How Long Should I Rest Between Sets?

Tony Bonvechio
by Tony Bonvechio
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How Long Should I Rest Between Sets?

The late, great Tom Petty once sang, “The waiting is the hardest part.” And while resting between sets isn’t the hardest part of working out, it’s often taken for granted.  

Sure, you might know how to pick your exercises, sets, reps and weights, but do you know how long you should rest between sets? Whether you’re trying to lose weight, gain muscle or get stronger, tracking your rest periods can help you reach your goals faster.

The next time you’re mindlessly checking your phone or chatting with a friend between sets, remember these simple rules for effective rest periods.

WHY REST BETWEEN SETS IS NECESSARY

Before we get to specific rest periods, it helps to understand why we need to rest between sets. Rest periods allow us to recover adenosine triphosphate (ATP), our body’s main source of fuel for exercise.

Think of your body like a car. You only have so much gas in the tank — and the faster and further you drive, the more you have to stop at the gas station. But the more you work out, the better your body’s fuel efficiency.

Our ATP stores, along with heart rate and oxygen consumption, determine how much energy we can produce and contribute to each bout of exercise.

Our body produces ATP via three energy systems:

  • Phosphocreatine: Produces quick energy for intense exercise (i.e. sprints, heavy strength training) but doesn’t last long and takes awhile to recover. This system depletes after about 6 seconds of all-out exercise and takes about 3 minutes to recover.
  • Glycolytic: Produces energy for short- and moderate-duration intense exercise (i.e. heavy strength training for more than 8 reps, sprints longer than 6 seconds), but can last a little longer than the phosphocreatine system — up to 2 minutes or so. Produces lactate as a byproduct that creates that nasty, burning sensation that makes your lungs and muscles want to quit. This system’s recovery time depends on your aerobic fitness; the fitter you are, the faster your body can get rid of lactate.
  • Oxidative: Produces energy for long-duration, low-intensity exercise such as jogging, hiking and biking. This system can produce energy for hours at a time, as long as you aren’t working too hard. This system is also responsible for recovering the other two systems, so the more aerobically fit you are, the faster you’ll recover between sets.

REST BASED ON YOUR GOALS

Now that the science lesson is over (thank goodness), here’s the bottom line: Your rest periods should align with your goals. Shorter, more-intense exercise that uses the phosphocreatine or glycolytic systems require more rest, while longer-duration, less intense workouts that rely on the oxidative system require shorter rest periods.

Explosive exercises that require fast movements also require long rest periods. That’s because these exercises use a ton of energy all at once and also require a lot of skill. You don’t want to be doing highly coordinated movements like jumps or power cleans when you’re exhausted, as the risk of injury increases exponentially.

Similar to power exercises, heavy strength training also burns a ton of energy quickly. You need to let the phosphocreatine system recover so you have the fuel to push through heavy sets without failing.

If your goal is toned muscles, rest less between sets. By tapping into the glycolytic system, your muscles fill up with lactate, which burns like crazy but sends your body the right signals to trigger muscle growth. If the “pump” goes away completely between sets, you’re resting too long!

If you want unbreakable endurance, rest as little as possible. If you’re doing light strength training, keep the rest to 60 seconds or less. And if you’re performing aerobic exercise like running or biking, don’t stop at all! Choose a pace that lets you keep going for an extended period.

To shed the pounds, you need to work hard and keep rest periods short. You want incomplete recovery so you ramp up your metabolism and expend more calories. As a general rule, don’t rest any longer than the length of your set. For example, if you did a set of kettlebell swings for 30 seconds, don’t rest longer than 30 seconds before starting again.


READ MORE > SHOULD I LIFT WEIGHTS BEFORE OR AFTER CARDIO?


GRAB YOUR STOPWATCH

Now that you understand the importance of rest periods, start keeping track of rest between sets. Use your phone or wristwatch or even grab an old-school stopwatch to keep yourself accountable. You may be surprised how long you’ve been resting without even realizing it. You’ll be even more surprised by how much faster you progress once you use the right rest periods.

About the Author

Tony Bonvechio
Tony Bonvechio

Tony Bonvechio (@bonvecstrength) is the co-owner of The Strength House in Worcester, MA, where he trains primarily powerlifters and team sport athletes. A former college baseball player turned powerlifter, he earned his Master’s degree in Exercise Science from Adelphi University. You can read more from Tony at bonvecstrength.com.

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