“How Long Should I Rest Between Sets?”

Contrary to what you may commonly see, the length of time taken between sets should not be dictated by how long it takes you to respond to a recent text. :)  That time is critical to preparing your body and mind, and for setting the correct tone for your next set.  Resting too long or too short can easily have a detrimental effect on your goals and what you are trying to accomplish.  While there is no universal right way, there are some effective and proven approaches you can use as guidelines to maximize the results you are working so hard to achieve.

The body is equipped with multiple energy systems that it will pull from simultaneously even as it cycles through and prioritizes different systems under different physiological conditions.  What this means for your training is that while you may at times be using one energy system more than others, your overall energy availability and recovery is always being effected.  The amount of time you take between sets can have an effect on how your body performs due to what type of energy is most readily available and most needed for the task.  For example, if you are trying to tax yourself aerobically, resting 3-5 minutes between low rep sets won’t do much for you.  If you are trying to use maximum weight, only resting 30 seconds between strength attempts will not allow for your best efforts.  The amount of rest you give yourself between sets should be based on what you are trying to accomplish.

Although there can be some variance for different people and fitness levels, here are some general approaches to rest amounts between sets for you to consider:

Resting 0-30 seconds:  This is typical for higher heart rate training as in doing a circuit or metabolic workout. The goal is either to improve aerobic conditioning (low intensity, continuos movements are used like in a straight circuits) or anaerobic, cardio conditioning (high intensity, fast paced movements to promote high heart rate like conditioning stations or Tabata type intervals).

Resting 30-60 seconds:  This rest period has the dual goal of caloric expenditure and fitness improvement.  It’s popular if you’re aiming for weight management, improving anaerobic capacity, building muscle endurance, and the relatively shorter rest will keep the heart rate somewhat elevated depending on movement selection. Working at the lower end of this range is not the most ideal for building/maintaining lean mass, especially while dieting.  But this range can also have a nice aerobic cardio effect.

60-90 seconds:  This is a popular and effective range for building/keeping lean mass while focusing on physique improvement.  It allows for enough rest/recovery to use adequate (but not maximal) weights while maintaining a pace that promotes intensity and hormonal optimization.   It’s good for trying to build lean mass while still trying to manage your weight.

90-120 seconds:  This is an ideal range if your main focus is building size and strength as it allows for enough recovery to use significant weight.  It doesn’t need to be employed on every set but can be used on just your heavier sets to recover more fully and keep the poundages high enough to help combat muscle loss while dieting.  It’s generally used during an “off-season” period when the goal is shifted more towards increasing size than leaning out.

Resting 2-5 minutes:  This rest range period is reserved for maximum strength development or maximum power efforts.  The body, mind, respiratory, and nervous systems need to be ideally recovered  in order to ensure maximum efforts.  There is a fine balance between reaching and maintaining a state of readiness in terms of being properly warmed up and mentally focused, combined with being ideally rested.  When maximum loads or efforts are employed, the risk of injury can increase.  This period is not just seconds going by, it is a preparatory period used to bring out the type of effort needed to produce maximum results.

You can stay primarily with one rep range for your entire training program or combine them for different effects based on the exercise movements you are doing and what goals you have.  For example, you can have a full body, multi-station circuit workout, with multiple rounds for aerobic effect.  A faster paced interval based session, with 30 seconds stations and 30 second recovery breaks, for cardio conditioning.  And you can have another workout with a standard 60-90 seconds rest period for the majority of your sets, but still employ 2-3 minutes of rest before your toughest, heaviest sets.  Your goals, both short term and long term, will help dictate which approach is most needed.  The rest periods are merely tools to allow for the most ideal training performance towards reaching those goals.

Give some thought as to how long you are resting between each and every set.  Then ask yourself if that is the most ideal amount.  Should you be taking longer in between to recover better so that you can lift more and hopefully grow faster?  Or should you shorten the rest period to up the pace of your workout for greater intensity and overall conditioning effect?  The choice is yours and that choice can make a big difference in how fast you reach your goals.

Photo: Terry Goodlad   Model: Natalie Benson

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