How long you should rest between sets
written by Philip Stefanov | AUGUST 2, 2022
How long you rest between sets seems like a trivial training detail you shouldn’t think too hard about. But, how long you recover between sets can impact your performance, determine how each workout goes, and predict your long-term results.
The question is, how long should you rest between sets for optimal recovery, performance, and progress?
What The Data Says
In one paper from 2009, researchers examined the literature on rest duration and training outcomes (1). The authors reviewed data from 35 studies on recovery and strength, power, endurance, and hypertrophy.
One of their findings was that resting for 3 to 5 minutes between sets allowed trainees to complete more repetitions and sets when using loads between 50 and 90 percent of 1 RM. They also found that longer rest periods were associated with greater increases in strength.
The authors also suggest that resting for 3 to 5 minutes could be beneficial when testing maximal strength. Minute-long breaks would technically be enough, but resting longer would help lifters recover psychologically and perform at their best.
Further, a paper by Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues examined the relationship between rest periods and muscle hypertrophy (2). Researchers had 21 young and resistance-trained men complete eight weeks of training. The protocol included three full-body workouts consisting of 7 exercises, 3 sets per movement, each in the 8 to 12 rep range. Subjects could recover for a minute or 3 minutes between sets. The longer rest periods were associated with greater strength adaptations and more muscle growth.
It’s worth noting that rest periods also depend on the activity you’re doing and how hard you push yourself. For instance, you might need up to 5 minutes of rest between sets of deadlifts taken close to failure. But you might only need a minute or two to recover from bicep curls, chest flyes, and lateral raises (3).
What’s The Purpose of Resting Between Sets?
The objective of resting between sets is to maintain your performance and accumulate training volume for muscle and strength gain. For instance, if you can get eight reps with a specific load on the first set, you should be close to that number on the last set for the movement.
For instance, someone interested in building strength needs enough quality practice on the exercises they want to improve. Resting enough between sets would allow the person to get the much-needed practice and create an overload. Similarly, someone who wants to maximize muscle growth should recover long enough to maintain their performance and do enough reps.
A practical way to know if you’re resting enough is to look at your performance from set to set. If you’re losing reps on each subsequent set, you’re pushing too close to failure or not resting long enough. Either way, you’re likely sabotaging your long-term progress.
Can You Rest Intuitively?
Absolutely but you need some training experience. Mike Israetel does a great job of outlining what factors to consider when resting between sets.
- Are the involved muscles recovered enough to perform at least five good reps (e.g., can your biceps handle a set of curls)
- Is your central nervous system recovered enough and not a limiting factor (e.g., do you feel particularly tired/drained despite the target muscles feeling recovered)
- Have your breathing and heart rate normalized, allowing you to perform a set without stopping short because you feel winded
- Have synergist muscle groups recovered not to limit your performance (e.g., back recovered for a set of front squats)
In other words, the involved muscles should get tired enough and be the limiting factor preventing you from doing more reps.
- Central nervous system - do you feel strong and psychologically ready to handle the next heavy set on the compound movement you’re doing?
- Cardiovascular system - have your breathing and heart rate normalized after your previous set?
- Involved muscles - have all the active muscles recovered to handle a set? For example, your back, glutes, and legs might be ready, but if your forearms still feel fatigued, that could limit your deadlift performance.
The Bottom Line
Optimal rest between sets comes down to listening to your body and adhering to some basic recovery recommendations. Mike’s suggestions from the previous point are fantastic, and you should ‘check’ all the boxes before moving on to each new set. Additionally, follow these guidelines to ensure optimal recovery periods:
- 3 to 5 minutes on heavy sets (3-6 reps)
- 2 to 3 minutes on moderate sets (5 to 8 reps)
- 1 to 2 minutes on lighter sets (8 to 12 reps)
- 30 to 90 seconds on light work (12+ reps)
Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,
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