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“How Much Rest between Sets”… and why it DOES matter

If you’ve become utterly confused when asking the question “how much rest between sets” for muscle growth, nobody can rightly blame you. Just take a look at the varied answers among self-appointed experts when addressing this topic. The responses to this question run the gamut; everything from…

“It really doesn’t matter how much rest you take between sets”


“You need to take no more than 30 seconds between sets ‘coz time under tension is all that matters”

Free Weight SquatsHoly cow! How could anyone NOT be confused? If you’re struggling to get past a muscle building plateau and you’re searching for solid answers, such varied opinion on an obviously straight-forward topic is the last thing you need. You can’t use half-assed estimations and ambiguity as is demonstrated by the first answer above.  If you want to know ‘how much rest between sets’, you need an effective answer based on logical reasoning so you can resume moving forward with your muscle building.

This article will be different. I’ll address the question of “how much rest between sets” with the attention-to-detail it deserves. In doing so, I’ll begin by showing you why so much of what’s purported on this topic is confusing and useless.

“How Much Rest between Sets”: Its importance for muscle growth

Let’s start out by making this as simple as possible. We’ll do that with the following microcosmic example.

If you can walk right up to a one-hundred pound barbell, lift it over your head and perform ten good shoulder presses, you have some fairly strong and decently developed shoulders. If sometime in the future you can perform that same exercise for the same strict repetitions with 110 lbs. of weight, you’ll have stronger and even slightly better developed shoulders. The only question is how to best go from point A to point B; we both know you can’t just walk into the gym and make this strength increase overnight.

Just for fun, let’s look at another variable, besides poundage, that could make a difference to muscle size. Let’s say you can lift the original 100 pounds in shoulder presses for ten reps, rest for four minutes, and then do it again. In fact, let’s say at this point, anything less than four minutes of rest will not allow you to get the full ten reps on the second set. Given this scenario, if sometime in the future you can get the full ten reps on the second set with only 90 seconds of rest between sets, you’ll likewise have stronger and better developed shoulders.

With this single exercise example, you could obviously develop slightly bigger shoulders with the manipulation of a single variable – the rest time between sets. You could ever-so-slightly decrease that rest time with each workout. This would provide some increased shoulder development without even needing to augment the workout weight. Obviously, this would likewise be the case with the multiple sets that comprise a bodybuilding workout.

What it really boils down to is this: Muscle size increases are directly correlated to the volume of weight we can lift within a specific window of time. If one person can lift the aforementioned 100-pound barbell for a max of ten reps while another person can crank out the same ten reps using the same amount of time with a heavier barbell, the higher-volume lifter will have slightly better shoulders. Increase the volume lifted while keeping the time fixed will result in increased muscle size. Likewise, keeping the weight volume fixed while decreasing the time used to lift it will result in increased muscle size. What usually won’t result in increased muscle size is lifting higher weight volumes while using more time to make it happen.

“How Much Rest between Sets”: A Missing Variable that’s Key to Success

Years of natural muscle building has made the above insights obvious to me. This makes it especially surprising when I observe how many struggling muscle builders remain oblivious to how much rest between sets they apply.

Case-in-point: A common scene in gyms all over the world is the small band of workout buddies who take turns doing sets of gym exercises (usually the bench press). Unsurprisingly, this type of workout posse often builds much more in the way of camaraderie than any of its members ever build in muscle mass.

“Why”… you might ask?

The reason is that they’re about as far from applying any type of controlled timing to their workouts as one could get. ‘How much rest between sets’ is the furthest thing from their minds as they often pepper their “wait time” between sets with a good bit of unbridled  chit-chat. Pullups

That scenario can go from wasted time to an additional waste of money when the group has hired a physique trainer that puts them through this type of untimed “assemblage workout.” The trainees opt for group training because it’s more economical from a purely monetary standpoint. However, the near inevitability of lackluster results that occur from an absence of time constraints applied to the workout can make this an even greater waste in the long run.

My point is this: Rest between sets is an important constraint to apply in the successful coaxing of muscle growth. There are few muscle building aspirants who measure and manipulate this important variable. I doubt that it’s coincidental that there are also few that are consistently getting the kind of natural muscle building progress they desire.

‘How Much Rest between Sets’: The Theoretical Side

Now that I’ve convinced you that ‘how much rest between sets’ is an important input to your overall training formula, let’s take a look at the more theoretical side of the rest between sets/muscle growth equation.

We all know intuitively that the longer we rest between sets, the more energy our muscles will regain to perform the following set/s. With this in mind, there are three different metabolic energy systems that can be worked when we engage in these resistance exercise sets:

  • ATP-PC System
  •  Anaerobic/Glycolytic System
  •  Aerobic System

According to theory, the ATP-PC System (immediate energy system) is worked when we rest between 2 and 5 minutes between sets. This is widely purported to build strength.

The same theory holds that the Anaerobic/Glycolytic System (lactic acid system) is used when we rest for 1 to 2 minutes between sets. This is the inter-set rest period that’s widely believed to be optimal for hypertrophy (muscle growth).

When resting for less than a minute between sets, we’re using the Aerobic System (oxidative system).

What’s typically used in this energy system model, in conjunction with the recommended inter-set rest periods, are corresponding numbers of repetitions-per-set. For example, using the 2-5 minutes of rest between sets of the ATP-PC System is usually accompanied by performing sets in the 1 to 6 repetition range with heavy workout weights of 85-100% of 1RM (one rep maximum). Resting for 1-2 minutes between sets in using the Anaerobic/Glycolytic System would be coupled with using repetitions in the 6 to 12 range with workout weight at 70-85% of 1RM. And resting anywhere under a minute between sets while using the Aerobic System would be combined with sets of 12 to 20 repetitions using workout weight below 70% of 1RM.

This all sounds very cerebrally academic. So why doesn’t it pan out in such a cut-n’-dry way in the world of practicality?

‘Rest Between Sets’: The Bottom Line

One problem I see with the theoretical/academic explanation of how much rest between sets we should take is that it treats muscle size and strength as if they’re mutually exclusive.  We all know they’re not. An extension of this fact might be what’s played out when we observe how many power lifters so readily transform into bodybuilders. They’ve laid a strength foundation that huge muscles can be built upon. Strength is needed for size and muscle size is a big part of what creates strength.

This fact makes it of little surprise to me that my years of training with a one-minute rest time between sets yielded little muscle growth on my frame. I strictly timed every set. I gasped for air when performing exercises like deep hack squats. I finished my workouts quickly. I gained the admiration of fellow gym members who watched me faithfully begin the next set when I’d nary caught my breath from the previous sets.

I ultimately switched to longer inter-set rest periods because it’s resulted in better muscle growth. This has been the case even as I’ve upped my reps from the 6-8 range to the higher scope of 8-12.

Rest Between Sets
'Rest Between Sets': Using it as a training variable can be as effective as regularly adding poundage to the workout resistance


So, given all this, why do I say rest time between sets DOES matter?

It matters as an important parameter of measurement. Imagine for a moment that you’re back to doing the ten repetitions of shoulder presses with the 100 lb. barbell that we mentioned earlier. Imagine that you could perform 4 sets of those 10 reps with 4 minutes of rest between each set. In this case, you’ll have moved 4,000 pounds of weight in about a fourteen minute time period if we estimate that each set takes you about 30 seconds to complete.

Let’s say you slowly add small amounts of weight to the barbell until you’ve built enough strength to lift 110 pounds for the same 4 sets of 10 with four minutes of inter-set rest. Now you’ve moved 4,400 pounds of volume in the same time period. You’re stronger and you’re bigger.

But now… let’s say you stop increasing the weight resistance for a while and begin reducing your inter-set rest time instead. You slice 30 seconds off. This reduces the number of reps you can perform with that weight on the final set. But you work your way back up to four complete sets of ten. Then you reduce the inter-set rest by another 30 seconds – the reps on the final set drop again until you build them back up. You keep doing this until you’re doing the four sets of ten reps with 110 lbs. and only 2 minutes of rest between sets. Now you’re moving the same 4,400 pounds of volume… but in nearly half the time (about eight minutes of total time).

Do you think you’d have BIGGER muscles as a result of this progress? You bet you would.

But the muscle building tactic would never work without using the ‘how much rest between sets’ measurement as a parameter. Start using it strictly and watch your muscles GROW.


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