How Much Rest Should I Take Between Sets?

Confused about how long to pause between sets? Here are some things to consider.

Akash Vaghela Akash Vaghela · 29 Aug 2017

Training Beginner
6 Mins

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One thing I’m coming away from more and more is giving specific rest periods to clients.

I do like the idea of having control of a program and being able to manipulate variables for different training effects, but I’ve found that one variable which benefits from less control is the rest period between sets.

Now I should preface this by saying for beginner and newer trainees, having strict rest periods is beneficial, as it teaches structure and focus in their training.

But after this beginner phase, there’s a sliding scale as to how definitive you need to be with your rest periods. As you advance through your training years, being able to auto regulate your rest periods is an important skill to learn and one that should come naturally as you begin to learn how to read your body’s own feedback.

SO HOW DO WE USE REST PERIODS?


I still may write rest periods in some intermediate / advanced programs, but these are just ‘gauges’, not strict prescriptions.

For example, a beginner program may have 120 seconds written as a rest period. A more advanced client will have 120-180 seconds written as their rest. As long as it falls roughly in that bracket, it allows us to track honest progression week to week.

When you’re training, no matter what your goal is – fat loss or muscle growth – I want you to be focused for that hour in the gym on pure muscle growth and/or retention (if hard dieting). NOT fat loss. That’s what diet and cardio is for.

We want performance to be high. When deciding on your rest periods, you should judge your performance readiness as an indicator for your next set. If you can undertake your next set with equal or greater intensity than your last set, then you’re ready.

This will vary from person to person, which is why a sweeping rule for everyone doesn’t work.

Going by the clock when you’re not ready just to get a short term ‘metabolic’ advantage is not worth the performance loss that may accompany it. By the same token, if you’re ready after 60 seconds but your plan calls for 90 seconds rest, don’t wait for the extra 30 seconds to lapse, start your set.

REST PERIOD GUIDELINES


As a general guideline, larger compound movements in lower rep ranges (e.g. squats, deadlifts, bent over rows, military presses, etc. in the 4-8 rep range) will require MORE rest, possibly in the 2 to 4 minute bracket. Smaller movements done for moderate to high reps (e.g. pulldowns, chest presses, biceps curls, etc. in the 8 to 15 rep range) will require LESS rest, typically in the 45-90 second range.

These aren’t set in stone, and there will of course be exceptions pertaining to different exercises. For example, if you’re doing 2 to 3 brutal sets of 20 on the leg press, the typical 45-90 second rest period that typically accompanies the 15-20 rep range doesn’t make sense if you expect to maintain performance.

TRAINING AGE AND INTENSITY


As you become more advanced, your ability to apply intensity to a given set drastically improves.

If you watch a beginner perform a set of 10 on the squat, they’ll probably rack it and pick up the conversation they were having before with their training partner.

If you watch an advanced trainee perform a maximal set of 10, they’ll most likely be unable to walk or talk for a good few minutes.




Using the same rest period would be asinine. For the beginner, I would definitely prescribe a time in order to keep them focused and to stop them chatting. For the advanced client, it would be a case of recover and go when you’re able to apply the same level of intensity again.

This is something I’ve noticed in my own training a LOT in the past few years. As I’ve gotten more advanced, my ability to contract and focus on a muscle throughout a set has improved ten fold. Because of this, each rep of every set takes more out of me than it would have a few years ago. This means I naturally auto regulate my rest periods a little more so I can maintain performance.

Remember, this doesn’t mean lazy training. We still want to be in shape. It just means you shouldn’t abide by EXACT rest periods at the detriment of performance if physique development is your goal. Unless…

INTENSITY TECHNIQUES 


A time when it becomes important to use strict rest periods even as an intermediate / advanced trainee is if you’re trying to capitalise on different methods of muscle growth.

When using intensity techniques such as rest paused sets, drop sets, giant sets and the like, you’ll want to keep a closer eye on rest periods as you’re intentionally trying to accumulate as much metabolic stress as possible. Incomplete recovery and maximal lactate production is the aim, so using a clock can help facilitate this.

WHAT ABOUT WOMEN? 


Women will typically always require less rest than men. Their ability to recover, both within and between sessions, is superior to men. If you ever watch a woman train, you’ll be able to see that they can repeat sets of high intensity with very little drop off in performance. This can make prescribing exact rest periods redundant, as not only will many women end up bored clock watching, they’ll typically be able to ‘go’ a lot quicker than you think.


LESS CONTROL = MORE RESULTS?


Sometimes it’s tough to relinquish control of a client’s training program. But ultimately if it’s results we’re after, we need to do what’s best. And if you’re someone who’s past his or hers first 1-2 years of training, learning to gauge rest periods using your own feedback is a skill which will pay dividends in both your strength and physique development.

Akash VaghelaAkash Vaghela

Akash Vaghela has spent 10+ years transforming bodies and lives around the world, and in May 2017, founded RNT Fitness to serve this purpose. His vision is to see a world transformed, where ambitious high performers experience the power of the physical as the vehicle to unlock their real potential. He’s the author of the Amazon best-sellilng book Transform Your Body Transform Your Life, which explains his unique and proven five-phase methodology, is host of the RNT Fitness Radio podcast, has been featured in the likes of Men’s Health and BBC, whilst regularly speaking across the world on all things transformation.

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