Rest Between Sets

Image Credit: Petranek

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the more rest you take between sets, the more weight you’ll be able to lift when you do come back. This doesn’t mean that you should always take more rest between your sets… the right amount of rest for you will depend on your goals somewhat.

First off, let’s give little explanation on why you might choose longer or shorter rest periods between each workout. There are 3 different primary energy systems that your body uses to produce ATP, which is the primary fuel your muscles use for exercise.

These definitions come straight from this article on Wikipedia:

ATP-PC System (Phosphogen System) – This system is used only for very short durations of up to 10 seconds. The ATP-PC system neither uses oxygen nor produces lactic acid and is thus said to be alactic anaerobic. This is the primary system behind very short, powerful movements like a golf swing or a 100m sprint. Translation: Best for short bursts of intense lifts, like in power lifting or strength training.

Anaerobic System (Lactic Acid System) – Predominates in supplying energy for exercises lasting less than 2 min. Also known as the Gylcolytic System. An example of an activity of the intensity and duration that this system works under would be a 400m sprint. This is what you’ll partially use for bodybuilding and creating muscle mass, size.

Aerobic System – This is the long duration energy system. By 5 min of exercise the O2 system is clearly the dominant system. In a 1km run, this system is already providing approximately half the energy; in a marathon run it provides 98% or more. You use this when doing aerobic activity, so this system doesn’t really apply to our discussion here.

Now that you have a good idea what these three systems are used for, we can have a discussion about how much rest works best for each goal.

3-5 Minutes Rest: This is useful for trainees who are trying to improve their explosive activities of a short duration. That means that longer rest periods are generally better for people who are training for strength and power and should be used together with lower reps (3-5 reps).

This is because your body requires approximately 3 minutes for it to restore the phosphagen (Creatine Phosphate/ATP) stores for your next set. Once the ATP-PC energy system has been able to replenish the energy stores in your muscles, you’ll be to lift a heavier weight for more reps. So, you should rest longer to get the energy to go heavy.

45-60 Seconds: Taking a shorter rest works better for hypertrophy and building overall muscle mass. The point here is not to lift the most weight you can possibly lift. Your purpose is to keep the stress on your muscles and work them again before they have the chance to fully recover.

This gives your muscles intensity over a longer period of time and allows you to keep your muscle “pump” between sets. This is best for the 8-12 rep ranges used by bodybuilders, and is optimal for increasing muscular mass and hypertrophy.

What about the time in between?

You don’t necessarily have to stay exactly within these rep ranges for building muscle mass or strength. There’s no switch that suddenly gets flipped at 3 minutes where your body suddenly begins to use a different energy system. Your muscles recover gradually while you rest, and each energy system works together and has some overlap.

And as always, this is a highly individual thing. Some people swear by using 60-90 seconds rest while bodybuilding, which can be fine for some people. Each person is a little different, and just as one person can run faster than another, one person can also recover faster than another.

Your recovery time will be influenced by a number of factors:

  • The intensity of the set
  • How much sleep & rest you’ve had
  • Your nutrition
  • Your Age
  • Any injuries you might have
  • The temperature of the room
  • If you have a cold or other minor illness
  • How intense your day job is

You get the idea. I’m trying to show you that there are so many factors that go into this and that every person’s situation is slightly different. Start with the guides given up above, and adjust them over time as you get to know your body and its needs.

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47 Responses to “How Long to Rest Between Sets”

  1. I usually go straight from one exercise to another, as long as they don’t work the exact same muscle groups. Like from a deadlift to a chinup. This way, I don’t have to wait between sets, I just train all the time ;)

    Kind of hard to do though when the gym is crowded.

  2. Alex- Almost impossible to do when the gym is crowded. I will at times switch back and forth between smaller exercises, but it can be annoying in a crowded gym because someone always hops on the bench you were using when you’re on your other exercise. Sometimes I almost feel annoyed by it, but I have to remind myself it’s not their fault. I was the one who signed up for a crowded gym at that time…

  3. Haha, yeah, it’s annoying when it happens!

    But fortunately most guys at my gym sit at the machines all day long, so it’s not really a big problem for me.

    But if you do your workout really early or really late, it should be easy enough, right? :)

  4. Great article and comments. I have patented a device that easily monitors recovery time between sets. Please visit my website: http://www.setstarter.com and let me know what you think.

    Much appreciated,
    Eric
    ederosa@fmrealty.com

  5. Ok so I am a sophomore and training for strength/mass, in this 2-3 minutes of resting between my bench/squat/etc sets, is it ok to do ab work so I am not wasting the whole time? Or does that defeat the purpose and deplete the ATP?

  6. @Andrew – “ab work” generally requires very little ATP so you don’t need to worry about that. But it might still leave you winded and training for strength does require effective breathing. If strength really is your goal, then you want to maximize each of those working set. If you are truly lifting heavy and doing compound movements, you will need at least 90 seconds just to get your hear rate down to something near normal. Use the remaining 30-90 seconds to just rest and use your mind to imagine how the next set will feel and picture yourself easily meeting the reps/weight. I know it’s tempting to squeeze in other things, but I wouldn’t.

    Now, if your goals were more body-building goals, I might have a different answer. Specifically to shorten the rest period and do your ab work at the end of the workout.

  7. Man, this cold sapped my energy today… recovery was super slow this moprning… :|

    When I go heavy (3-5 reps) I’ve usually got about 3-3 1/2 minutes of rest per set for me. Otherwise it’s not “heavy.” It might be to your muscles and head, but not for your body; which is what counts here.

  8. Great article! I’m curious if you stretch the muscle during your rest periods? I findr my next lift is stonger when I stretch for a 20-30 seconds. If you don’t is there a reason not too. I notice a lot of men and women in the gyms I’ve been in don’t.

  9. That’s a good forum discussion question. :)
    There are a few answers. Technically it’s harmful to your workout… in theory. Research says that you should never statically stretch before workouts and do dynamic stretching before your workout. Technically you are hurting your muscle by stretching between sets, however I personally may stretch my quad for a second after a tough set of squats too; only a few seconds though, I’m not like holding it for 30 seconds, i’m just doing it for about 2 or 3 because it feels good and relaxes the muscle. It’s really not being held long enough to even be counted as a stretch.

  10. Thanks cmstache. I didn’t explain my 20-30 sec of stretching well. It is a period of constant movement intermingled with light stretching held for 2-3 seconds. i.e. after squats I will walk a few seconds, then do a 2 sec calf stretch, alt legs, repeat, move to a hamstring stretch same duration, followed by a quad stretch and walk a little more. All quick stretches just to release the tension and make the muscle somewhat flexible again, very much like what you described.

  11. It’s definitely more dynamic then…

  12. Dear cmstache – I don’t think I take long enough breaks between sets…my trainer is a slavedriver… ;)

  13. ROFL…. thank you for making me sound ruthless online Christine. I might go a little easier on you this week… (But, don’t get your hopes up.)

  14. Haha, yeah right…but, dare I say this, I’m glad you don’t go “easy” on me. I wouldn’t be training with you if I wanted easy workouts. Even though I’m sore 4 or 5 days a week, at least I know I’ve accomplished something. It keeps me motivated to stay in the gym. I may (silently) whine and complain during our workouts, but so what? My body has done things I never thought it could do, thanks to you. :)

    Ok…let me stop now…if your head gets too big, it won’t fit in the gym Monday morning! ;)

  15. We’ll I won’t be nice then. :) (Not that I was really going to anyways.)

  16. Gee thanks! :-)

  17. Very useful article, thanks guys keep up the good work. I dont have a problem with crowded gym, over the last few years I have built my own in my garage as well as having large amount of weights, I slip a cardio here and there with cycling, stepping and kickboxing. Usually never take a rest between exercises, one thing though which I’m not so sure about and would like some help with is: Can you work 2 different types e.g. chest and shoulders together without resting? What I mean is that I usually switch, if I start with chest and bench presses then I switch to shoulder shrugs and/or deadlifts between sets without resting and so on.. Is this crucial to building mass without any problems or should I rest before moving on to the next muscle group and sets? Any advice will be greatly appreciated thanks.

  18. It can be done.

  19. @Fab – generally, these are either called supersets or alternating sets (depends on who you talk to) and yes, totally fine to do. Generally though, you want to do one of the following:

    a) use alternating (agonist/antagonist) muscle groups; for example alternate a push with a pull (say, bench press alternating with rows)

    b) use the same muscle group with a pre-fatigue or post-fatigue approach; so, squats followed by leg curls

    If you are going to use this kind of approach, then you should think of (a) as being more for strength training (you have more rest between sets of the same exercise so your muscles can handle heavier weight). But (b) is more of a bodybuilder approach where you lift a heavy compound movement followed immediately with a lighter isolation movement to get the pump/burn. Sometimes people switch the order in (b) to do the isolation first, but I’m not a fan of that.

  20. @ Darrin,

    Thanks for the advice, so far my strenght and stamina has greatly improved in doing this type of super sets. Working brilliantly at the moment. Just finished my chest and shoulder workout few hours ago and I was surprised to see the difference today, I workout intensly 3 times a week with recovery days in between but today I have to be fair it was different. Had a lot more strenght and managed to surpass my limits, took less time for all the exercises that I usually do and managed to add more deadlifts and squats.

    Do you have any advice on chest exercises that work faster to increase mass building? At the moment I can seem to feel the pinch like I used to at the beginning, I’m increasing weights all the time with more reps but I dont feel that is reaching any other stages of development. Yeah ok my chest feels tighter the next day and sore, but in the workout I can feel anything at all.

    Any help will be greatly appreciated, Thanks Darrin.

  21. @ Fab
    More reps usually doesn’t equate to more mass. Normally it’s more suited for endurance. If you raise the weight and can still do more reps then you didn’t use enough weight. Adding a little bit of volume might help as well. Volume would be considered more sets per body part, not more reps. Your body sees 5 sets of 6 reps differently than it sees 3 sets of 10 reps. The 5 sets should all be more weight than your 3 sets of 10, and will probably have more rest in between them. For example, you might only do 150 lbs. on a bench press for 3 sets of 10 reps, but 190 lbs. for 5 sets of 6 reps. If you do the math you end up doing 4,500 lbs. in the 3 sets vs. 5,700 lbs. with the 5 sets. Thus more volume with the same number of reps = more mass. That help any?

  22. @Cameron,

    Thanks for the advice I will try and follow it as much as I can. As I’m trying to build more endurance as well it works out just fine, but why no try to do both? Endurance and more weight? and see where it takes me?

    I will let you know how I get on in the next few days, thanks.

    Do you think that doing cardio regularly(as I’m try to lose belly fat, man’s most feared enemy) will take away my mass that I have built so far?

    Thanks

    Fab

  23. @ Fab
    Because if you do both then it isn’t “both”. It would have to be endurance. If you can do heavy weight and lots of reps then you aren’t going heavy enough for the strength gain to happen. Remember heavy is a relative term, meaning “can only get a few.” If you get more than 10 it’s never “heavy.”

  24. This is true, if you’re doing sets of 4 to 6 reps to failure you’re going to develop both power and size. If the reps are 10+ you’re gonna develop more toned / defined muscles.

    However, if you were doing sets of 4 – 6 reps and had long rests between sets, you would certainly develop power but your physique wouldn’t look as big, and not that ripped either. Not that is, compared to giving yourself shorter rest periods, where you would develop bigger muscles, sacrificing power (slightly).

    Think of the difference between a Weight Lifter in the Olympics and a Body Builder. The weight lifter is all Power, but without big ripped muscles (long rests between sets).

  25. by reading your article i am wondering about something. I just read another article before yours that said 5-7 reps with heavy lifting is good for building muscle mass. Is it ok to do 5-7 reps heavy and rest 45-60 seconds?

  26. @the hulk man – sure, you can “lift heavy” and rest for a pretty short period. However, in my experience (and the documented experience of others, including scientists), you will absolutely have to lower the weight if you are resting that short. And as a result, you really aren’t lifting heavy, meaning you are not likely to get stronger as fast as if you allowed longer rest periods.

    One of my good friends Skip La Cour was the top of the top in drug free bodybuilding (6 national championships in the 90′s and early 2000′s) and he was clear evidence that you can build huge mass using the 4 to 6 rep range. BUT… he rested longer than 60 seconds between working sets – more like 2 minutes.

    So if mass is your singular goal, either do your 4-6 reps with very heavy weight (heavy for you) with 2-3 minutes rest OR go with 8-12 reps with a more moderate weight and go with the 45-60 second rests.

    As a slight blend on all this, in my 6x6x6 Routine [ http://worldfitnessnetwork.com/more/6x6x6.html ] I target 6-rep sets with shorter rest periods and 3-rep sets with longer rest periods. In other words, I believe I’ve found a good way to combine strength and mass. But certainly by trying to combine the two goals, you don’t make as much progress on either as you would if you focused all your training on one singular goal.

  27. I lift for strength. I normally take a 2min break between sets if it is intense. Sometimes though if I do decline bench then not even 10mins later I do flat bench, I might take close to 3min breaks between sets.

  28. When I do back to back, 5-8 reps, I rest for 1.5 minutes after the 2nd set, but when it’s back to back, 10+ reps, it’s more like 20-30 secs. Is that enough rest for the light weights?

  29. I am 41 in good health ive been lifting for about 5 weeks i workout for one hour every other day i only work my upper body right now. I was wondering is this a good amount of time and is every other day good. Ive googled alot of sites and got different answers. Im seeing some changes but not major changes at the end of my workouts my arms are so tired and barely can lift them

  30. @James – good for you on getting started! This is a complex issue, so there is no single right answer that is the same for every person. First off – a side point – I can’t imagine many good reasons to not add in a lower body day. Or to make your workouts full body. The lower body definitely needs work, and many studies have shown that movements like heavy squats actually increase upper body mass too (it’s because heavy squats release natural hormones to promote growth). I’m not sure what your goals are (fat loss? muscle growth? strength?) but if you are spending 1 full hour intensely on just upper body every other day, that’s probably not enough recovery. My recommendation would be to try this: upper – off – lower – off – upper – off – lower – off – etc. If you don’t follow my advice about lower, then still just do upper twice a week. Maybe upper-off-lower-off-upper-off-off and repeat (2 upper, 1 lower each week) is a compromise. When you get really advanced (3+ years) I might suggest a further change.

    Also see: http://worldfitnessnetwork.com.....very-time/

  31. @Greyson – that’s probably fine but of course there are many factors.

  32. So when using a 5×5 or 3×5 template, as in StrongLifts or Starting Strength, what rest time would you suggest based on the above information?

    Mind that using these programs means you’re using linear progress, trying to often increase weight and you train for mass and pure strength, not hypertrophy in the bodybuilder sense of the word.

  33. @Jay – generally 2 to 3 min.

  34. Jay, be careful when you lift heavy. You don’t want to lose flexibility like I did when I started lifting weights.

  35. Great article, very educating. is stretching harmful to the muscles during work outs. just curious

  36. @solomon – a lot of recent research over the past ~3 yrs has shown that static stretching – where you stretch and hold the stretch for 20, 30, 60 seconds or longer – reduces force production and so is no longer recommended before or during any kind of performance activity (so, no static stretching before or during weight training). Dynamic stretching appears to be fine however – in other words, full range of motion movement with no load. See http://worldfitnessnetwork.com.....t-stretch/ and in particular see the links at the top I put in.

  37. Great article outlining the energy systems at use during specific bouts of exercise.

    Resting between sets plays a huge role in how much you are able to lift each set resulting in either greater or less overall weight be lifted during your training.

    I think it is something widely overlooked and not taken into consideration as much as needed.

    Some people will rest for 5-10 minutes from talking between sets making their workouts last up to two hours or more which is not beneficial.

    With the right amount of rest between workouts you will maximize your ability to lift as much weight as possible while not staying in the gym for hours and hours every day.

    If you have a lot of exercises to do then supersetting is a great way of getting it all done. Perform the two exercises back to back of the same or opposing muscle groups and take your workouts to that next level.

    Alan

  38. Does anyone know how much rest a person needs if calculating based on heart rate? i.e. the above says 45-60 seconds rest is best, but how do I know the equivelant of this in heart rate? i.e. when I do my sets, my heart rate goes up to let us say 150 (zone 3) then it takes short time to come back to zone 1 or below, but when is the optimal time to start again on the next set? at what heart rate/ zone?

  39. Hey guys I’m 19 and 176, I have been using the 8reps 4 sets for each exercise with a 75 second break for about a week now and it works great I get so much more sore than before! Now my question is would this get me more mass or am I gaining more definition? For each muscle group I hit 16-20 sets of 8-10 reps with the 75 second break, just was curious my goal is to hit 200-220 by I’m 21

  40. @bobby – that’s pretty classic “hypertrophy training” so you should certainly see results from that. more results, and for longer, if you are newer to lifting. at some point, all routines start to plateau and you will need to modify. but if you are looking at just your first week on this, then you are probably good for a couple months at least. good luck!

  41. I’m 66. I’m just exercising for general fitness and to improve my blood lab values. I assume I should rest longer between sets than a 20 year old, is that right? I find I can complete a pretty intense (for me) routine of about 10 resistance exercises but if I rest more than a minute or two between sets I feel much better at the end. If I rush through and give it 110% sometimes I feel nauseous and weak by the time I’m on my last two exercises.

  42. Hi Jim – the truth is there are no hard facts on this. Anecdotally, it does seem that the older you get the more days of recovery you need. But between sets? Not really sure there’s evidence one way or the other. Even younger guys will feel nauseated if rest periods are too short – in fact, the recent trend the past several years towards “metabolic” workouts are exactly that – intense but short rests. Great for fat loss. Not great for hypertrophy (growth) and horrible for strength. Since your goals are general fitness, perhaps you want to vary. For example, if you lift 3x/week, have one workout use rest periods <1 min and lighter weight, one using 1-2 min using moderate weight, and one resting >2 min and using heavier weight…

  43. Post on the forum about it and I might throw in my 2 cents I’ve learned from working with some of my older clientele.

  44. I’m training to become an air rescue swimmer in the navy and need a detailed work out plan to increase my muscle strength in my shoulders. I have to be able to do 4 dead hang pull ups by July 13 and so far I can’t do one. I have been lifting free weights to build muscle in my shoulders, and have recently went up to 25 pounds in each arm, it’s not much but it’s a start. Please give me any advice on things from how many reps and sets I should do, how much weight I should be adding on, how much time I should be resting in between, even things down to what I should be eating. Anything helps!

  45. @Emily – lots of articles here on pullups and chinups. Just do a search. Good luck!

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