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rest periods: man on phone at the gym

Don’t Overlook Rest Periods During Your Lifts

When you map out a weightlifting training program, you outline all sorts of variables. From the actual exercises you do and repetition ranges you’ll focus on to the number of sets you’ll churn out, all of the variables you select (and alter!) ladder up to different long-term outcomes. 

One of the more commonly modified variables is the rest period, which is generally seen as the amount of time you spend on your phone between sets. While many lifters may not get terribly specific about their rest periods, getting rest periods right can make a big difference in your training. After I break down why, you might just feel motivated to start setting your rest period stopwatch at the gym. Let’s dive in.

What Exactly Is A Rest Period?

We traditionally refer to rest periods as the time between sets of a given exercise. However, rest periods can refer to any of the following:

  • Inter-repetition rest: This is how much time you take between each rep within a set. It’s an uncommon metric to track, but some folks like to add static holds between repetitions for various reasons.
  • Interset rest: This is the one you’re used to, which refers to the time you take between sets of an exercise.
  • Intersession rest: This last rest period is the time you take between workouts for the same muscle group or movement pattern. Let’s say you crushed legs on Monday and hit them again on Thursday—that’s a 72-hour intersession rest period.

Altering any of these rest period lengths can impose a unique stimulus, or challenge, on the body. When the body is confronted with a unique challenge, it has to adapt to better address that challenge in the future. In a nutshell, that’s how you make gains!

Yes, You’re Supposed to Rest in the Gym

I know some of you might be tempted to slack in the rest department. I get it, you’re busy, you only have so much time in the gym and you want to make the most of it. But I’m here to tell you that maximizing your workout efforts requires rest periods, specifically those interset rest periods I mentioned earlier.

Read More: Kick Off Your Best Cutting Season Ever With These Trainer-Approved Tips

Allow me to explain: Let’s say you’re doing squats for three sets of 10 reps. After your first set, you’re a little winded and your heart rate is elevated, right? If you jump right back into your next set too soon, you’ll be carrying fatigue into it that could negatively impact your form and even keep you from hitting all ten reps.

If you’re wondering whether that’s really a big deal, well…it might be. It all depends on your goals.

Rest Periods and Your Fitness Goals

Without ample rest between sets of an exercise (like the squats in the above example), each set gets progressively harder. This isn’t necessarily what you want if you have certain performance or physique goals. 

Typically, exercisers have three goals in the gym: strength/size, speed/power, or endurance. Let’s break down how rest periods factor into your training and progress toward each of these goals.

Strength/Size

If you want to build stronger and/or bigger muscles, you need to rest (and a lot) between sets. In fact, research shows that resting for a full three minutes between sets is more effective for muscle growth and strength than a single minute. Why is this the case? Well, as we’ve discussed a little bit already, more rest time means better performance within each set. Better performance in each set means greater muscle recruitment (and micro-damage), which you need in order to stimulate gains in muscle mass or strength.

Read More: How Often To Train Each Muscle Group For Maximum Gains

Another factor that also likely plays a role is central nervous system (CNS) fatigue. When you get tired, your CNS gets tired. If you try to exercise with a tired CNS, your muscle activation goes down and every rep you do stimulates fewer muscle fibers. So, if you want to get strong and/or grow, make sure you’re fully rested for every set.

Power/Speed

The idea here is similar: To get fast, you need to train fast. The only way to train fast is to avoid fatigue at all costs. Whether you’re aiming for track-and-field domination or Olympic weightlifting glory, you should emphasize longer rest periods to ensure you’re moving each repetition as quickly as possible. If you’ve ever seen an Olympic weightlifter train before, odds are you noticed a folding chair next to their platform. That chair (yep, used for extended rest periods) is almost as important as the barbell itself. Generally, you’re looking at rest periods anywhere between two and five minutes here.

Endurance

Endurance, on the other hand, is somewhat the opposite of strength or power. If you’re trying to build muscle endurance, you might want to lean towards shorter rest periods (think a minute or less) combined with sets of higher repetitions. This creates an environment in the muscle that promotes adaptations that support endurance. The burn, fatigue, and pump you feel when pushing through longer sets without much rest all indicate that your muscles will become more efficient, which directly improves your muscular endurance, in the future.

How Precise Do You Need To Be About Rest Periods?

Does all of this mean you need to bring a stopwatch to the gym? Check your phone or wristwatch and start every set right on the dot? Avoid conversations with other gym-goers to keep your rest periods buttoned up?

Honestly, no.

The best advice I can offer for rest periods is this: Rest as long as you need to be able to repeat the same effort from your first set. Wait until your breathing has slowed back down and your heart rate has dropped a bit before heading to your next set. Depending on how hard you’re training and how fit you are, that could mean one minute of rest or ten. It’s all relative.

So, what do you do with all that time between sets? Well, it depends!

Some people might use a workout journal or their phone to track their sets, reps, and weight used. Others scroll social media. I’ve seen students study textbooks and even red novels between sets. I often bring my computer with me so I can research and/or write during long rest periods. It’s a little bulky to carry around the gym but helps keep my mind busy, which is worthwhile for my wandering brain. I also find that I get my best ideas while exercising, so I always like to be ready to record them.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, the amount of rest you take between sets can help determine the outcome of your training. That said, the vast majority of people simply need to rest until they feel ready to grab their next set. As long as you can repeat the performance of your first set, it’s likely that fatigue isn’t catching up to you. However, if you can’t repeat that effort or subsequent sets feel much harder, you probably need to increase your rest period time in the future. 


Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute, he researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.

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