Which is More Important, Rest Time or Weight?


As a male, I already have predispositions towards lifting weights that are too heavy for my abilities. When you add on my tremendous ego and sprinkle in a dash of overconfidence, you end up with a cringe worthy training session.

Yet, this is how I trained for almost 4 years.

When I say trained, I mean that I would work hard for 4-6 weeks, then spend 4-6 weeks trying to recover from whatever injury I had self inflicted, then train really hard again.

The effort was always there. The execution was not.

I believed that everyone should strive to become stronger, regardless if you wanted to gain muscle, lose fat, or become more athletic. And everyone knows that if you want to get stronger, you need to add weight to the bar. Every. Damn. Time.

I’ve since changed my philosophy on that. Here’s why.

There are Many Different Ways to Get Strong.

My old outlook was myopic at best, and detrimental at worst. Adding weight to the bar will get you strong, but there’s so much more to it than that. You can only add 5lbs to your bench press every week for so long. If someone was able to start at 95lbs and add 5lbs per week for a full year, they would have a 355lb bench press.

How many people at your local gym are pushing that much weight? Forget bench press, how many people are full squatting 355? Not many.

What happened to me (and what I see daily at the gym) is that in order to keep increasing the weight, form slips a bit every time. So while you might be squatting 200lbs with good form and a full range of motion, 225 ends up being a little bit higher, and that low back doesn’t feel quite as good as it used too.

So how else can you get strong without changing the weight?

Increase Range of Motion (ROM): Moving a weight 16 inches is harder than 12 inches

Lift Faster: Force = Mass * Acceleration, bro.

Lift Slower: Increase time under tension.

Adhere to Strict Rest Periods: There are 0 reasons that you need 3 minutes between sets of 135# bench presses. Sorry.

But 5/3/1 said I needed to rest 3-5 minutes between strength work“. That’s true, but for the majority of us, we don’t even need to be working in the maximal strength zone until we’ve reached a certain level.

A good test of this is to plug in your 10 rep max (RM)  into a max rep calculator. If it spits out a 1RM that you can’t touch on your best day, that’s a sign that you just need more volume in your life before you should even bother worrying about what your 1-3RM is.

I’ve met a lot of people who have a hard time squatting 185 to full depth for a single, but can rep out 135 for 12-15, easily. This isn’t bad, it just means that you need to spend a year working in your 8-10 rep ranges, focusing on quality movements instead of trying to stack more and more weight on the bar. This is the classic 20-something-year-old mistake in the gym.

The best way to do that? Enforce strict rest periods. By resting only 45-75 seconds in between sets, you dictate what the flow of the workout looks like, and what weights you’ll be able to use. If you’re not ready to go again after a 45 second rest break, then you know the weight was too heavy for the workout.

The same works the other way – if you’re good to go 15 seconds after finishing, you can add some more weight to the exercise… Treat yo’ self.

Following the rest periods dictated by your training program, you can ensure you have a productive workout every time. Bonus, you’ll also get out of the gym faster, since you’re probably resting too much anyways.

Rest Periods Keep you Honest

By prioritizing rest periods, you’ll begin to see that weight is only one of many tools available. For many people, the drive to add weight on a regular basis can lead to frustration, burnout or injury. With this method, you can use the same weight for a few weeks in a row, making sure the rest periods stay the same, and gradually improve your form over time.

Your body doesn’t adapt to a weight after the first time doing it. There’s no need to add weight every workout, or change exercises to make sure that your muscles are confused. That’s a short sighted approach. Everyone is different, and younger lifters and beginners adapt faster than people who have been training their whole life, but 4 weeks at the same weight, working on OWNING the weight until it’s easy seems to yield the best results long term.

The muscles adapt faster than joints and ligaments, so this gives your body a chance to go through a period of compensation to build itself back up after you expose it to a new stimulus – like a new exercise or a heavier weight.

How Much Rest do I Need?

Less than you think.

How Much Rest for Maximum Strength:

Rest 3-5 minutes in order to let your central nervous system recover. This applies primarily to barbell bench press, squats, deadlifts, and the olympic movements – clean, jerk, and snatch. These should also be done for 1-5 reps.

For Example:

A1. Power Snatch 3 sets of 3 reps. Rest 4 minutes between sets.

B1. Front Squat 5 sets of 4 reps. Rest 3 minutes between sets

Why so much rest though?

Building maximum strength is highly dependent on your central nervous system, or CNS. The CNS recovers more slowly than your muscles do, and in order to perform repeated efforts at a high percentage (80-95%), you need extra time.

How Much Rest for Muscle Building:

Rest 45-75 seconds in order to keep building up fatigue (and the burn) in your muscles. The longer rest periods would be for the bigger and heavier movements like squats, bench press, and Romanian deadlifts, especially when they’re lower reps (5-6).

For movements in the 6-12 rep range, keep the rest periods in the mid range – between 45-75seconds.

For movements in the 15+ rep range, rest 30-45 seconds

For Example:

A1. Weighted Pull Up 4 sets of 6 reps. Rest 75 seconds between sets.

B1. Dumbbell Pullover 5 sets of 10 reps. 60 seconds between sets.

C1. Bodyweight Row 4 sets of 15 reps Rest only as long as it takes to move to C2.
C2. EZ Bar Skull Crusher 4 sets of 15 reps. Rest 45 seconds before moving back to C1.

Why so little rest?

Many guys get bogged down by the higher rest periods, thinking they need them to recover. This is false. And if you need 3 minutes to recover from a set of cable rows, you’re not in good enough shape to build muscle optimally anyways.

Building muscle requires heat, and an acidic environment (among other things – like a caloric surplus) to grow. The acidic environment is just like it sounds. The intense burn or “lactic acid build up” that happens during an intense set (technically nitrogen, not lactic acid though…). This means that practically, the person who can handle “the burn” will build the most muscle.

Accumulating Nitrogen buildup and muscle fatigue is done by taking as little time between sets as you need to while still getting your reps.

Plus you get out of the gym faster, which is always a bonus.

How Much Rest for Fat Loss:

Rest 15-45 seconds between circuits.

Hopefully if you’re training specifically for fat loss, you are training with supersets or circuits.Try to move as quickly as you can between the exercises in the circuit, resting only as long as it takes for you to move between the two exercises. The rest comes when you finish the entire circuit, and then it should be a maximum of 45 seconds.

Fat loss is hard work. This should be reflected in the energy you are burning during your workouts.

For Example:

A1. Front Squat 3 sets of 10 reps. Rest only as long as it takes to move to A2.
A2. Pull Up 3 sets of 6 reps. Rest only as long as it takes to move to A3.
A3. Wall Ball 3 sets of 20 reps. Rest 30 seconds before going back to A1.

Damn son, why the hate for fat loss rest periods?

Fat loss is a Bi-Phasic process. You need to burn more calories than you eat…..like yesterday. This can be done by burning more calories through exercise, or by cutting calories from food, or some combo.

BUT you also need to boost your metabolism by building some more muscle. So the exercises should be geared toward strength and functional movement, rather than just being foo-foo ankle weights.

A normal weight training workout isn’t all that great as a calorie burner, so by adding circuits and decreasing rest, you can accomplish both at the same time. Form comes first though so the weight you’d use for a set of muscle building front squats will be lower when training for fat loss.


When lifting heavier weights, you need more rest. It’s simple.

But if you’ve ever had a hard time figuring out what weights you need to be using, or simply would like to make your workout more efficient and effective, consider timing your rest periods.

Strength: 3-5 minutes between sets
Muscle Building: 45-75 seconds between sets
Fat Loss: 15-30 seconds between circuits

Even if you feel very comfortable with your training style, training with strict rest periods is something you should try for at least a month. It’s important for your overall physical education, and learning how to be Lean for Life.






  1. Great write up on why we shouldn’t force ourselves to get strong by trying too hard. I agree that getting stronger requires a fine approach that isn’t just about putting on more weights on the bar. I’m going to follow your advice and not get caught up if I’m not lifting heavier weights than last week 🙂

    • Smart Anto, that’s a good long term approach.

      One way of looking at it that’s helped me out is by thinking: “I need to put in X number of reps @ 205 before moving up in weight to 215”. That way the focus is on the long term gains and not the immediate reinforcement of having more weight. Thanks for the comment!

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