Timed vs. intuitive rest periods

written by Philip Stefanov  |  MARCH 14, 2023

Like most people, you’ve probably come across the idea that you should take longer rest periods between sets to optimize muscle and strength gain.

The idea makes sense because longer recovery allows you to feel stronger at the start of each new set, translating to better performance.

But how should you go about your rest periods? Should you rest intuitively or fire up the stopwatch on your phone to track your recovery?

Let’s dig in and explore.

A Look At Intuitive Recovery

Resting intuitively is how most trainees start. The approach has been around forever and works well enough.

Feel tired = rest more
Feel ready = start the next set

It doesn’t get any simpler than that.

However, there are a couple of issues with it. First, there is the issue of getting distracted, which can kill your training momentum and affect your performance.

If you’ve trained long enough, you understand what I mean. For example, you grab your phone after the set to check out a couple of notifications and suddenly realize that five minutes have passed and you’re long overdue for another set. Or maybe one of your gym buddies is around, you’re chatting, and you forget to start the next set on time.

Whatever the case is, some distractions can cause you to rest unnecessarily long and spend too much time at the gym if you’re not careful.

Second, there is the issue of gauging how recovered you are in some cases. Most trainees can tell if they are ready for the next set when doing more reps, especially those that cause a deep burning sensation. The burning sensation isn’t as severe, and your breathing has normalized? Time to start the next set.

However, strength sets can cause fatigue in a slightly different way. Sure, heavy deadlift doubles or triples will cause some muscle fatigue and bump your heart rate, but these things can go back to normal within a couple of minutes. So why rest for several extra minutes? To ensure you’re fully recovered and can match your performance from set to set.

Rushing to do the next set too soon could impact your force production and ability to do enough quality reps for strength development.

The Case For Timed Rest Periods

Timed rest periods might seem a bit OCD, but they could be precisely what you need to optimize your performance and become more productive at the gym.

In most cases, so long as you abide by the general resting recommendations (which I will share in a moment), you will perform well without wasting any time.

Here is how long you should rest in most cases:

  • 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)

For example, I’ve been using the Hevy app for a while now. It makes workout logging and recovery tracking a breeze thanks to its simple interface.

All I have to do is set rest periods for individual exercises, and the timer starts as soon as I complete a set. It also provides an option to add or remove time in 15-second increments from the rest period on the go, which is a neat benefit I’m going to talk a bit about below.

How I Recommend Resting Between Sets

I recommend taking both approaches and blending them to optimize your intra-workout recovery.

First, I don’t think it’s necessary to time all of your rest periods, as sometimes going by feel is going to be enough. For instance, you can time your rest periods on heavy compound lifts and assistance exercises but rest intuitively for isolation exercises.

Second, even when timing rest periods, it never hurts to adjust on the go based on how you feel. For instance, you might only need two minutes of recovery between the first and second set of an exercise, but cumulative fatigue could make it difficult to recover in the same period on your later sets.

Speaking from experience, I might need 1.5 minutes to recover after the first set of EZ bar bicep curls, but pushing close to failure lights my biceps on fire. By the time I’ve done three or four sets, I need close to 2.5 minutes to recover enough so I can match my previous sets’ performance.

Because of that, you should always listen to your body and take longer breaks if necessary. Lifting is a marathon, not a race.

Similarly, you might feel particularly good on some days and be able to recover more quickly. Take advantage of that to finish your workout slightly quicker and go about your day.

Thank you for taking the time. Until next week,


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