Determining the optimal rest interval between sets during resistance training is an important consideration when designing strength training programs. The amount of rest taken between sets allows your body to recover its energy systems and can greatly impact your ability to maintain performance and achieve your training goals. But what is the ideal rest period for maximizing strength gains?
What are the guidelines for rest intervals?
Research has shown that the amount of rest required depends on the goals of the training session, the exercises being performed, the intensity/load, and the number of repetitions in each set. Here are some general evidence-based recommendations:
- For moderate intensity training (60-75% 1RM) with higher rep sets (8-12 reps), take 1-2 minutes rest between sets.
- For heavy strength training (>75-85% 1RM) with lower rep sets (1-6 reps), take 2-5 minutes rest between sets.
- For maximal strength training (85-100% 1RM) with 1-3 rep sets, take at least 3-5 minutes between sets.
Longer rest intervals of 3-5 minutes are ideal for allowing full recovery during heavy training loads, while shorter rests of 1-2 minutes may be preferred for moderate intensity hypertrophy training.
Why is rest time important?
Adequate rest between sets serves several important functions:
- Energy system recovery – Allows replenishment of ATP and phosphocreatine stores used during high intensity contractions.
- Removal of metabolic byproducts – Clears lactic acid and hydrogen ions that cause muscular fatigue.
- Neural recovery – Allows repolarization of motor neurons to fire maximally again.
- Muscular recovery – Provides time for muscle fibers to regain force-generating capacity.
Without proper rest, subsequent sets will be performed in a pre-fatigued state, limiting strength output, muscular endurance, and the overall training effect.
How rest periods affect strength and hypertrophy
Research demonstrates that longer rest intervals are best for maximizing strength development, while shorter rests may provide a greater muscle growth stimulus:
- A 2013 meta-analysis by Schoenfeld et al. found that resting 3-5 minutes between sets allowed for greater improvements in strength compared to resting 1-2 minutes.
- A 2016 study by Schoenfeld et al. reported that resting 30-60 seconds between sets promoted greater muscle hypertrophy and metabolic stress compared to resting 3 minutes.
The shorter rests place greater metabolic demand on the muscles, providing enhanced muscle building stimulus, while longer rests allow better recovery for continuing heavy lifts.
Factors that influence rest period length
Several factors should be taken into account when planning appropriate rest intervals:
Longer rest periods cater to strength development, while shorter rests favor muscle growth.
Large, multi-joint exercises like squats and bench press require more rest than single joint moves like biceps curls.
Near maximal lifts need longer recovery, while moderate submaximal lifts require less rest.
Number of reps
Lower rep sets with heavier weights demand more rest between sets than higher reps with lighter loads.
Individual recovery rate
Some lifters recover more quickly than others, influencing ideal rest time.
How to determine your optimal rest interval
The best way to determine your ideal rest periods is to experiment and track your strength and hypertrophy progress. Here are some tips:
- Start with research-backed recommendations based on your program.
- Time your rests and log performance each session.
- Progressively adjust rest periods and determine the sweet spot where strength/hypertrophy peaks.
- Take longer rests if strength decreases and shorter if recovery is too complete.
- Tweak rests based on energy, readiness to lift, and ability to hit rep targets.
Finding your optimal rest time requires fine tuning based on personal response. Adapt rest periods throughout your training cycles to match your current goals and program demands.
Best practices for rest period timing
To make the most of your rest intervals between sets, consider these best practices:
- Time rests accurately using a stopwatch rather than estimating.
- Be consistent with timing from set to set.
- Use work:rest ratios of at least 1:2 for strength training.
- Keep rests the same for a given exercise, intensity, and rep range.
- Take longer rests for multi-joint, whole-body, and technical lifts.
- Rest interval timing may vary based on training phase and periodization.
Recording rest times and remaining disciplined with your protocol is key for optimizing gains.
Active vs. passive rest
You can take your rest periods passively by sitting or standing still, or take an active approach:
- Active rest – Perform mobility work, foam rolling, light cardio, or another low intensity exercise during rest periods.
- Passive rest – Remain seated or standing without additional movement to maximize energy recovery.
Some research shows active rest periods may impair strength performance compared to full passive rest. However, active recovery is beneficial for enhancing overall fitness.
Rest time considerations for different lifts
Certain lifts may require more or less rest time between sets. Here are some considerations:
3-5 minutes rest or more when lifting heavy due to full body muscle groups used.
2-4 minutes for strength; reduce toward 1 minute for hypertrophy focus.
3-5+ minutes to recover for heavy sets given large muscle mass involved.
3-5+ minutes to recharge the nervous system after explosive technique.
30-90 seconds often sufficient when training smaller muscle groups.
1-2 minutes typically needed due to lower neural demands.
1-2 minutes for strength focus; 30-60 seconds for muscular endurance.
Adjust rest times based on the difficulty, muscle groups worked, neurological demands of the exercise and your current training phase.
Should you reduce rest times over time?
As you become more trained, you may be able to reduce your rest periods while maintaining or increasing your strength performance. Reasons for this include:
- Improved muscular endurance and localized recovery capacity.
- Increased capillary and mitochondrial density for enhanced metabolic conditioning.
- Greater neural efficiency requiring less CNS recovery between intense efforts.
- Improved tolerance to metabolite accumulation and fatigue.
However, you should not sacrifice your ability to hit the required repetitions or lift intensity just to shorten the rest. Find the optimal balance between brief rests and strength/hypertrophy progression.
Rest time differences for upper vs. lower body
You may need longer rest periods for lower body compared to upper body exercises. Potential reasons include:
- Involvement of larger muscle groups in most lower body lifts.
- Higher loads/mechanical tension often used on lower body.
- Increased neural input required for complex lower body movements.
- Greater metabolic demands from larger muscle mass.
- Higher weight bearing and injury risk requiring fuller recovery.
However, general fitness levels and fiber type composition differences also play a role. Tailor upper versus lower body rest times to your needs.
Rest recommendations based on training phase
Your rest interval needs may change depending on your current training phase and periodization phase. Some guidelines include:
30-90 seconds rest time promotes muscle growth via metabolic stress.
2-5+ minutes for heavy sets to lift maximal loads.
Lengthen rests up to 5 minutes or more when hitting PR lifts.
Muscular Endurance Phase
30-60 seconds rest time to increase conditioning and work capacity.
Match rest intervals to your session goals and current abilities. Periodize training phases systematically to maximize fitness.
Rest time considerations for different experience levels
Your training experience influences ideal rest period duration needs:
Need longer rests of 2-4 minutes for strength development as they adapt.
May benefit from 1-3 minutes rest for hypertrophy and general strength building.
Often require 3-5+ minutes rest when handling near maximal loads.
Novices should avoid skimping on rest, while more conditioned lifters can handle shorter rest times. Cater to your current ability level.
How fatigue impacts rest period needs
Your rest times may need to increase when training in a fatigued state. Fatigue can stem from:
- High training volumes/frequencies
- Caloric restriction or low carb diets
- Poor sleep quantity/quality
- Overreaching during hard training cycles
- High life/work stress outside the gym
When excessively fatigued, allow for longer rest periods to counteract the reduced recovery capacity. Alternatively, reduce volume, intensity, or frequency until recovery improves.
Optimizing your rest time between heavy training sets allows for superior muscular and neurological recovery, leading to greater progress in strength, muscle growth, and power output. Although general recommendations exist based on goals, exercise selection, and other factors, personalize your rest intervals over time. Consistently timing rests, tracking performance, and fine-tuning duration is key for maximizing gains.