How long should you rest between sets when you resistance train? It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Most people focus on training intensity and volume and give less thought to how long to rest between sets. Why is the amount of rest time between sets important? It affects your performance on the next set. If your rest period is short, your muscles won’t have completely recovered from the last set. This limits the weight and volume you can do on the subsequent set. If your primary goal is to build strength, short rest periods will limit your gains. On the other hand, if your main goal is to burn fat while increasing muscle endurance, short rest periods work in your favor. Rest time between sets can be as short as 30 seconds or as long as 5 minutes, depending upon your goals.
When Your Goal is to Build Strength
If your primary goal is to build strength, resting longer between sets helps you achieve your objective. It all comes down to energy systems. When you’re training with heavy weights and doing fewer repetitions, your muscles rely on stored ATP and creatine phosphate, also known as phosphagens, for energy. Once you’ve completed a set, it takes about three minutes for the phosphagens your muscles used up to be replaced. When you allow enough rest time for ATP and creatine phosphate to be fully restored, you’re able to maximize your power output on the next set. This works in your favor when you’re trying to get stronger.
So for strength building, you’ll want to take a longer rest period – anywhere from 3 to 5 minutes between sets. Otherwise, you’ll limit your gains. To maximize strength, do 1 to 5 reps per set and rest for at least 3 minutes between each set to allow your muscles energy stores to be fully restored so you can maximize the intensity on each set. Powerlifters sometimes rest as long as 8 to 10 minutes between sets when they’re working large muscles to failure.
When Your Goal is to Build Lean Body Mass
If your main objective is to build lean body mass, use shorter rest periods. Most bodybuilders rest between one and two minutes between sets. This allows for recovery of most but not all ATP and creatine phosphate stores. With a two minute rest, you can expect 85 to 90% of your muscle phosphagen stores to be replaced.
Why not rest longer so your muscles can fully recovery? If you use a shorter rest period, you’ll be able to do more sets. The greater volume helps when you’re trying to build muscle. Plus, shorter rest periods optimize growth hormone release. This anabolic hormone comes in handy when you’re trying to improve your body composition. Research shows you get a greater release of growth hormone if you rest a minute between sets rather than two minutes. This is why we chose one-minute rest in STS for the hypertrophy phase. If you’re trying to build muscle, do 6 to 12 reps per set. Then rest about a minute between sets to maximize growth hormone release to maximize hypertrophy.
Increasing Muscle Endurance
If you mwant to increase muscle endurance, rest periods of less than a minute work best. If the exercise is less demanding, your rest time may be as short as 20 seconds. With more demanding exercises, you might rest as long as 60 seconds. In general, with endurance training, you would do 15 to 25 repetitions with a load that’s between 30 to 70% of your one-rep max.
What about Circuit Training?
Circuit training is a way to build muscle endurance while burning more calories and fat compared to conventional resistance training. With this form of training, you keep rest periods between exercises to a minimum, usually less than 30 seconds. The shorter the rest period, the more cardiovascular and calorie-burning benefits you get. Circuit training is a way to get moderate aerobic and muscle training benefits when you have limited time.
The Bottom Line?
The length of the rest period between sets will impact the results you get when you train. To build strength, give your muscles enough time to replace their energy stores so you can maximize what you do on the next set. At the other end of the spectrum, keep your rest periods to a minimum when you’re working on muscle endurance or doing circuit training. For hypertrophy, rest periods somewhere in-between (around 60 seconds) will maximize the release of anabolic hormones to help you build muscle.
J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jul;24(7):1851-9.
Len Kravitz, Ph.D. “New Insights into Circuit Training”
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