The time that you take between sets is a crucial variable of resistance training. Rest periods can be tweaked to complement changes to rep count and intensity.
Too little rest between sets could mean submaximal muscle growth. Too much rest can take you out of the zone and waste precious gym time.
Here to help you achieve the perfect breather is CPT and 2016 NSCA Personal Trainer of the Year Nick Tumminello.
Guidelines for Determining Your Rest Between Sets
The ideal rest period between sets varies based on the individual and the strength workout being performed. It’s worth adjusting your rest until you find out how much time your body needs to recover.
Also, note that we’re not talking about HIIT training here. The following guidelines are for resistance workouts designed to build strength and muscle mass. There are aerobic and metabolic merits to performing certain resistance exercises in rapid succession.
But resistance performance falters when combined with HIIT training, according to an October 2016 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study. Therefore, we’ll leave the 15-second rest periods for another post.
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Start with two to four minutes between sets.
“The minimum rest for eight reps between sets of the same exercise—say dumbbell press—would be two minutes,” Tumminello says. “That’s if you’re pushing the sets. If you’re not pushing yourself then that’s not as impactful. You should be working fairly close to failure.”
Anything less than two minutes during a hard effort risks minimizing the effects of the stimulus. “Too long of [a] rest isn’t necessarily a problem unless you feel like you’re out of the groove,” Tumminello says, noting that if you have a finite amount of time in the gym, an extended rest period probably isn’t necessary unless you’re reaching for your one-rep maximum.
If you’re unsure, err on the side of more rest.
More rest is seldom a detriment to resistance performance. A July 2016 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study compared two groups of young, resistance-trained men. One cohort rested for one minute between sets, and the other rested for three minutes. After eight weeks, the three-minute rest men outperformed the one minute group in squats and bench presses. Researchers also observed greater muscle thickness in the three-minute group.
Assuming that you are working hard for eight reps, Tumminello notes that strength tends to drop five to ten percent for each subsequent set. If weight, reps, and rest are held constant, expect to struggle a bit more as the workout progresses.
Women can rest less.
“Females tend to recover quicker than males,” Tumminello says. “(Trainers) tend to notice that women like faster-paced workouts than men do. It isn’t true of everybody, but if we look at patterns, we see guys who like to sit on the bench for five minutes.”
Anyone wanting to max out on the bench needs long rest. But gender does influence the physiology of recovery. A 2017 Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism study found that women process oxygen more efficiently than men. This means women can do more work before entering anaerobic respiration than men, thus cutting down on recovery time. More muscle mass also needs more recovery time. A person’s body weight and muscle mass factors into recovery, too.
Maximize rest time with easier exercises.
If doing nothing for two to four minutes between sets sounds like a waste of time, you can integrate less-taxing exercises into the rest time. “I’d be happy to do a tri-set of bicep curls, tricep extension, and resistance band walks for glutes,” Tumminello says. Supersetting biceps and triceps forms the bulk of the activity. However, during the rest time, you’re working your glutes without compromising upper-body recovery.
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Another Tumminello favorite is the Romanian deadlift with push-ups. “I might do RDLs, rest 60 seconds, then I might do push-ups, rest for 90 seconds, and then go back to the deadlifts,” he says. The deadlifts get 60 seconds rest—plus the 90 seconds of post push-up rest, plus the time it takes to do the push-ups—before you’re hitting the next set.
Don’t rush with heavy weight.
“If you’re doing one to five reps using a very heavy load, then I’m probably going to give you four minutes between sets,” Tumminello says. “If you’re doing six to 20 reps and going to failure, I’ll give you three minutes between sets.” Supersetting lighter upper body workouts is rather safe. But, Tumminello advises against using your rest period to superset while doing squats and other heavy load exercises. This can end in injury, due to the sheer weight on your shoulders.
Add rest when you’re struggling.
To know whether your rest is long enough, compare the difficulty of each subsequent set to the set before it. “Say I did one set of bench presses with 50-pound dumbbells in each hand and I did 12, then the next set I could only do six (reps),” Tumminello says.
“That means I didn’t rest enough.” Although you should expect your strength to decline as you progress through a workout, drastic drop-offs tend to indicate a lack of adequate recovery.
Don’t skip rest periods when you’re pressed for time.
It’s tempting to rush through sets when your gym time is limited. But a more effective technique is allowing for adequate rest and ramping up the reps in each set. “Reduce the load and increase the reps per set, and go until failure,” Tumminello says.
“Do two sets of 25 reps until failure, with three to four minutes between sets—keep rest rates longer but reduce weight and go for high volume.”
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