Rest Between Sets | Optimal Time Between Exercises


One of the biggest predictors of success, yet one of the most glossed over, tossed out, and generally unnoticed aspects of training is how much rest between sets you take.

Rest is interesting because it can totally change the feel, focus, and intensity of a workout, yet no one ever thinks about it as a way of getting stronger and making progress. There are 9 major ways to make improvements in the gym, but for most of us, we look at consistently putting more weight on the bar, and nothing else. But adding 5lbs each week only works for so long.

If you add 5lbs per week, that would take a 135lb bench presser to 385lbs in a year. But look around at your gym tomorrow. How many people in there can actually bench 385?

So rather than trying to fit a square peg in a round hole and smashing our bodies with weight we aren’t ready for in the name of “progress”, let’s look at a different option that will:

  1. Increase efficiency in the gym – get you in an out in less time
  2. Increase mitochondria density in muscle cells – more power and endurance when you need it
  3. Increase heart rate – Burn more fat during your workout
  4. Increase muscle damage – build more muscle and increase your mental connection to muscular contractions.

The Case for Timing Your Rest Periods

rest between sets

Most people rest almost twice as long as they need for their goals. There’s nothing wrong with long rest periods if your goal is maximal strength. In order to recover from a heavy set of squats or deadlifts as close to your maximal capacity, you’ll actually need 3-5 minutes until your central nervous system (CNS) is ready to roll again.

But for the majority of us, maximal strength only makes up a small portion of our workout – 1/2 exercises MAX. So then what’s with the cell phone army that takes over the lat pull-down machine for 3 sets in 15 minutes?

As I train clients, I like to count the amount of sets that we are able to do in a certain period of time compared to other people in the gym. Often, we will do 10-12 sets in the time it takes others to finish 2 or 3. If all the weight and reps are equal, (which – obviously they aren’t and this isn’t a fair comparison) that will give us 4x as much volume in equal time.

If you’re busy, or don’t have enough time to work out, you definitely don’t have enough time to check Snap between sets of bench press.

How Much Rest Between Sets do I Need?

Fat Loss: 30 seconds or less between sets

Muscle Building: 45-60 seconds between sets

Maximal Strength/Power: 3-5 minutes between sets

rest between sets

Super-set Considerations

The above numbers apply mostly to straight sets – this means that you do 10 reps of a bench press, wait 30 seconds, then do another set of 10 reps.

However, one way to use your time more efficiently in the gym, and a technique that I use with most clients who want to look better and have more energy is super-setting. This is the concept of doing 10 reps of bench press, then 10 reps of a cable row, then resting before going back to the bench press.

If you are doing a super-set, obviously it’s hard to take NO rest between exercise 1 and 2, but you should be aiming for as little rest as possible between the two exercises. So as soon as you finish you bench press, walk over to the cable row, and immediately begin your reps there. When you finish this super-set, you can use the same rest as above before beginning the second set of bench press.

This rest between sets applies to circuits as well.

Rest Periods for Muscle Building

rest between sets

To build muscle, (from an exercise standpoint) you need load (weights), work (reps on reps on reps), and nitrogen buildup (the burn you feel).

The best way to accomplish the later is by decreasing rest periods so that your muscles never fully recover between sets. This will create:

  • More muscle damage
  • An acidic cellular environment, which is key for creating new muscle
  • A stronger mind-muscle connection, which allows you to actually use the muscle to do more of the work.

Don’t think that because your favorite powerlifter is resting 10 minutes between sets of 800lb squats that you need the same for cable flies. In fact, the more of an isolation movement you are doing, the shorter the rest needs to be.
i.e. Front squats would get 60 seconds of rest, while leg extensions would get 30 seconds. If that.

Final Thoughts

Work hard, keep the phone in your locker, and actually time your rest between sets. Do this for a month and see what a difference it makes in your training and the way you look.

You might have to drop a little bit of weight off at first, but as you get stronger, and develop more mitochondria in your cells, you actually be able to push more weight for longer sets, creating a better environment for the gains you want.

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