Before I begin this post I need to point out that even in pure strength training you will at some point be using all possible rep ranges and many different rest periods between sets depending on your goals at the time. For instance, you may be concerned with increasing muscular endurance at some point, necessitating shorter rest periods. In this article, I am assuming that you are lifting near-maximal or maximal loads, such as doing single reps that are near your one-rep maximum, or doubles are triples that are within ten percent of your current one-rep maximum. The main claim I am concerned with in this article is that all you ever need for strength training is 90 seconds or two minutes between sets, or any other arbitrarily short time.
90 Seconds to Two Minutes Rest Between Sets?
On strength training or bodybuilding forums, one of the main questions asked is “How long should I rest between sets?”
Here is the typical first response you will get from the forum:
“What’s your stats?”
Now you’d get that response from the forum whether you asked about rest periods or whether most people prefer chocolate chip over macaroons. “What’s your stats” is bro-lingo 101 so we have to get that out of the way.
Then they will pretend like they are doing some quick and dirty calculations based on your body weight, bench press, squat, and deadlift. Afterward, they might ask you what your goals are and what your training is like, which is likely the first thing the trainer would have asked you. Then they’ll give you the same answer they give everybody else!
“Ninety Seconds and your muscles have recovered all they are going to.”
OK, so I’m exaggerating a little. But not that much. Out of one hundred possible responses, I’ll bet a good 70 percent will be ninety seconds to two minutes rest between sets across the board. And that is really ridiculous.
A more honest and/or accurate answer would be: “I don’t know. It depends.”
Rest Periods That are Too Short are More Common Than Rest Periods That are Too Long
The fact is I have never talked to a person whose rest periods are too LONG. But I’ve seen countless trainees that use the same ninety-second rest periods for their circa-maximal deadlifts (say singles and doubles) as for their 5×5 program as for their bicep pumping session. That’s right. What’s more, tell them that is stupid and they will fight you tooth and nail. Yet again, belief perseverance at work and I could write an entire post on how it is a confirmation bias etc…
The length of your rest periods has a huge influence on your response to an exercise session. In a large way, it is what makes the workout what it is. Rest periods influence the metabolic response, the cardiorespiratory response, the hormonal response, the fatigue response, the strength response…
Is that enough?
How Long is Too Long For Strength?
Maximal strength gains have consistently been shown to be greater with longer rest periods. Simply, the longer rest periods allow you to lift MORE at a certain high intensity while maintaining quality. You lift a heavy weight more times while minimizing fatigue to maximize quality and you get stronger faster.
Is there a limit to this, or, in other words, a point of diminishing returns? Of course! But depending on the individual, a good rest period can be so much longer than the average trainee has been taught that you may feel you are “cheating”. Periods up to ten minutes are sometimes used with very heavy single repetitions. That’s right TEN MINUTES. Anything over ten minutes and I think it’s safe to say you are reaching a point of diminishing returns and will be blunting your performance and response to the next set or lift.
The Heavier the Weight the Longer the Rest Period
However, the first simple guideline of rest periods for resistance training is the heavier the load, in terms of intensity, and the larger the amount of muscle used, the longer the rest periods needed between sets. So, even though your goal is strength, you will always use longer rest periods for deadlifts than you will for triceps extensions. This is pretty simple to understand but many trainees don’t have guidelines for rest periods, they have one concrete rule: always rest ninety seconds or two minutes, depending on which bodybuilding magazine they read. Some of the more enlightened trainees always rest exactly three minutes between sets.
Manipulating Rest Periods
I’ve even had people tell me they only rest a minute and sometimes they rest ninety seconds to two minutes if they “need it”. Did you know, there has never been shown to be much difference between one minute and two minute rest periods? Nope. Sometimes, more important than rest periods is what you do with those rest periods. For example, while choosing to rest one and a half minutes may not be much different than resting for two minutes, reducing your rest from two minutes to one and a half minutes on subsequent bouts, and then to an even shorter period, certainly would make a difference to your muscular endurance and recovery ability. The takeaway should be that more important than any one parameter or variable is how you manipulate that parameter or variable.
Take a bunch of comparable trainees and put them on the same protocol. Give half one minute rest periods and the other half two minutes. The difference in their results is insignificant. This is because the amount of time it takes to affect a certain amount of recovery is not exact. It is variable and can depend on many other factors.
Put another way, take two groups of trainees and put one group on one minute rest periods and the other half on three minute rest periods and there will be a significant increase in reps performed for each set for the three-minute group. Now, put one half on one-minute rest and the other on two and the difference in reps performed will be insignificant.
Makes one wonder how they came up with the ninety-second rule.
Why is Rest Between Sets Important?
Most people’s ideas about how rest periods work are way off base. Your rest periods depend on your goals and what you are doing. Only ever resting up to 90 minutes because of some rule….very very bad idea. If you only rest that long…intensity will be SACRIFICED. Volume will be sacrificed. Progress, in general, will be sacrificed.
Very short rest periods are a “bodybuilding” prescription and even then it is only one detail to be manipulated. If you’ve only ever rested one or 90 seconds between set then start resting as long as you need to get the job done and watch your progress skyrocket. This does not mean that you should not ever decrease your rest period for certain reasons or exercises, but that you have been leaving behind an opportunity to perform higher volumes or manage a higher workload during a workout.
The short rest periods prescribed for muscle building are based on hormone response, especially acute growth hormone response rather than recovery. Still, many people have made the “complete recovery” claim to back up their one size fits all recommendations. The basic claim goes something like this: “In 90 seconds to two minutes your muscles have recovered all they are going to.” This is based on complete and utter ignorance.
Even if you do focus on the hormone response angle, I personally have a big problem with focusing on acute chemical response rather than what really matters: CHRONIC RESPONSE and ADAPTATION.
Just stop following rules nobody can prove to you and let experience be your guide. Anybody that thinks they can lift some maximal weights only ever resting 90 seconds….ain’t ever lifted maximal weights (relatively speaking). Let the intensity and volume be your guide.
You Absolutely must have some rules based on that? Sometimes rest periods are correlated with intensity or rep maximums as in the chart below:
|Rest Period||Rep Range|
|<1 min||>13 RM|
|1-2 min||11-13 RM|
|2-3 min||8-10 RM|
|3-5 min||5-7 RM|
|>5 min||<5 RM|
Shorter Rest Periods for the Advanced?
Some people will say that certain individuals train themselves to use much shorter rest periods are “highly advanced” athletes and that they can increase their strength without increasing rest periods. This is trying to get water from a stone. Something has to give and you are not going to ever get full performance from a system that may require up to 5 minutes to fully rev up if you only take a rest period of 1 or 2 minutes. ANYBODY would be able to lift more with more rest in that case. Let me be clear on this issue: No matter how short you make your rest periods it is always possible to increase performance by resting for a longer time, as long as it is not too long.
In general, for strength (very low reps/high weight), you want 3 to 5 minutes for optimal recovery. As mentioned, reducing rest periods can be a goal in itself for some short-term strength gains and enhanced recovery. This is especially useful for body weight movements where the intensity cannot be changed and you need to add reps before you can add weight or otherwise increase the difficulty. But this myth about short rest periods has got to go. It is nowhere near the truth.
Unless you are using a protocol that is calling for specific rest periods or manipulation thereof…rest as long as you need to get the job done. If you wish to monitor your rest periods on subsequent bouts to keep them the same, or near the same, so that you can reasonably assess performance and progress, this is quite reasonable. However, this does not mean that you cannot choose to alter any one rest period in order to meet a goal, especially when it comes to near-maximum lifts.
Rest Periods for 5x5s
Ninety seconds as a blanket rule is simply not enough for recovery when it comes to strength training. To say that it is always enough for “mass” would be missing the boat as well. Certainly, with so many people doing 5x5s, I hope they’re not all just resting 90 seconds between sets. This is certainly not the way to get the most out of it. And in case you are wondering why I brought up 5x5s in a paragraph about mass, that is because I consider that sort of training to be a generalized mass/strength way of training. For a 5×5, begin with at least 3 to 5 minute rest periods and then you can decrease them (without adding weight) to enhance recovery, whereby afterwards you can probably increase the rest periods again and make better progress.
Short Rest Periods for Bodybuilding
Even if you are a guy that “doesn’t care about strength” to say that one specific rest period is always what anyone needs for mass would be like saying one specific volume is all that is needed. There are too many factors involved to make a rule like that. You need what you need.
However, for bodybuilding goals shorter rest period of around one minute to two minutes are thought to increase acute hormonal responses such as growth hormone in the blood which may be significant for hypertrophy. Even so, this is not the “proof of the pudding” for hypertrophy.
The point of this article, though, is not to discuss all the possible affects shorter or longer rest periods (aren’t you glad) but to make the point that most strength trainees don’t rest long enough at all.
So, it takes around 3 minutes, give or take, for replenishment of intramuscular adenosine triphosphate and phosphocreatine levels (to the extent they can be recovered). This is the first important factor in optimal recovery for maximal strength training goals. There is only enough ATP stored in the body to fuel the first few seconds of exercise. (Read more about ATP and ADP here).
It is at this point we consider “metabolic recovery” to be nearly complete. Generally, metabolic recovery is a catchall for all the machinery other than neural components, which is the next important factor.
Neural recovery takes anywhere from three to ten minutes. I should note that the term “neural recovery” should not be taken as a precise term. What is actually going on in these later stages as the trainee recovers the ability to exert full or next to full force is not exactly known and it could be related to activity in the CNS or the neuromuscular level. I use it here to describe recovery that takes place beyond metabolic recovery and make no claims of it tuning out to be a precise and usable term.
|Time||State of Recovery|
|0-30 seconds||~50% metabolic recovery|
|30 seconds – 2 minutes||~90% metabolic recovery|
|2-3 minutes||complete metabolic recovery (TTEP)|
|3-5 minutes||near complete neural recovery|
|5-10 minutes||complete neural recovery (TTEP)|
Please note: None of the charts given in this post represent YOU as an individual. How much rest a person needs, as I hinted above, can be fluid for an individual at any given period in his or her training. And training age itself has everything to do with it. A novice trainee will recover faster from a set of 10 squats than a more advanced one.
Rest Periods and Anxiety
A major problem with short rest periods is that they can be psychologically daunting. When you feel fatigued or pressure to keep your rest periods down to some predetermined period, anxiety is increased.
If you compare a barbell complex or a demanding circuit to heavy maximal strength training it is easy to see how significant this psychological duress can be. The metabolic demands of a fast-paced circuit may translate into “dread”. It is entirely appropriate to use rest periods of thirty seconds to a minute but you know it is going to kick your butt and you may wish you could just lift some heavy weights.
You dread it but you don’t fear it. The weights are light. If you get too tired and you feel like form is sacrificed too much you can always cut it short. Rest a little longer or what have you.
But if you couple the daunting nature of short rest periods with much heavier weights, failure doesn’t just mean not getting all your reps. Failure means FAILURE. Shortchanging yourself on rest affects your readiness to lift and that will affect your success at the lift. Not to mention the combination of fatigue, anxiety and worry can be a combination that causes bad mistakes and bad injuries.
The kind of heavy I am talking about is at least 85% of 1RM or heavier and intensities of greater than 90% are sought for near-maximal efforts. But even when our strength training is not so heavy, but is based on volume and linear progression, short rest periods can be even worse.
At least with a maximal weight, you recognize the seriousness of the situation. After all, as I just mentioned, your short rest periods have added to your anxiety about the effort. So, yes, resting longer can give you a psychological and recovery boost but the fact is, you are less likely to get hurt doing maximal training than you are doing sub-maximal training, in general.
Many so-called strength programs such as 5×5 programs which use set reps and sets and linear progression, when combined with these very short rest periods, are injuries waiting to happen. The overall intensity may be a bit lower but the repeated effort and the pressure to “get your reps” in cause a huge deterioration in form as the session goes on. Throw in improper recovery from short rest periods and it’s not long before trainees see injuries during these programs.
If under these circumstances, your goal is to use a short rest period then that becomes a goal in itself. You start with a longer rest period…as long as you need to maintain quality…and you gradually reduce that each workout.
But very few strength trainees have shorter rest periods as a goal; they have them as a rule.
If you are new to strength training and are unsure how long you should rest between sets, I’ll make it simple. Rest as long as you feel you need and then just a bit longer. Let results be your guide. If you are progressing and getting stronger then don’t fix what ain’t broken.
Assuming, that is, your only goal is to increase maximal strength. I do not care how long I rest between maximal deadlift attempts as compared to how long I rested 10 years ago. Despite all the PC propaganda about the big lifts, I don’t deadlift for my health! Not that it isn’t a great lift for many aspects of “health”, I just didn’t work my butt off for years bringing up the lift because I wanted to tack another half a year onto my life or even to increase my functional years. I did it because I like to challenge myself and lift heavy things off the floor. So, my only goal is to increase the total amount of weight I can lift regardless of how long I need to rest before I do it again.
Despite that, many highly seasoned lifters act like, due to their advanced status and their advancing age, instead of needing an average of five to ten minutes between circa-maximal lifts they now need book a long, relaxing cruise between lifts where they spend a couple of weeks playing shuffle-board. To which I say, if one big lift completely disables you, you have bigger fish to fry than rest periods between sets. You don’t need to compromise your strength training with shorter rest periods; you need to get in shape! This is why the powers invented conditioning and periodization.
Yes, you can have a great deal of maximal strength on a few lifts and still be out of shape. Why do you think all the old powerlifters are dragging sleds around and then saying their deadlifts are increasing? Because sled dragging ‘works the hammies’…right…