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How to Optimize Rest Periods During Your Workouts

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calendar-iconJuly 26, 2020

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You’ve probably thought this to yourself plenty of times before while lifting weights. If you are new to weight training, or you don’t have a personal trainer, then it can be challenging to be sure of just how much of a rest you should take in between sets. Resting for too long can cool your muscles down and make it harder for you to continue from the previous set, which can end up throwing off your whole workout. Too little rest may result in you overdoing it, which could lead to extreme fatigue in a short amount of time, and even injury if you’re not careful enough.

Knowing your proper rest periods doesn’t always have to be tough, however. This article is meant to guide you through just how much rest you should be taking in between each of your sets, no matter what your fitness goal is. We’ll also go over a few different ways to complete your sets that utilize rest periods in a fun and challenging way. 

First, it’s important to explain how long a typical resting period should be in between sets.

How Long Should I Be Resting?

If you are new to working out and you’re trying to lose weight, for example, you may be tempted to do as much exercise as possible without any breaks. You are so determined to get the body you want that you may fail to recognize the importance of letting your body rest for a bit.

It is absolutely essential that you give yourself enough time to rest in between your sets, especially if you are a beginner. There is a fine balance between working out and resting that must be maintained in each workout, in order to stay safe and get stronger. There is always the risk of overdoing it when you exercise, and planning out your rest periods properly is key to reaching your goal safely.

However, depending on your fitness goals, you may want to have either shorter or longer rest periods in order to keep your muscles guessing. You should, according to our article on progressive overload, “alter your rest between sets and exercises – changing between less rest and more rest will hit your muscles differently”. 

If you are lifting lighter weights and are trying to build endurance quickly, then having a shorter rest period will keep your heart rate up and thus increase your metabolic stress. When you are using heavier weights, though, you may want to rest for a longer period of time, so that your muscles have enough time to recover for the next set. Built With Science says that “it’s essentially a competition between more total volume with longer rest periods versus more metabolic stress with shorter rest periods.

According to bodybuilding.com, the amount of rest depends on whether you want to get stronger, build bigger muscles, or gain more stamina. You should rest for 3-5 minutes between sets if you want to get stronger faster, when you are doing heavy lifting. To get bigger, resting for 1-2 minutes between sets is optimal, especially if you are doing typical bodybuilding/hypertrophy training (moderate-heavy weight, 6-12 reps). 45 seconds to 2 minutes is the best rest period for building endurance, when working with lighter weights for 15-20 reps. 

Jeff Nippard, in his discussion on rest periods, talks about the two main purposes of rest while doing a workout, as well as his recommendations for optimal rest periods. He says that rest periods serve as an essential tool for time management within a workout, as well as muscle recovery in between sets. 

He says that having enough rest in between each set is needed in order to have success on following sets. Jeff provides an example of how if he is doing 3 sets of 5 reps of bench presses, he cannot have just one minute of rest. He may be able to get through the first set fine, but without enough time to recover, he would not be capable of doing 5 reps again on the 2nd set. Constantly working your muscles without giving them an opportunity to recharge a bit will not help you at all, and may cause burnout or injury. Only a few exceptions to this exist, according to Jeff.

He also says that too much rest between sets can cause you to get bored and lose energy as the workout continues to drag on. This is obviously not good, so he refers to two studies that encompass a “new school” version of optimal rest periods. The first study he cites shows that 3 minutes of rest, compared to just one, was much more effective at building bigger muscles and gaining strength, and just as useful for building endurance. The second study claims that resting for more than one minute is better than resting for less than a minute, since it allowed individuals to do a greater volume of exercise. It also depended upon which exercise you were doing and how hard you were exerting yourself.

To sum it all up, Jeff says that he recommends taking 3-5 minutes of rest for heavy compound exercises, which work multiple muscle groups and can be much more taxing on the body. For isolation exercises that work only one muscle group at a time, he says that 1-2 minutes may be the most practical option. You should only keep your rest periods under a minute, he advises, if your main fitness goal is fat burning or if you are doing separated supersets (which will be discussed more later on). It also could serve as an advanced intensity technique that can be more fun and give a bigger pump than a workout with longer rest periods, but only try this once you become quite experienced with lifting weights.

That being said, there are a few ways to modify your rest periods and incorporate them into your sets in order to enhance your workout. They can really get your heart racing and place more stress on your muscles, which may prove quite effective for gaining strength.

Drop Sets

One of the methods of creatively utilizing rest periods in your workout is the drop set. 

“A drop set is the simple technique where you perform a set of any exercise to failure or just short of failure, then drop some weight and continue for more repetitions with the reduced poundage”, according to bodybuilding.com. This can significantly increase the amount of stress placed on your muscles and, when done correctly, may help you see greater improvements in strength, when compared to just doing straight sets. 

A 2017 study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness claims, “Superior muscle gains might be achieved with a single set of DS compared to 3 sets of conventional RT, probably due to higher stress experienced in the DS protocol”. 

Let’s break this down a bit more with an example.

Let’s say you are doing a workout and you are about to do chest press as your next exercise. You have two options. You could either:

  • Option 1: Do 3 straight sets of chest press (typical resistance training)
  • Option 2: Do 1 intense drop set of chest press

Although you may think that doing three normal sets compared to just one will give you better results, the study shows that doing a drop set may give you greater gains. Are drop sets really the best way to go though? Athlean-X does not completely agree with this. 

Jeff from Athlean X says that incorporating drop sets (and supersets) into your workout can potentially interfere with your weight training. He says:  

“First, you are taxing the muscles in a way that could make it difficult for you to come back and train the movement again a second or even third time that week. This could compromise your ability to build the neural connection needed to see improved strength as quickly as you could. You also start mixing the signals you are sending to your muscles as to what your training goal is at the moment”.

Keep this in mind if you are planning on trying a drop set in your next workout. You do not want to overdo it if you are relatively new to weight training, as getting burnt out early on will impede your progress. Furthermore, confusing your muscles by sending them mixed signals won’t do you any favors as well. You typically want to focus on one fitness goal at a time, so doing a drop set and throwing your muscles off may not be the best move. 

Although drop sets might not always be the best option for your personal workout plan, it is definitely worth it to give them a try first, and see how they affect your muscles.

Supersets

Another way to use rest as a key component in your workout comes in the form of supersets. “A superset is when two or more exercises hitting different muscle groups are performed in a row without rest between them”, says bodybuilding.com.

Jeff Nippard explains how there are two different types of supersets that can be done: separated supersets and grouped supersets. 

Separated supersets involve doing consecutive exercises that work different muscle groups. An example he provides would be doing a set of bench presses (which works your chest muscles), and then immediately going over to do a set of leg extensions (which obviously works your legs).

Grouped supersets, on the other hand, revolve around doing exercises that target the same muscle group. Doing a set of bench presses and then going immediately into a set of pec decks would count as a grouped superset, since both exercises work on strengthening the chest muscles.

He recommends that you save supersets for when you are time constrained; otherwise, you should rest 3-5 minutes between sets. He also says that you should do separated supersets most of the time, especially if you are limited on time, since they won’t impede the quality of your workout, or slow down your recovery as much as grouped supersets would. Jeff then goes on to explain that grouped supersets can be useful primarily when doing a lower frequency workout, since your muscles will have a greater amount of time to recover from the extensive damage sustained during the workout.

But what are some good examples of supersets to try on your own? Which group of exercises, when done together, will help you get the most out of your workout.

Athlean-X describes a wide variety of different supersets that you can try in your next workout. He provides combinations of exercises that work opposing muscle groups, as well as combinations that target the same muscle group, or rely on purpose. 

One of the separated supersets that Athlean-X mentions works the biceps and triceps, which are opposing muscle groups. He recommends doing a set of dumbbell incline tricep extensions, before immediately heading into a set of bicep spider curls. This combination of exercises places a decent amount of stress on both muscle groups, which isn’t normally done in the same set and can be very useful for muscle growth. 

He also provides a grouped superset for you to try on your own. It involves performing a set of straight arm pushdowns, followed by a set of cable face pulls. Both of these exercises really work your lats and upper back muscles, and doing them together significantly improves their strength, which can help you perform better on other exercises like deadlifts.

Of course, make sure you are familiar with all of the exercises you plan on doing in your superset before attempting it. More importantly, don’t push yourself too much when first doing a superset, whether it be your own or one that Jeff from Athlean-X talks about. As with drop sets, supersets can be incredibly taxing on the body, and overdoing it may affect your workouts later on, so be aware of your own limits.

Rest-Pause

A third type of set that places a heavy importance on rest periods is rest-pause. Rest-pause is a method of training that combines lifting near-max weights with minimum rest. 

Healthline says that “it works by breaking one “typical” set with a near-maximum weight down into a handful of minisets. You should rest for short periods in between each miniset and continue until muscle failure, meaning you’re unable to complete another rep with good form”.

Bodybuilding.com outlines the two different ways of doing rest-pause training: one for hypertrophy and one for strength:

Here is what the first way has you do:

  1. Do a set of any exercise as you normally would, with the amount of weight you would use for 6-10 reps, until you cannot do anymore.
  2. Then, after setting the weight down, take 15 seconds of deep breaths.
  3. Pick the weight back up, and rep to failure again. 
  4. Repeat this as many times as you'd like, although most people do it twice.

The second way requires you to: 

  1. Choose a weight that is 85-95% of your one-rep max for any exercise.
  2. Perform a rep with that weight.
  3. Rest for 30-45 seconds.
  4. Repeat this as many times as you’d like. 

The second method could be a good option for beginners to get used to lifting heavy weights, as it provides a decent amount of rest and does not excessively stress the muscles. Being able to do the exercise as many times as possible allows new weightlifters to slowly build up to heavier weights, as well as more intense exercises with less rest. 

Healthline recommends that you do not do rest-pause training too often, especially if you are inexperienced with weight training, as it is a very intense training method and it can cause an immense amount of tearing and trauma in your muscles. It is an excellent way to build strength, but only if you give yourself enough time to recover in between.

Active Rest

An interesting form of rest periods comes in the form of active rest.

According to Healthline, active rest (or active recovery) involves doing low-intensity exercise, usually cardio, following a strenuous set or workout. They claim, “Active recovery is often considered more beneficial than inactivity, resting completely, or sitting. It can keep blood flowing and help muscles recover and rebuild from intense physical activity.”

Staying active instead of sitting around and letting your muscles cool down traditionally may prove to be very advantageous. Some benefits of doing active rest in between sets includes reducing lactic acid buildup in muscles, eliminating toxins, keeping your muscles flexible and reducing soreness.

Healthline says, “A study by the American Council on Exercise found that athletes who ran or cycled until the point of fatigue recovered faster while continuing at 50 percent of their maximum effort versus stopping completely”.

Active rest is a great choice for all kinds of individuals since there are so many different ways to do it. Some possible ways of incorporating active rest into your workouts include swimming, walking or jogging on the treadmill at a moderate pace, or doing interval training, according to Nerd Fitness.

Not only does active rest keep your heart rate up and your muscles warm and active, but it also lets you keep burning calories. Cardio exercise is great for burning excess fat, and is even more effective when used in tandem with HIIT (or high-intensity interval training). It’s very easy to start adding cardio and HIIT into your workouts, especially swimming since it is a full-body exercise. You can check out our articles on swimming and HIIT to learn more, and see all the advantages that come with these forms of cardio exercise.

It may seem daunting and unappealing to do exercise when you’re tired from an intense few rounds of bench press. Of course, it is good to just sit and let your muscles relax for a few minutes after working hard, and you certainly should not force yourself to do anything if your body can not handle it. However, finding the will to do some active rest in between exercises more often will do more good than harm. It may help you feel even stronger than before as you head to do the next part of your workout, so don’t be afraid to give it a go.

Takeaways

Giving your body the right amount of time to recover in between sets is crucial for you to both prevent injuries and gain strength. However, depending on your fitness goals, you may be looking to either limit your rest periods to increase your endurance, or take a longer rest in order to give your muscles time to recharge for another set of heavy lifting. Either way, here are some of the most important takeaways from this article:

  • According to our article on progressive overload, you should “alter your rest between sets and exercises – changing between less rest and more rest will hit your muscles differently”. Remember that it’s essentially a competition between more total volume with longer rest periods versus more metabolic stress with shorter rest periods. Your personal fitness goals will determine how much rest you take in between each set. Going for strength will require you to take longer breaks, while going for endurance will encourage shorter rest periods.
  • There are a few different ways to creatively alter rest periods and use them to make your workouts more challenging. One of these ways is the drop set, where you perform any exercise to failure (or almost to failure), then reduce the weight and immediately perform the exercise again. Although drop sets can lead to greater strength gain than doing straight sets, there are some risks to it, like sending mixed signals to your muscles and making it harder for them to do drop sets later on in the week. 
  • Another technique is the superset, which is when two or more exercises hitting different muscle groups are performed in a row without rest between them. There are two kinds of supersets according to Jeff Nippard: separated supersets and grouped supersets. While grouped supersets involve doing exercises within only one muscle group, separated supersets have you alternate between exercises that target different muscle groups. 
  • A third method is rest-pause training, which combines lifting near-max weights with minimum rest. There are two approaches for doing rest-pause training: one for hypertrophy and one for strength. The approach for strength may be a good option for those who are relatively new to lifting heavy weights, since the repetition of doing reps with heavier weights can help them get accustomed to it.
  • A fourth option comes in the form of active rest (or active recovery), which  involves doing low-intensity exercise, usually cardio, following a strenuous set or workout. incorporating active rest into your workouts through swimming, walking or jogging on the treadmill at a moderate pace, or doing interval training can have a plethora of benefits. It can be quite effective in reducing lactic acid buildup in muscles, eliminating toxins, keeping your muscles flexible and reducing soreness.

For more informative articles on weight training and other fitness topics, make sure to check out https://www.myworkouts.io/edu.

Resources

Rest Periods Sources:

https://youtu.be/NR94rNsArv0

https://www.menshealth.com/fitness/a28397208/workout-rest-periods/

https://builtwithscience.com/rest-between-sets/

https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/what-is-the-optimal-time-between-sets-for-muscle-growth.html

https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/progressive-overload-keeps-muscles-growing/254

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26605807/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28641044/

Drop Sets/Rest Pause/Supersets Resources:

https://youtu.be/0XwwoHEMXso

https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness-exercise/rest-pause

https://europepmc.org/article/med/28474868

https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/rest-pause-training-methods-explained-creating-intensity-for-new-muscle.html

https://youtu.be/H6QIGfxN6b0

https://youtu.be/BMbQUdyKTRM

https://www.bodybuilding.com/content/creative-drop-setting-a-dozen-ways-to-use-them.html

Active Rest Sources:

https://www.healthline.com/health/active-recovery

https://www.nerdfitness.com/blog/what-should-i-do-on-my-off-days/#what_to_do_on_rest_days

https://acewebcontent.azureedge.net/SAP-Reports/Post-Exercise_Recovery_SAP_Reports.pdf

https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/what-is-a-hiit-workout-and-what-are-the-best-hiit-exercises/2186

https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/10-reasons-why-swimming-is-a-good-cardio-exercise-for-you/2152

Date Created: July 26, 2020

Last Updated: September 16, 2020

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