This could be the biggest pet peeve of mine when walking into a gym. That guy sitting in the squat rack on his phone. By the time you’ve done an hour of your workout, he’s done three sets. It's even worse when you need to use the rack. Is he resting between sets far too long?
You should rest 3-5 minutes between sets to maximize muscle growth and strength development to allow adequate recovery. Shorter rest periods of 1-2 minutes can be used when lifting sub-maximal loads far from failure or with single-joint exercises.
Let’s dive into the research behind rest intervals between sets and how you can take advantage of this programming variable to maximize your gains.
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets For Muscle Growth?
The current recommendations by the American College of Sports Medicine state novice and intermediate trainees should rest 1-2 minutes between sets while advanced trainees should rest 2-3 minutes between heavily loaded exercises to stimulate muscle growth .
These rest intervals are likely based on older research showing short inter-set rest (60 seconds) results in greater secretion of anabolic hormones . The main one being growth hormone. Unfortunately, the link between acute increases in anabolic hormones and building muscle, especially growth hormones, is very weak.
Take for example a group undergoing 12 weeks of strength training and being injected with 2-4 times the daily adult growth hormone secretion rate . They found no differences in muscle strength, size, or new protein production compared to the group that didn't receive any growth hormone injections.
More recently, a 1-minute rest interval has been shown to acutely blunt (up to 4 hours) the muscle protein synthetic response after lifting compared to 5-minute rest intervals . However, no differences were seen 24-48 hours later.
Since then, a plethora of research has been conducted investigating actual muscle growth and strength outcomes based on rest intervals. The current consensus?
Longer rest intervals greater than 60 seconds are best for maximizing the muscle-building response (aka hypertrophy) .
I know… resting longer than 60 seconds is a very vague rest interval prescription. Well, one study had subjects rest either 1 minute or 3 minutes between sets and found after 8 weeks, the 3-minute group increased biceps muscle thickness by 5.4%, triceps by 7%, and quadriceps 13.3% .
Compare this to 2.8% biceps growth, 0.5% triceps growth, and 6.9% quadriceps growth. These muscle thickness measurements weren’t done by their friend at home with a tape measure. They used ultrasound imaging which is a direct measurement of hypertrophy instead of estimating lean body mass which includes water weight among other variables.
So why is it that longer rest intervals seem to lead to greater muscle growth? I’m glad you asked.
Turns out, the longer rest allows you to perform more volume. And if you’ve read my article “How Many Sets & Reps Should You Do,” you’ll know that volume is a key driver of hypertrophy . For example, subjects in the 3-minute group performed 7,000 kg more volume than the 1-minute group over the 8 weeks of training .
While this was not statistically significant, another study did show statistically significant differences in exercise volume when comparing 1- and 5-minute rest intervals . The 5-minute group performed approximately 1,000 kg more volume in only 4 sets of leg press and the same was seen in the leg extension.
This has been shown time and time again with 5 minutes rests allowing greater overall volume than 3 minutes rests, and 3 minutes rests allowing greater volume than 1-minute rest [8,9].
So, to give a specific rest interval to maximize the muscle-building response, it would be 3-5 minutes rest between sets.
However, it’s important to note that this isn’t a blanket rule. For example, single-joint exercises (think chest flies, bicep curls) may only need 2 minutes rest between sets to maintain similar volumes to 3 or 5 minutes rest .
Further, using shorter rest intervals may be a way to increase metabolic stress (i.e. the build-up of waste products as a by-product of making energy) which is a key mechanism for muscle growth . So, you can use heavy compound exercises with 3-5 minutes rest to maximize volume and therefore mechanical tension and time under tension.
Then you could follow this with single-joint exercises with less rest (1-2 minutes) to increase metabolic stress giving you the best of both worlds. These rules don’t seem to apply when lifting with sub-maximal loads far from failure where long rest periods aren’t necessary . Finally, women tend to recover faster than men and may benefit from shorter rest periods compared to males.
An Example Leg Workout With Optimal Rest Periods
A1) Back Squat
3 x 5
B1) Leg Press
3 x 12
C1) Leg Extension
3 x 15
D1) Calf Raise
3 x 12
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets For Strength?
Turns out, the rest interval length for muscle growth is the same for developing muscular strength. When comparing 3 minutes to 1 minute inter-set rest, the 3 minutes rest group increased 1RM squat by 15.2%, and a 12.7% increase in 1RM bench press after 8 weeks of training .
This is compared to a 7.6% increase in 1RM squat and a 4.1% increase in bench press for the 1-minute rest group. The same results are found when comparing 1-, 3-, and 5 minutes rest intervals with 5 minutes far surpassing 1 minute regarding the 1RM leg press and bench press .
I’ll explain exactly why you need similarly long rest intervals to maximize muscle growth and strength development.
Why Are Long Rest Periods So Important For Gaining Muscle And Strength?
There’s a reason that longer rest intervals result in greater muscle mass and strength gains. That is the rest interval allows for a few different phenomena occur:
I know, this sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But bear with me. I’ll break this down in the simplest terms possible. ATP is simply the energy used by your muscles to contract. If you know a little bit about energy systems, you’ll know the a-lactic (or ATP-CP) energy system is the fast and powerful energy system used mainly by sprinters.
You’ll also know that this energy system can only supply a very short burst of energy before needing to regenerate new energy (as in up to approximately 10 seconds). Hence, when you perform high-intensity weight training, you use this energy quickly and the rest interval lets you recover some ATP.
This is not a quick process hence the need for longer rest intervals. The second two points are the accumulation of those pesky waste products from creating the energy in point number one. These metabolic by-products are responsible for triggering the “pump” and that burning sensation .
We all love this feeling. However, our muscles don’t. The accumulation of lactate isn’t so much of the problem. It’s the associated waste products (in this case, H+ ions) that accompany it. So, as you get deeper and deeper into that set of 21s on the bicep curl, you collect more and more of these metabolites in the muscle.
H+ ions are acidic and they acidify the environment of the muscle. This is why our muscles don’t like the pump so much (by don’t like, I’m not referring to their ability to produce force). This acidic environment reduces the muscle’s ability to contract resulting in fatigue.
Therefore, longer rest periods allow us to clear these by-products and regenerate enough energy for the next set so we can perform more reps or more volume load before fatiguing.
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets For Weight Loss?
There are two trains of thought on how to rest between sets can be used for weight loss. Firstly, long rest periods allow you to build more muscle and strength. Secondly, short rest periods can increase the density of your workout maintaining a higher average heart rate and in turn, burning more calories.
The goal of weight loss isn’t to just lose weight, it is to maintain as much muscle mass as possible while you reduce body fat. Therefore, you should use both long (3-5 minutes) and short (30 seconds – 2 minutes) rest between sets to get the best of both worlds.
The best way to go about this is to have strength and hypertrophy style training days (long rests) and high work rate days (short rests). For example:
Long Rest Interval Day
A1) Bench Press
3 x 5
B1) Barbell Row
3 x 8
C1) Incline DB Bench Press
3 x 8
D1) Lat Pulldown
3 x 10
3 x 15-20
E2) Inverted Row
3 x 10-15
Short Rest Interval Day
A1) Bench Press
3 x 10
B1) Barbell Row
3 x 10
3 x 10-15
C2) Lat Pulldown
3 x 10-15
3 x 15-20
E2) Inverted Row
3 x 10-15
What Should You Do In Your Rest Between Sets?
The most obvious answer is to what to do in-between sets is to do nothing. That is why it’s called a rest period. But you might be excited about some interesting research in this domain when it comes to maximizing muscle growth and performance.
Should You Sit, Lie, Or Walk Between Sets?
One study took recreational CrossFitters and put them through a grueling three sets of 10 thrusters at 80% of their 3RM followed by 2 minutes of maximum effort rowing with 2 minutes rest between sets . Once completed, subjects had 5 minutes of rest before performing another grueling three sets of 8 deadlifts at 80% of their 3RM followed by 2 minutes of maximum effort cycling with 2 minutes rest between sets.
Subjects either lay on their backs, sat on a bench with elbows resting on the thighs, or walking slowly on a treadmill.
They found the seated and lying conditions lowered heart rate more than the walking conditioning and were able to perform more work during the rowing and cycling compared to the walking condition.
If your goal is to maximize the quality of your lifting session, rest by sitting or lying down! If your goal is to maximize the muscle growth response, this advice might be flipped on its head.
It has been proposed that light aerobic exercise between sets may in fact have beneficial effects on hypertrophy through enhancing neural, hormonal, metabolic, and mechanical recovery . The CrossFit study above only measured work rate during the cardiovascular exercise so we don’t know how their performance changed during the strength exercises.
Nevertheless, light aerobic exercise of the same muscle groups that you are training may enhance recovery between sets. For example, cycling between sets of squats or rowing between back exercises at a heart rate between 50-60% of maximum heart rate.
Should You Foam Roll Between Sets?
When I mention foam rolling between sets, I’m specifically referring to foam rolling the opposite muscle group to what you are training. For example, if you’re performing leg extensions, you’d foam roll your hamstrings in between sets.
The idea comes from the phenomenon known as reciprocal inhibition. Essentially, the less an antagonist muscle (opposite muscle) activates during a movement, the greater the force output of the agonist muscle (main moving muscle).
In theory, foam rolling the antagonist muscle could reduce the activation of the muscle and therefore, lead to greater performance in your next set. Interestingly, the opposite effect has been seen when comparing foam rolling for 60 or 120 seconds between sets compared to passive rest .
That is, the foam rolling condition led to a reduction in reps performed in each set which got worse and worse at each consecutive set after foam rolling especially in the 120 seconds group. Passive rest has also been shown to outperform foam rolling in rest periods by 8.5 – 14% in total rep performance .
It would be a good idea to skip the foam rolling in your rest between sets.
Should You Stretch Between Sets?
Stretching the antagonist muscle follows the same principle as foam rolling. However, stretching shows very positive benefits to muscle activation and the volume of work performed.
For example, stretching the pecs to mild discomfort for 40 seconds performed more reps per set of seated rows to failure compared to a passive rest group . In the long term, it would make sense that being able to perform more volume will result in greater muscle growth.
Some studies have refuted this stating stretching between sets does not lead to greater muscle growth or strength after 8 weeks of training [18,19]. However, these studies look at stretching the agonist muscles in between sets which was previously theorized to increase time under tension and therefore, stimulate further hypertrophy .
Therefore, if you’re going to stretch between sets, make sure it's the opposite muscle group to the one you're working on. Here are some opposite muscle pairings.
Can Isometrics Between Sets Be Your Secret Muscle Growth Weapon?
This is an emerging area of research that looks quite exciting. In this study, subjects were put through 3 sessions per week for 8 weeks of bench press, military press, pulldown, cable row, back squat, and leg press .
The isometric group performed maximal isometrics for 30 seconds of the same muscle group being trained between sets. These were triceps isometrics between pressing sets, biceps between back exercise sets, and seated quadriceps isometrics (think the top of a leg extension) between leg sets.
While the upper body did not see any differences in muscle thickness compared to passive rest, the quadriceps isometric slightly enhanced growth of the mid-thigh. However, this impaired lower body strength gains.
If your goal is to maximize lower body hypertrophy, perhaps this is a tactic you could use for your lower body exercises.
Do You Need To Time Your Rest Between Sets?
I don’t time my rest periods. I just go by feel and it works well for me. Research has shown that when highly trained strength athletes self-select rest intervals, they autoregulate the interval length as they perceive the effort to be higher in later sets .
As in they rested longer when they needed to. When prescribing rest intervals, you are given an even pacing strategy. For example, 2 minutes between each set. However, by set 3 onward, you have accumulated fatigue and therefore, may need longer rest to maintain the quality of the sets.
Therefore, sticking to longer rest periods throughout the entire exercise or going when you feel ready can be two viable strategies.
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