They say that patience is a virtue, and if you’re not blessed with the most patient of demeanors, this could potentially set you back when it comes to your health and fitness.
When it comes to working out, rest is just as important as the actual exercise itself, and yet far too many people out there are still guilty of not resting long enough in order to get the results they need from their training.
On the flip side, there are other people out there who rest for too long, and again, they don’t reap the maximum benefits from their training and then they wonder why they aren’t making the progress they would have liked.
As you can tell, today we’re talking about rest, and specifically will be addressing the question of how long should you rest between sets.
Some people swear by short rest periods, whereas others are convinced that longer rest periods are the way to go, so what’s the truth, and who should you believe?
Let’s take a look, shall we?
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The best answer we can give for the aforementioned question is actually another question itself, which is ‘how long is a piece of string’?
Sorry to be vague, but in truth, there are no right or wrong answers to this question because we don’t know the full facts.
The best way to get an answer to this question is to understand the person asking the question and what they want from their training.
You see, different people train at the gym for different reasons, as everybody has their own unique goals and objectives in mind.
A person, for example, training to attempt a huge deadlift would not require the same amount of rest between sets as a person looking to burn fat and get absolutely shredded.
The person deadlifting and training for maximum strength increases would require far, far longer between sets, than the person trying to burn fat and get lean and ripped.
If you’re worried that this article is, therefore, going to be full of ‘what ifs’ with no real clear answers, don’t worry, because we’ll be looking at how long to rest between sets a little later on.
When we do, we’ll be looking at how long to rest based on each specific goal as well.
In this section, we’re going to be taking a detailed look at who is likely to rest for short periods of time.
Typically, short rest periods can vary from 30 seconds, up to 90 seconds.
First up, we’re going to talk to you today about people looking to lose fat.
When people exercise in order to burn fat, ideally they want to keep rest periods down to a minimum between working sets, as this will give the target muscles a little time to relax and recover, whilst still keeping the heart rate elevated.
By keeping the heart rate elevated it means that, despite the exercise being resistance-based, there are still many cardiovascular benefits to be had and enjoyed.
As you probably know, for fat loss and indeed, for endurance as well, cardiovascular exercise is ideal, and no, cardio does not have to solely consist of running, walking, cycling, swimming, and so on.
You can turn any form of exercise into cardio if you adapt the tempo.
Next up, we’re looking at people that are attempting to improve their endurance and their stamina.
Now, you can improve these things for a whole variety of different reasons, though having strong endurance and stamina will be very useful in everyday life and will help to improve your athletic performance no end.
Endurance athletes for example, such as those training for a marathon, can benefit hugely from shorter rest periods because again, shorter rest periods are helping to improve stamina and endurance as they are mimicking the effects of a cardiovascular workout.
If you are running a marathon, you won’t suddenly stop for several minutes to catch your breath, not if you are attempting to win/place well anyways.
Instead, it will be non-stop, which is where shorter rest periods come in so handy.
Whether you’re training for a marathon or are just trying to boost your fitness and stamina, try to keep your rest periods to no longer than 90 seconds.
Ideally, less than 60 seconds would be even more beneficial.
Now we’re going to take a look at the people that are most likely to rest for longer periods of time.
When we say long rest periods, we really mean long, so if patience isn’t your strongpoint you may wish to switch things up slightly, or simply learn to be patient.
Longer rest periods can vary, depending on the training you’re doing and the intensity, etc, but generally speaking, you should aim for between 4 and 6 minutes of rest between sets for longer rest periods.
Primarily, in the gym, you will find strength athletes spending the most amount of time resting between sets, and there’s a very good reason for that.
No, they aren’t resting just because they’re lazy and can’t be bothered to do the next set, they are resting in order to give their muscles, their central nervous systems, and their bodies in general, enough time to fully recover between working sets.
Strength athletes such as powerlifters and strongmen, train incredibly hard and heavy.
They are literally training for strength and power, so it of course makes sense for them to lift heavy weights and to train hard in the gym.
Training so hard and heavy takes a physical toll on the human body, which is why it is so important to rest for a long period of time.
For your next working set, you need to make sure that you have fully recovered, otherwise, you won’t have the strength or the energy to complete the lift, and not only would this render the lift a failure, more seriously than that, but it could also result in injury.
Finally, we’re going to look at the people that are likely to rest for moderate durations of time.
By ‘moderate’ we mean periods of time that aren’t too long and aren’t too short either.
Typically, for a rest period to be considered moderate, it would last between 60 and 120 seconds.
If you’re looking to build muscle, whether you train like a bodybuilder or not, you’ll need to keep your rest periods relatively short.
Studies have found that those that train for hypertrophy, should aim to keep rest periods between 60 and 120 seconds.
Most bodybuilders tend to split the difference and aim for 90 seconds, though that is somewhat of a judgment call.
Experts believe that resting for longer than 2-minutes compromise the metabolic stress placed upon the muscle fibers, which in turn would reduce the potential for muscle growth.
On the flipside, resting for less than 60 seconds would result in insufficient amounts of time to recover, which would affect your strength, energy levels, mind-muscle connection, muscle activation, muscle memory, and potentially your health and safety as well.
Okay, so now that you have a better idea of whom would benefit the most from each specific duration of rest, we need to look at the different energy systems that fuel our workouts.
First up, we’re looking at the phosphagen system.
Now, if you are a strength athlete and are lifting heavy weights during your workout, this is the energy system that is fuelling your body and muscles, and powering you through your workout.
The phosphagen system is responsible for providing your muscles with ATP. ATP, or Adenosine Triphosphate, is used by the cells that make up your muscles, as a primary source of energy, just like the gas that you put into your car.
ATP only provides a relatively short supply of energy, which typically is between 30 and 45-minutes.
Many bodybuilders and strength athletes, however, tend to supplement with creatine, which promotes an increase in ATP production, so your muscles have even more energy.
In fact, phosphagen is a compound responsible for storing energy, just like ATP or supplements such as creatine phosphate.
The problem is that phosphagens are quickly used up by the body during periods of exercise, especially physically demanding exercise, and they become depleted.
It takes around 3 – 5 minutes for ATP-re-synthesis to occur, which is why strongmen, powerlifters, and strength athletes need to wait so long between sets, in order to allow the ATP to be reproduced and give the muscles the energy they need.
The benefit comes from the fact that as you increase your muscle mass, this will result in more phosphagens being produced, which in turn will increase your athletic performance and help you to get more from your workouts.
Next up we have the Glycolysis System.
This system couldn’t be more different from the Phosphagen System if it tried.
When you exercise for short durations of time, say between 30 and 120 seconds you are utilizing the Glycolysis System, but what the heck is it?
Well, the Glycolysis System is utilized to use up stored glucose (glycogen) in the blood, in order to facilitate the production of ATP.
In the liver, you’ll find around 70 – 100g of glycogen, along with 300 – 400 grams in your body’s muscles, as standard.
The good news is that with strength training, the right diet, the right supplements, and aerobic activity, you can naturally increase these numbers and put more glycogen into the body.
If you push yourself through an intense workout in the gym, by the time you finish your glycogen stores are completely depleted because you used up all of the glycogen to fuel your muscles for your workout.
If you were to consume a healthy, carb-rich meal an hour after working out, you could replenish your glycogen stores completely within 24 hours.
If you train like a bodybuilder, you will likely use weights and volumes which recruit both the Glycolysis and Phosphagen Systems.
This is another reason why supplements such as BCAAs are so popular in the bodybuilding community. The amino acids don’t replace the glycogen, as it wouldn’t be possible to replace it that quickly.
Instead, your muscles switch from the glycogen for energy and instead begin to utilize amino acids.
Once you start exercising for longer than 2 minutes, you’ll find that, despite the Glycolysis system still being utilized, your body will begin using more from the oxidative system, which is sometimes known as the aerobic system.
Your aerobic system utilizes fats and carbs for energy, and in extreme cases, it will also tap into protein.
Now, if you perform an exercise that lasts for longer than 2 – 3 minutes, I.E a set of 40 bodyweight squats or push-ups, the Glycolysis and Oxidative Systems will both be recruited.
If, however, you perform an activity lasting longer than 3 minutes, such as a 1-mile jog, the aerobic system will be primarily recruited and utilized.
Okay, so, it’s almost time for us to wrap things up today, so hopefully, you’ve found the content to be fun and insightful?
As you can see when it comes down to how long should you rest between sets, it very much depends on your goals and the exercise that you are performing in the first place.
Reda is an ACE Certified Nutritionist, Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt and bodybuilder with 11 years of experience. He's been published on many influential websites such as lifehack.org, Wealthy Gorilla, Good Men Project and more.