How Long To Rest Between Sets?

How long to rest between sets? Man Pulling a heavy sled.

How long to rest between sets?  It’s a question every new lifter asks, and an issue that experienced lifters are constantly trying to manipulate to maximize their results.  If you walk into a gym that houses serious strength athletes you might see them take 5-10 minutes between their peak training sets.  Once you start doing the math and realize how long you will be in the gym if you are taking five or more minutes between sets it creates a long enough workout that it becomes demotivating.  Most people just don’t have two hours to spend on their daily workout.

In the average commercial gym where most people are concerned with how they look in addition to getting stronger we see rest times that vary from less than a minutes to a few minutes.  Often the driving factor is if someone is working out alone or socializing with others.

There is a general gym belief that when you are training for hypertrophy (increased muscle size) then rest periods of around a minute are optimal.  If you are training for peak strength development then approximately 3 minutes tends to be the most common advice.  Those trying to maximize calorie burn are keeping their rest periods to below a minute.

So what is the right answer?  Should you be jumping right to your next set or sitting back and watching the minutes go by?  In a 2016 study Schoenfeld et al. attempted to help answer this question by looking at changes in strength and size when subjects used either a 1 minute or a 3 minute rest period.  Test subjects were broken into two groups and with the exception of their rest period did the exact same workout, 3 times a week for 8 weeks.  Each workout consisted of 7 exercises, each done for 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions.  The subjects were tested for maximum strength with their 1 repetition maximum for the bench press and back squat.  Muscle endurance was tested with a bench press done at 50% of the 1RM done to failure.  Muscle growth was measured utilizing ultrasound at the elbow flexors (biceps and brachialis), triceps and quadriceps.

All of the subjects were injury and drug free men ages 18-35 with at least 6 months experience lifting weights.  This ensured that any gains were not the result of early neurologic adaptations to beginning a training program.  The subjects were pair matched to ensure that there were similar subjects in each experimental group.

The training programs consisted of barbell back squats, plate loaded leg press, leg extension, flat barbell bench press, seated barbell military press, wide grip pulldowns and seated cable rows.  During each set of 8-12 repetitions the subjects trained to momentary muscular failure and the weight was adjusted between sets to keep the subjects achieving failure in the designated repetition range.  There was an attempt to consistently raise the weight as subjects were able to.  This selection of exercises and approach towards managing loads is very similar to what is commonly seen in many fitness settings.

The Results

There was clearly a winner when it came to strength improvements.  In the back squat both the long rest period (3 min) subjects and the short rest period (1 min) subjects saw statistically significant improvements, however the long group had a 15.2% improvement and the short group had a 7.6% change.  For the bench press the long group increased 12.7% while the short group only improved 4.1%.

When it came to the the 50% bench press test for muscular endurance both groups saw significant improvements though we again see the long group outpacing the short group with a 23.2% change as opposed to a 13% improvement.

While the existing common recommendations for muscle growth are around the 1 minute period, the results of this study suggest just the opposite.  For the elbow flexors the long group had a 5.4% improvement and the short group had a 2.8% change.  When it came to the triceps the difference between groups was even more notable.  The long group improved by 7% while the short group only saw changes of 0.5%.  In the anterior quadriceps the pattern continued with the long group seeing a 13.3% change while the short group had a 6.9% improvement.  For the vastus lateralis the long group changed 11.5% and the short group 10%.

While it was expected that we would see strength improvements that clearly favored the longer rest periods it was surprising to see that muscle growth also favored the longer rest.

One notable aspect of the research design that has also popped up in other studies is that the subjects performed their exercises to momentary muscular failure on all of their working sets.  There seems to be a trend within the research that when sets are taken to failure, more significant outcomes are seen.  Now don’t go rushing back to the gym and swear that every set needs to be done this way.  This isn’t a topic that has been closely studied, it is just an observation that some researchers and I have made.  In studies where the volume of work is more closely controlled to match up different experimental groups it often means certain subjects are not training to failure and when those studies are compared to ones where subjects are training to failure often differences are seen.

This dovetails with the question of training volumes.  In this study the subjects in the longer rest group recovered more and as a result were able to lift with more total volume then the shorter rest subjects.  To what extent this extra volume that the longer group was able to lift drove their greater levels of improvement is an important question to ask.  Other studies have also raised similar questions, if variables such as training to failure or more sets which produced more volume lifted drove the results or if there was another factor responsible for the differences seen.

This study was done in younger men, aged 18-35.  We cannot say for sure if the same results would be seen in women or what differences we would encounter with older subjects.  Often younger men respond differently then 40 or 50+ individuals.

The Take Away

So what lessons can we take away from this study?  First, if you are looking for a very straight forward strength training plan that can produce results the workout used in this research is a great model to follow.  The researchers did a nice job of choosing a program that is similar to what you would see in today’s gym settings for the average person looking to gain strength and size.  Yes we can change a few things around, I would.  It’s not perfect but it is a good model to think about.

Secondly, if you want to maximize the development of strength or size it may be time to stop following the high intensity model of high volume/low rest metabolic workouts that have become popular over the past few years.  Those workouts are still great and have a place in many programs but you have to think about what your training objective is.  If it is to improve anerobic work capacity and maximize calorie burn they may be the perfect choice.  If you are focused on maximizing strength or size gains you might want to slow down and take more rest between sets.

Should you take a full three minutes rest between all of your sets from now on?  Possibly but that creates a long workout and the reality is most people don’t have that much time to spend in the gym.  It is perfectly fine to shorten the rest time during your warm up sets.  Researchers have not reached any conclusion on the ideal rest period and other studies have found positive results at 2 minutes.  If you want to maximize your results but speed things up 2 minutes is probably fine for the average person.  Those at more elite levels should consider going a little longer.  And remember there were still positive improvements with subjects who utilized the 1 minute rest period.  The results may not be as great within an 8 week period but when you balance time demands into the equation it may be perfectly fine to stick with the shorter rest periods.  I would rather have someone come into the gym and rest for a minute or less between sets and get a good workout in then have them not workout at all because they didn’t have the time available to maximize their rest periods.

You can also consider utilizing the rest periods in a productive way.  No one says you have to sit around for 2-3 minutes between sets.  The trick is to make sure you are not loading the muscle groups that you are training.  While most people tend to not think about it, you also need to consider the impact on your nervous system of what you are doing.  If you are training legs that day, yes doing some sets of arms in-between does allow your legs muscles to rest but the nervous system is still being loaded and contributing to the buildup of fatigue. Don’t just think that training an unrelated body part means you are getting your optimal rest.  The nervous system is a key component to your training and any fatigue you put into it has to be considered.

If you are doing some sort of training split where you are not training your entire body that day you can consider doing some mobility exercises in-between sets that focus on the body parts you are not training that day.  Most of us can benefit from more flexibility and this approach ensures this important aspect of self care is not ignored as it often is.  Let’s face it, mobility work is the most commonly skipped part of a workout program and if you plan for it to be done during the workout between lifting sets you are far more likely to consistently get it done.

If you are doing a full body workout I suggest you focus on a specific movement pattern/body part first so as you move on through the workout you can then utilize the rest periods to do your stretching for the parts of the body you focused on in the prior training block.

There you go.  Time to rethink how long you are resting between sets and how you are utilizing those seconds.  There is no perfect answer yet but there are better answers.  Let your training objectives drive your decisions and most importantly, keep lifting.

Schoenfeld, B., Pope, Z., Benik, F., Hester, G., Sellers, J., Nooner, J., Schnaiter, J., Bond-Williams, K., Carter, A., Ross, C., Just, B., Henselmans, M. and Krieger, J.  (2016) Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy In Resistance-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 30:7: 1805-1812.

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