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December 2

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How long should I rest between sets?

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There are lots of variables you can play about with when weight training. Factors you can adjust include number of reps, number of sets, weight lifted, tempo, etc. Below, we're going to look at rest periods between sets and how they can affect your results in the weights room.

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Depending on how and where you got your workout program, you might see a range of different rest periods. Generally speaking, rest periods are given anywhere from 30 seconds up to 5 minutes or more.

Sometimes you might get different rest periods depending on the particular exercise.

You might believe shorter rest periods are better for muscle growth. Or that you should superset for greater fat burning.

So, what's the deal with rest periods between sets?

Basically, your rest period is the time between completing one set of repetitions and starting the next set.

During this time, your muscles will 'recover' somewhat. Essentially, rest periods allow your muscles to repeat further sets.

The type of training you're doing will also dictate to some degree how much rest you need.

If  you're following a strength-building program, with low reps and heavy weight, you're going to need long rests. On the other hand, if you're taking a more bodybuilding-type approach with higher reps, then you need comparatively shorter rests.

In a nutshell, if you want maximum results from your resistance training, you need to rest long enough to make your next set a good one.

If you cut your rest periods too short, you won't have enough 'in the tank' to complete the desired number of reps.

Therefore, you'll be reducing the overall training volume. Consequently the stimulus for your muscles to grow is diluted, since you've limited the amount of weight you're lifting by not resting long enough.

How will I know if I need longer rest periods between my workout sets?

To get started, complete your workout using the following rest periods:

  • compound exercises - 2 to 4 minutes
  • isolation exercises - 90 seconds to 2 minutes

Contrary to what you might think - those newer to weight training probably need less rest than more experienced lifters.

Newer people will likely be lifting less weight and are further away from their muscles' natural potential. people who've been weight training properly for years are more likely to know how to extract the maximum from their muscles in each set. They'll need more rest due to this.

If you're really struggling to get through your workout and complete your sets, try resting a little longer.

Try adding 30 seconds to your rest periods and see what happens.

Are you able to complete more reps?

Is your technique better towards the end of your set?

If you answer 'yes' to either of these then you probably haven't been resting long enough.

Now if 30 seconds didn't make a difference, try adding a minute. If again there isn't any difference in your workout performance then it's likely rest periods aren't your limiting factor at this stage.

What about supersets - how do they change your rest period?

Supersetting is a technique which groups exercises in pairs with no rest between.

For example, you might complete x reps of 'Exercise A' before going straight on to y reps of 'Exercise B'. You'd then rest for a bit before starting your next set of 'Exercise A'.

Some gym users perform supersets with two exercises for the same muscle group. In this case, the goal would be enhancing metabolic fatigue with the hope of greater training stimulus.

The problem with this approach though, is your overall training volume is likely to suffer.

If you're after gains - whether in strength and/or muscle size, total training volume is super important.

Why supersetting 2 exercises for the same muscle group might not be a good idea

As an example, let's create a superset with 2 shoulder exercises.

We'll use Barbell Military Press along with Dumbbell Front Raises.

If we superset them, and have only minimal rest periods, you'll likely to complete fewer reps than if you were to separate the exercises. Furthermore, the fatigue building up in your shoulders will probably mean you have to lift less weight for the second exercise.

The fatigue generated might mean you're training the shoulders to failure.

That might make you think you've had a great session on board the gain train.

But, it's likely that your total training volume and time under tension (TUT) will be significantly less than if you'd rested properly between each separate set.

Total volume and TUT are huge contributors to building strength and muscle.

A better way to construct supersets to give sufficient rest between sets

There's no getting away from the fact that increasing your rest periods means you need to spend longer in the gym. Your overall workout time is increasing after all.

Supersets do save you time.

So if you're pushed for time, group your exercises into pairs of opposing muscles.

Construct supersets which pairs antagonists together.

For example, you might pair:

  • Barbell bench press with bent over row
  • Biceps curls with triceps push ups
  • Lying leg curls with seated leg extension
  • Dumbbell shoulder press with lat pulldown.

That way, the muscles used in the first exercise are effectively resting while you're performing the second in each pair.

Effectively, you're cutting out the amount of rest time in your workout yet still achieving a good volume.

Can you take too much rest between sets?

Well, yes.

If you take longer than your body needs, really you're just wasting time.

The key is balancing between working efficiently and working out effectively.

Studies have found that the difference in performance between resting for 5 minutes isn't much different to resting for only 3 minutes.

Likewise, studies have shown that resting for 2 minutes gives better performance than just 30 or 60 seconds between exercises.

Based on this, aim to rest for 2 to 3 minutes between sets and you won't go far wrong.

Next time you're in the gym, adjust your rest periods between each set and feel what happens

The take home message is still to rest as much as you feel you need. Enough that you're ready for your next set. Enough so that you can really give everything to every rep

That's how to get proper results.

Now we've covered recovery between sets, what about recovery from one workout to the next?

About the author

Paul Stokes

Paul Stokes BSc (Hons) is a Certified Personal Trainer, Accredited Sports Nutritionist, qualified Exercise to Music Instructor, Precision Nutrition coach, Massage Therapist and teaches 8 of the Les Mills Group Exercise programs.

He currently works in the Oil & Gas industry as a Wellness Coach, imparting his vast knowledge and experience to improve the quality of life of several hundred offshore workers.

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