.
For example, if you noticed that your lifting was feeling a little off one day, you could take a moment to reassess how you're doing, and see if you need to make any adjustments to the weight you're using, your form, maybe even an exercise change if something's hurting.
Our rest periods are a great chance for us to reevaluate how the workout is has gone so far, and for us to look to make any improvements or chances necessary to help improve the safety and effectiveness of our workout.
And, of course, you can use rest periods to sip on your water, do some stretching if needed and do anything else that's going to improve your workout efficiency.
You see, rest periods are extremely important for you to take, and form a fundamental part of your workout. Many people will actually spend more time in the gym resting than they do actually lifting weights.
So if you're not currently taking your rest periods seriously, or even worse, you're barely taking them at all, you really need to take a look at what you're doing and try to fix this up.
So How Long Should You Be Resting?
The short answer is quite simple. Rest as long as you need to. Rest until you feel like you can achieve the same level of output and intensity that you did in the previous set. Or at least somewhat similar. Unless you're specifically taking short rest periods to train for endurance or athletic purposes, you should be resting as long as you feel that you need to.
We'll look at the notion that taking shorter rest periods leads to more growth. To understand what we're about to say, you need to understand that muscle growth has three mechanisms.
They are as follows in order of importance:
We have an article that fully breaks down these three mechanisms of growth, which you can read here to learn more about this.
However, for now, all you have to know is that mechanical tension is the primary driver of muscle growth. That basically means the weight that you're lifting and the amount of stress that you're placing on your muscles.
Taking short rest periods of less than a minute and a half between hard working sets is going to cause you to feel much more fatigued, and you're going to be able to move much less weight than you otherwise would haven been able to, or do the same weight but be able to perform less reps.
This means that by resting too little, you're limiting your ability to apply mechanical tension onto your muscles. You're doing this with a tradeoff for metabolic stress, which is responsible for that burning sensation in your muscles.
That burning sensation might make your workout feel like it's more effective and that you're working harder, but in reality, you're doing much less than you otherwise could be. You're putting a cap on your total volume and mechanical tension by resting more, in order to achieve more metabolic stress, and more of a pump.
According to this study conducted by Brad Schoenfeld, "This study provides evidence that longer rest periods promote greater increases in muscle strength and hypertrophy in young resistance-trained men."
The study involved resistance trained men being split into two groups. One rested 1 minute between sets, and the other rested 3 minutes between their working sets. Other variables such as set and rep ranges were kept the same.
After 8 weeks, it was found that the group resting for longer saw better strength and muscle gains. This would be due to the ability to apply more mechanical tensions and achieve more total volume, leading to more growth over time. Several other studies showed this as well.
So now we know that resting longer will lead to better strength and muscle gains over time, as opposed to taking deliberately short rest periods. But is there a cap to this? Does there come a point where resting too long will negatively affect your gains?
Well, so far no study has been able to find evidence that resting for longer leads to any sort of downside. Resting for a ridiculously long period of time (upwards of 10 minutes) may cause you to cool down a little and have you lifting in a slightly colder state, but nobody really ever rests that long. The longest people will ever rest is usually around 5-6 minutes.
Aside from that, resting longer will only cause your workouts to take longer. That's all. There is no proof or evidence that resting for longer will lead to any other downsides.
So what does this mean for you?
Basically, it means that you should rest as long as you need to. Don't cut down on your set quality or performance simply because you feel that you're resting too long. As long as you're staying in a sensible range, you can rest as long as you need to.
So all those people that really take their time with rest periods, you could be doing a lot worse.
But just how long will these rest periods usually be? We know that we can rest as long as needed, but what's the general minimum for this?
This study conducted by Gilmar W Senna found that you should generally be resting at least two minutes between sets for your isolation or less taxing exercises, and at least 3 minutes between hard sets if you're doing the main compounds movements with a barbell.
Of course, like we said earlier, you can rest for longer if needed. In fact, it's recommended that you go above 3 minutes if you're specifically lifting heavy for strength on the main compound movements. This is going to increase your ability to generate force and move even more weight.
These rest guidelines are going to be optimal if you're looking to build strength and muscle. And if you're looking to build endurance for any athletic purpose, you should be lifting light weights for high reps, and keeping your rest periods short. Under a minute. This will keep the metabolic stress high and get you comfortable working hard for long periods of time.
What this all means for you and key takeaways:
Resting for longer is absolutely fine and won't lead to any downsides.
Rest at least 2 minutes when doing isolation and less taxing exercises for muscle gain.
Rest at least 3 minutes between sets on main barbell compound exercises (rest longer for strength gain).
Rest under a minute between sets if you're training for endurance.
Only deliberately rest for short periods if you have a good reason to do so.
If you only remember one thing out of this post, rest as long as you feel that you need to. You should feel pretty good going into your set.
Wrapping It Up
To wrap it up, the notion that taking shorter rest periods simply to increase the workout intensity is not really the most optimal way to go about your training, and you can simply take a look at the science to see for yourself.
The main thing that you have to remember is to rest for as long as you need to. Keep your rest periods sensible, but take them seriously, and really give your body a chance to recover from all the hard work you've done.
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