How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?

Hey Angels and Alphas,

As we speak, we have the top strength and conditioning experts in the world trying to figure out a rest period general rule of thumb for your training.

For years, we’ve been told that the more weight you lift, the longer you should wait between your sets. But as more and more research is being done on this subject, this has been exposed *not* to be the case.

So what is the optimal, best amount of time to wait between sets? And how do different rest periods serve our individual fitness/training goals?

Well, as you can probably guess, that differs. The same reason researchers can’t decide on a general rule of thumb for rest periods is the same reason that you can’t go for an all-in-one approach.

The fact is – rest periods matter, and they have a massive impact on both your performance *and* how your workout plays out as a whole. Not to mention, they are a big variable to consider when working toward a specific training adaptation (e.g. training for strength, training for endurance, etc.)

That’s why today, we’re going to put ourselves in a couple of different situations and depending on the goal/perspective we have, we’ll decide on the most optimal rest period (based on science!)

Before that, here are some factors we have to consider about rest intervals…

When it comes to determining your rest periods based on your goal, there are a few things you have to consider. In the list below, we’re going to highlight a few of the most important ones. Keep in mind that these vary from training to training, from athlete to athlete, and from person to person.

What’s your current fitness level? If you’ve been into weightlifting for a while, you’ll have probably advanced to the point where you can sustain higher intensities for longer periods of time. The more fitness experience you have, the more intensity you’ll be able to maintain – in terms of both physical and neural efficiency. 

What’s your training history? Forget how long you’ve been lifting. Consider how much you’ve advanced and how much your strength and endurance you’ve gained since you’ve started your fitness journey. The more progress you’ve made, the more stimulus you’ll be able to handle.

What exercises are you doing? The rest interval between two strength exercises will generally be different than the rest interval between a strength and an endurance exercise. Naturally, movements that require a lot of strength are taxing on the muscles and nervous system, so those are exercises after which you’ll need more rest.

More considerable factors include your exercise order, your exercise intensity, and things like your current training status (off-season, in-season, etc.)

When you’ve taken all these things into account, you can get a good foundation of what you expect to be an optimal rest interval.

That being said, let’s take a look at what you need to know about rest periods based on the results you’re looking to achieve…

If your goal is weight loss…

Rest for 30-60 seconds between sets.

If you want to boost your muscular endurance and get in better overall shape, you should keep your rest periods relatively short.

Most strength and conditioning experts agree that you have to both (1) keep your heart rate up and (2) give your muscles the oxygen they need to recover properly. This means that even while you’re resting, you should still be moving around. Essentially, your goal is not to stand still and rest, but to transition from low-intensity movements to high-intensity movements and vice-versa.

This enables you to burn more calories than you otherwise would just by resting, and it also helps your muscles recover so they can gradually push for more intensity.

If your goal is increased muscle endurance…

Rest for 30-60 seconds between sets.

(Or rest for the exact amount of time that will allow you to reach your repetition goal for the next set.)

A study published way back in 2009 has some interesting things to say about this. They took a group of people and put them through different rest intervals during strength training sessions.

They did it to find optimal ways to create new training adaptations via rest periods, but what they concluded was really profound.

They discovered that when it comes to single-joint exercises like the machine fly, 3 minutes of rest is sufficient rest between sets. But when it comes to multi-joint exercises like the bench press, the participants responded better to a 4-5 minute rest interval.

However, they also discovered that the optimal rest period when aiming for a muscle endurance adaptation to their training was no more than 1 minute between sets.

When we usually think about strength training for endurance performance, we tend to believe low weight, high reps is the way to go. Naturally, this means more than 12 reps per set of an exercise with around 1/3 of your one-rep max.

But because this type of training relies more on oxidative metabolism (and increases your mitochondrial density), the most optimal rest duration is technically the amount of time you need to be able to perform your repetition goal. More often than not, this is between 30 and 60 seconds.

If your goal is to build strength…

Rest for 3-5 minutes between sets.

Remember that study a couple of paragraphs ago? Another study was done in March of 2016 that built upon it, and it analyzed the differences between 5, 3, 2, and 1-minute rest intervals in strength training.

Every participant took eight strength training sessions with two exercises (machine fly and bench press), and they trained with weight near their one-rep max.

The study concluded that participants needed a bare minimum of 2 minutes for single-joint exercises and a bare minimum of 3 ½ minutes for multi-joint exercises.

Why such long rest periods?

Because training for strength is different than training for endurance. Your muscles need more time to replenish the energy they need for contraction (and to allow the nervous system to recover.)

When you’re lifting heavy weights (meaning 8 or less reps), these long rest periods are a must – they’re essential for the optimal activation of muscle fibers, which is exactly what you want when you’re training for strength. It’s that activation that leads to the hormone response responsible for muscle growth.

If your goal is hypertrophy/muscle size…

Rest for 60-75 seconds between sets.

Sixty to ninety seconds is the ideal rest periods for those who want to achieve an increase in the cross-sectional size of their muscles.

Resting for anything longer than 75 seconds basically compromises the metabolic stress that you’re working so hard to achieve. This decreases the potential you have for muscle growth.

And resting for anything less than 60 seconds won’t give your muscles the ability to recover and recuperate so it can perform well in the next set.

If you’re new to resistance training…

Rest for longer than you feel like you should

If you’re new to strength training, you need to utilize every second of those rest periods. Many beginners often push themselves in the gym to the point of feeling sick, especially when it’s their first time training a huge muscle group like legs or back.

Because of this unexpected stimulus, you can throw your physiology into a bit of a frenzy. Whereas if you just take your time and rest for more than you think you should (or someone is telling you), you’ll have much better results both during training and in your post-workout recovery.

When you’re a little bit more advanced, you’ll be able to rest less during workouts without much of a problem, but that’s only when your body has gotten used to this type of stimulus.

As a general rule of thumb here, rest enough to not be short of breath but don’t let your heart rate and body temperature return to resting levels.

Putting it all together…

Studying and optimizing your rest intervals is one of the most beneficial things you can do to adapt to a new method of training.

That being said, rest interval transitions should be done slowly – and attention should be paid to every factor in both your current training level and the level you’re trying to achieve.

While it’s true that the general advice “more weight, more rest, less weight, less rest” can be a good oversimplification, it’s just that – an oversimplification. In reality, your rest periods depend entirely on your fitness level and the goal you’re trying to achieve.

But I hope that this article brought some clarity on both of these topics. Now, you have an idea of how rest periods generally work, and how to create a rest period that supports both your fitness performance and your growth.

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