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Every time you walk into the gym you know exactly which exercises you’re going to crush. You’ve certainly got your sets and rep scheme figured out. Maybe you are looking more big picture and have your entire training for the week organized. Or even a detailed spreadsheet that lays out your next three months.
Regardless of how detailed your training may be, if you are spending more time staring at the hot girl in the yoga pants doing her mobility work than you are watching the clock between sets, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Monitoring and adhering to rest periods is as critical to developing specific strength qualities and, therefore, to achieving your goals as is exercise selection and long term periodization.
Here is a quick example: Load a bar with 185 pounds and perform 5 sets of 10 reps of the back squat with 3 minutes rest between sets. For a fairly strong guy, this isn’t going to even feel like much of a workout. Now take the same guy and have him do the same workout except allow only 30 seconds between sets and he’ll probably fail by set 3.
Luckily there has been plenty of analysis of rest periods and how long of a break should be taken between sets to train the strength quality and promote the adaptation you are trying to achieve. While everything in training is individualized and some people have a greater capacity for recovery between sets than others, here are some general guidelines regarding rest periods.
If you are training for maximal power in which you are trying to move heavy loads quickly (think snatches or power cleans) anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes per set is ideal. Similar rest periods would also apply to maximal strength, such as a series of 2 rep back squats with 95% of your max load.
For relative strength, such as sets of 4 to 6 reps of compound movements like the press, deadlift or squat, a slightly shorter rest period (2-3 minutes) can be used.
When moving into the hypertrophy rep ranges, such as sets of 8 to 12 reps, rest periods of approximately one minute allow for metabolic distress to occur (which is a vital component of building muscle mass) while still allowing for enough recovery to be able to complete the next set.
If fat loss or metabolic conditioning is your goal, rest periods of anywhere from 45 seconds to 0 seconds between sets are effective at keeping the heart rate elevated and using maximal energy. Just keep in mind that, if you are using loaded movements while training in this manner, you will have to use far below your max loads to be able to keep up this type of pace.
Rest between sets is by no means the only rest intervals you should be concerned with. Appropriate length of rest between training sessions will also be a huge contributor to your progress. If you are training for fat loss using circuit training or hypertrophy using body part splits you can usually get away with one day of rest for every 2 to 4 days of training (or 1-2 rest days per week).
If you are training the power movements with heavy loads or prepping for your first powerlifting meet, you are putting enough demand on your central nervous system to warrant one or two additional rest days per week. Of course all of this is dependent on your age, training experience, nutrition and other lifestyle factors.
And, speaking of lifestyle factors, we’d be remiss not to mention the most critical ‘rest period’ of all – sleep. So many muscular, hormonal and neurological adaptations occur when you are asleep that you cannot underestimate how critical a solid night of shut eye is to attaining your goals. Shoot for a minimum of 7 and a half hours of sleep per night with additional sleep if you had a particularly tough workout that day.
Good sleep will allow you to continue to make gains, keep you sharp and focused in and out of the gym and best help you continue to progress. And, if you are lucky, it may even impress the hot girl in the yoga pants.