A s trainers, our job is to build our clients well constructed pathways to reach their goals. In order to do this, we must consider many factors that make a good program, including exercise selection, sets, reps, intensity, load, and rest periods.
When clients are working with trainers, they have the luxury of not needing to think about these factors. However, when clients work out independently, one of the least considered (yet most important) factors among these, is rest periods.
Many clients rush through sets back to back in a weight training workout, without taking meaningful rest breaks in between. This can be driven by a desire to finish faster, push harder, or sweat heavier, which aren’t necessarily bad things. However, if your goals include getting stronger or building muscle, rushing through your rest breaks may not be the most efficient way to being successful in the gym.
So, how long should you rest between sets?
As is often the case when answering questions about fitness, it depends. The most significant factor to consider is your highest priority fitness goal.
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association:
If your goal is to get stronger or increase power, rest 2-5 minutes between sets.
If your goal is to increase hypertrophy (muscle size), rest 30-90 seconds between sets.
If your goal is to increase muscular endurance, rest less than 30-60 seconds.
The reason it’s important to rest according to these recommendations has to do with the different energy systems in the body and the metabolic processes that affect muscular performance and recovery. The science here gets complex. Suffice it to say that if you short change your rest, you limit your body’s ability to be recovered enough to perform to its full potential, and for adaptation to occur. In simpler terms, if you’re not recovered properly when performing another set, your body can’t do what it needs to do to drive the changes you’re seeking.
Strategies for resting properly between sets
Set a timer and stick to it. Most of us are bad at judging elapsed time, so use a stopwatch or clock.
During your rest break, REST! You shouldn’t use the time to perform other exercises. Let your body recover for the task at hand.
If you aren’t sure how long to rest between sets, 1-2 minutes is generally a safe rule of thumb. If you’re performing supersets (two or more exercises meant to be completed back to back without rest between them), a 1-minute rest is usually sufficient. If you’re performing straight sets of a compound exercise (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, pull up), 2 or more minutes is probably the way to go.
When working on exercises that emphasize power development at a maximal effort, particularly for athletes (things like box jumps, kettlebell swings, sled pushes, or medicine ball slams, among others), resting 3 minutes or more between sets is important.
Listen to your body. Some days you need more rest than what’s prescribed. Don’t feel so caught up on the “rules” that you forget to check in with how you’re feeling.
There are many possibilities and nuances when it comes to rest periods, so when in doubt, defer to your trainer’s individualized advice.
Author Elana Witt is a personal trainer and nutrition coach at Hyatt Strength + Wellness. She believes all people possess the ability to get stronger and feel better, no matter where they’re starting from. Through learning correct, functional movements, she wants each of her clients to better understand their body and their capabilities while feeling empowered to achieve their goals. Elana is a NASM certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition level 1 coach. Learn more about Elana, or get in touch with her by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.
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Willardson J. M. (2006). A brief review: factors affecting the length of the rest interval between resistance exercise sets. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 20(4), 978–984. https://doi.org/10.1519/R-17995.1