How Much Time Should You Rest Between Sets?


By Eric and Chris Martinez

April 2013-


“Time is the most precious commodity out there. It’s the one thing you can’t buy or ever buy back. Give it your absolute all to whatever task it is your doing, no matter how big or small it is.” – Muscle Prodigy

This is a deep quote that hits home every time we read it. Ultimately, this has brought us to writing this article on rest periods. Why is it that we are constantly feeling pressed for time? Why do we always keep track of time whether it’s with our cell phones, watches, or clocks? Why do we always look at the time to see if it’s 5 pm yet at work?

We are always keeping track of time, but why is it that we don’t keep track of time when we are training, as in our rest periods? We’ve found that a lot of people don’t do it simply because they are always in a rush, too lazy to keep track of it, or they don’t understand the benefits of it. So, before we get down-right nasty with this article, just remember that this might not be your cup of tea, but trust us, we will make you think twice about going to buy a stop watch or busting out your iPod’s stop watch during training.

How Much Time Should you Rest?

(1) The position statement of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that rest periods should be 2-3 minutes for multi-joint exercises (i.e., squats, deadlifts, bench press) and 1-2 minutes for single-joint exercises (i.e., leg extensions, bicep curls).

(2) The National Academy of Strength and Conditioning (NSCA) recommends 2-5 minutes for strength (3-5 reps), 2-5 minutes for power (1-3 reps), 30 seconds-1.5 minutes for hypertrophy (6-12 reps), and less than 30 seconds for muscular endurance (15-30 reps).

(3,4) A 2007 study, showed the influence of different rest interval lengths in multi-joint and single-joint exercises. This was reviewed in the November Strength and Conditioning Research Review by Bret Contreras and Chris Beardsley. They came away with the following key points:

  • When subjects performed both the multi-joint bench press and the single-joint machine chest fly, they performed a reduced number of repetitions when short rest periods (1-3 minute) were used than when longer rest periods (3 minutes) were used.
  • There was a progressive reduction in the number of repetitions performed for both the bench press and the machine chest fly across all sets.
  • The reduction in the number of repetitions was less when longer rest periods were used, irrespective of whether the exercise was a single-joint or a multi-joint exercise.


Be Specific with your Rest Periods

After looking at these 2 highly accredited organizations recommendations and this interesting study, it comes down to the principle of specificity and let us explain that a little more.

For example, let’s say you have 2 subjects:

  • Subject A) is training for a powerlifting meet
  • Subject B) is training for a marathon.

These 2 subjects training loads are going to be very different. As the powerlifter will be training in the 1-5 rep max range and will need at least 5 minutes of rest if not more between sets and the marathon runner will be training in the 20-30 rep range trying to build muscular endurance and will need approximately 30 seconds of rest between sets.

So as you can see the length of the rest period between sets and exercises is highly dependent on the goal of training, the amount of weight being lifted, and the athlete or person’s training status. You have to know what you’re training for and use specificity. Are you training to be a bodybuilder, a powerlifter, an endurance athlete, a sport, or are you simply just trying to look good naked? You have to ask yourself all of these questions and be specific as to what your goals are.

So Exactly How Long Should you Rest Now?

We know a lot of you are looking for a black and white answer as to what’s the optimal rest period to get the best results. But, to be honest there is no one exact rest period for optimal results. You have to see how your body adapts to different rest periods. You have to experiment with all of the energy systems your body uses during training. You have to test how long it will take to be mentally and physically prepared for the next set. You have to be specific about your goals like we discussed earlier and then you have to use trial and error and see what works for your body. Try using some of the rest period lengths from the above recommendations as a starting point, track it, and then measure your progress.

The Benefits of Tracking Rest Periods

Okay so if you are still not convinced on the importance of tracking your rest periods, let us get out our sexy list of benefits for you:

  • Keeping track of rest periods is another measurement for progress
  • It’s another data point on the stat sheet to have
  • It helps keep you more focused during your workouts
  • It gives you a chance to experiment with all three of the energy systems (phosphogen system, glycolitic and the oxidative system) fast, medium, and slow intensities.
  • It gives you a good indication of how fast or slow your body recovers with different rep schemes and loads (weight)

If you still aren’t buying this, then just help us twinkies out and give it a try.

Wrapping It Up

We always want to keep track of the weight, reps, and sets, so why neglect rest period lengths? We aren’t going to go as far as saying that this will make a 50% difference in your training and overall progress. But over time it will make at least a 5-10% difference. Funny thing is people will sit there and say “well 5-10% just isn’t worth keeping track and recording my rest periods.” Truth is if you keep finding tricks that will make a 5-10% difference and go that extra mile to do it, over time you’re going to eventually make more progress than that other person. So, remember to know your goals first, use the principle of specificity, use some of the rest period lengths from the above recommendations as a starting point, use trial and error, and record the damn rest periods in your training logs. So is recording your rest periods worth it? Hmmm… We’d say just give it a go. What do you have to lose by trying it?

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  1. The position statement of the American College of Sports Medicine
  2. Baechle, Thomas R and Earle, Roger W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning/ National Strength and Conditioning Association. USA: 2008 by the National Strength and Conditioning Association
  3. Simao et al. Influence of exercise order on the number of repetitions performed and perceived exertion during resistance exercise in women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. 2007
  4. Contreras, Bret. Beardsley, Chris. Strength and Conditioning Research Review. November 2012. Pg 16


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