Rest time between sets is a unique training variable that relies on both the individuals work capacity as well as the particular goal.  There are two ways of tracking rest intervals when training, the first would be to time your rest and the second is to simply estimate the time and start back when you are ready and able.  Many people time their rest using a clock or stopwatch because it is very helpful when striving for a constant intensity, and like aiming for a particular rep range, there are common rest time ranges as well.  It is fairly well accepted that rest for resistance training can be as low as 30 to 60 seconds for muscular endurance, one to two minutes for muscle hypertrophy and up to three to five minutes for muscular strength.  However, according to the current literature available, those that follow strict timelines for rest and work might actually be hindering their goals.

Based on a poll by popsugar, when asked why they worked out, over 60% of people said they wanted to look better and build muscle.  From this information we can deduce that building and maintaining muscle are possibly the most popular reasons to exercise.  Unfortunately, most people are making things more difficult and short changing their progress!  In order to explain I’ll start with some background information.  According to current research the most important variable for increasing muscle mass is volume load.  For any of you seeing this term for the first time, think of volume load as the entire amount of weight moved for a particular exercise or movement, it can also be written as sets x reps x weight.  Many things play into muscle growth but at the end of the day volume load holds the tightest correlation to muscle growth.  So if you want to grow you simply have to increase at least one of the aforementioned variables (sets, reps, weight) while maintaining the other two.

Now, ask yourself, when are you able to lift the most weight for the most amount of reps? When you’re fatigued and gasping for air, or, when you are rested?  The answer is obvious: if you are rested you can lift more weight for more reps; if you can lift more weight you increase your volume load; if you increase your volume load you gain muscle!  And science supports this claim, research by Buresh et al and Mckendry et al show that rest periods of three to five minutes significantly increase muscle growth, and protein synthetic rate when compared to rest periods of around one minute.  However, three to five minutes is not universal, some may require more time, some may need less. 

The takeaway is that if you are one of the many people training for muscle growth or maintenance and you want to maximize this effect then be sure to rest long enough so that you can take on each set at or near 100%.  Do not be discouraged if that means you are resting for almost 5 minutes between sets. Based on the scientific literature, it may be the best thing in order to see greater progress.  As a disclaimer, this article is strictly looking at the perspective of muscle gain and maintenance if fat loss or increasing work capacity is a main concern more cardiovascular work done concurrently to well rested resistance training is the best way to achieve a well rounded product.  Rest intervals for these goals are quite different so be on the lookout for my next article outlining the perfect work to rest ratio for varying intensities and your goals, happy lifting!

Author: Andrew Barsuhn, MS, CSCS, CISSN