How Long Should You Rest Between Sets for Strength?
Getting your strength training rest times right can make a big difference to the quality of your training and your long term strength results. In this article, we're going to exploring exactly how long you should rest between sets for strength, including...
The article is also available in video form if you prefer...
General Guidelines on Rest Times for Strength Training
The first thing you'll likely see on google is a recommendation of around 3 to 5
minutes. This general guideline is based on...
1) Energy systems principles
2) Strength recovery research
What Energy Systems Allow Us to Workout for Strength?
For strength training, your body mainly uses its phosphocreatine system, which provides a bunch of energy for up to about 10 seconds. So for sets of 1-3 reps this is very likely the dominant energy system. Full recovery tends to take anything from 3-5 minutes.
For sets with more reps, such as sets of 5-10 reps, you'll be working for more than 10 seconds, so your body will also start to rely on the glycogen system. Recovery varies massively based on an individuals ability to buffer lactic acid.
Strength recovery research
De Salles et al. (2009) found that rest times of 3-5 minutes allowed more reps to be achieved in the next set at loads between 50 and 90% of 1rm.
Suchomel et al. (2018) found that 2-5 minute rest intervals tended to produce the best outcomes for strength and power.
Why the Guidelines Aren't Perfect for Knowing How Long You Should Rest Between Sets
This is where we get a little more nuanced. The guidelines might say 3-5 minutes, but there are plenty of incredibly strong powerlifters in the gym resting eight minutes or even ten
minutes in between heavy sets.
So what gives? Are they just wasting their time?
Well here's the thing...guidelines are just generalisable averages. They are the average data drawn from thousands of people. But they're not specific to you.
Here's an example...
Say that I give you a specific amount of time to rest, and it is exactly three minutes and 13
"Let's say you go and you do the heaviest set of 5 deadlifts you've ever done and three minutes and 13 seconds later you're still out of breath, you're still sweating and you're still like breathing really heavy. Are you going to go do your next set?"
Of course not, because you're still exhausted.
On the other hand, let's say you do a set of nice easy bench press, maybe RPE 6 or 7 for 2 or 3 reps. After a minute your breathing's come back down, you're feeling pretty chill, chatting away happily. Are you really going to just sit around waiting because that's what some paper or some dude on the internet has
told you to do?
I hope not.
3 to 5 minutes might be a good general guide or rule of thumb, but you need to individual it to your own recovery times, strength levels and the exercises that you're doing.
The 2 biggest factors to determine YOUR individual rest times
Okay, so how do you actually work out how long you should rest between sets for strength training? You use 2 key indicators...
1) Breathing & Heartrate
2) Psychological Drive
Breathing and Heartrate
The first way to determine how long to rest is to pay attention to your breathing. When your breathing is coming back down and returning to normal, that's a good sign that your body is recovering.
Similarly, when your heart rate has come back down and returned to a comfortable level, that's another good sign that you're well recovered.
This one, for me, is the MOST IMPORTANT indicator. With heavy strength training, especially exercises like squats, your nervous system takes a beating, and it takes a real mental effort to attack each set with real intensity. What this means is that your heart rate and breathing can be back to normal, but you still might not feel ready to lift again.
You need to wait until you psychologically feel ready to attack the next set with full intent and a hundred percent effort.
So if you're approaching the bar and you feel like "I'm just not so sure" or "I just don't want to," then you should step back and take another minute or two of rest.
If that means resting 6, 8 or even 10 minutes, then so be it.
You want the limiting factor in every set you do for strength to be your actual neuromuscular system. Not your breathing, your heart rate or your mindset.
Rest Times Versus Poor Conditioning
Now, with all the above said, I do want to put a little disclaimer out there - and I say this with love...
If you're a powerlifter or strength trainee and you're having to rest for eight minutes or ten minutes between every single set, even at lower RPE's and even at lower intensities, then you're probably just out of shape!
Again, I say this because I care, but for the love of God, if it's taking you two hours to
get through like a workout that only has 6 to 8 sets - then there's a really good argument to be made that your overall conditioning is limiting your strength progress.
10 minute rests between sets should only be necessary after very hard effort sets of multiple reps in the squat or deadlift. It shouldn't take you 10 minutes to recover from an easy set of leg presses.
Maybe just think about working on your conditioning a little bit and you'll find you get a lot
more work in, you can get through it quicker and therefore you can generally get a bit stronger.
Frequently Asked Questions About Rest Times Between Sets
Is it bad to rest too long between sets?
Yes. Partially because your muscles start to get cool, and you loose the feel for the technique. Mainly, though, resting too long between sets is bad because it makes your workouts take way too long, and you could be using that extra time to perform more sets, or to eat, relax and recover.
What to do when resting between sets?
For the most part you should just be sitting down, resting. You may also want to gently walk around, or stand up occasionally whilst you rest, that's fine too.
Try to avoid playing around on your phone, especially on social media. In the gym, your goal is to avoid distractions. As a coach, I've found that this can negatively impact focus, concentration and performance in almost every athlete.
Can you have no rest between sets?
Having no rest between sets is a bad idea for strength training. Your muscles and nervous system need the time to recharge. If you take no rest, your next set will be very poor quality, and you likely won't get anything close to your planned repetitions. Leave the drop sets, supersets and no rest circuit style training for bodybuilding or hypertrophy phases.
How long should I rest if my goal is muscle mass?
If your goal is muscle mass/hypertrophy, then you can very likely get away with slightly shorter rest times between sets. Generally, anything between 1-3 minutes is a good range depending on the exercise. You can also use very short rest times training methods like drops sets and supersets.
How Long Should You Rest Between Sets for Strength: Summary
3-5 minutes is a general guideline
Use your breathing, heart rate and psychological drive to individualism your own rest times
Make sure it's not just poor conditioning holding you back
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'Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc
Alex's experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.