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November 2012

“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.

“How can I Build Muscle?” Answer: ATF

If you’re asking the question “how can I build muscle”, I hope I’ve grabbed your attention. After all, the internet is filled with information that attempts to answer the muscle building question. Some of that information is sound. Other bits of it are nonsense. And still some other stuff sits right in-between; it’ll help you somewhat or for a short time, until you stop gaining natural muscle and hit a sticking point again.

Dumbbells Curling (2)My answers to the “how can I build muscle” question will be different than much of what you’ve seen. That’s because a lot of what is considered conventional wisdom in natural bodybuilding is completely useless.

Do I say that just to be controversial or “different?”

Not by a long-shot. I sincerely don’t give a fat rat’s butt if nobody listens to me. I will just keep enjoying the incredible and steady body transformation that I’m making. I’ll keep walking past people in the gym who insist on wasting their time. I’ll watch them pay hard-earned money to “personal trainers” whose only credentials are the awesome physique they’ve built… with the use of steroids. I’ll shake my head in bewilderment as these people spend big bucks for supplements that do absolutely nothing, while at the same time, listening to irrelevant advice that shouldn’t even resonate on a common sense level.

Would you like an example of something that shouldn’t resonate on a common sense level?

Okay… think about this: I just saw some advice given in the comment section of a blog. The commenter subscribes to the wide-spread belief that if you’re asking the question ‘how can I build muscle’, then you need realize that “the body will adapt”… unless, of course… you constantly “change your routine.” He went on to say that a bodybuilder’s muscle building repetitions scheme needs to be changed “every few weeks” in order to… “keep the body guessing.”

Do you really think THAT’S the problem; that you haven’t kept your body guessing?

Let’s just take a look at what a regimen of “keeping the body guessing”, as defined by him, can do.  For the sake of example, let’s say you’re working your biceps once every seven days in order to build your upper arms size. You’ve spent a few weeks performing workouts in which you do 10 to 12 repetitions. Now, in the name of changing your routine, you decide to start doing 6 to 8 repetitions. We’ll illustrate what can happen by first looking at the possible volume of weight you were moving in the 10 to 12 reps range. Your last workout of sets of barbell curls with those reps looked like the following:

70 lbs./12 reps,

65 lbs./12 reps,

60 lbs./10 reps,

60 lbs./10 reps

By multiplying the number of reps by the poundage of weight, we get the weight volume moved for each set. After adding those four set-volumes together, we get a total volume for the exercise of 1,620 lbs.

BTW, keeping track of and improving weight volumes is a big key to answering the ‘how can I build muscle’ question. This sits in stark contrast to the common method that keeps many natural trainees stuck: Simply piling on more workout weight whenever possible.

Now you’re about to start doing heavier sets of 6 to 7 reps for a few weeks. Since you’re reducing the reps by at least 42%, you’ve decided to increase the poundage by nearly the same percentage. Thus, you’ve decided to start your sets with a 90 pound barbell instead of a 70 pounder. Let’s guess that your four sets of the lower reps range workout looks like the following:

100 lbs./6 reps

85 lbs./6 reps

80 lbs./7 reps

75 lbs./6 reps

Now you’ve managed to move 2,120 lbs. of volume on the standing barbell curls.

Sounds great… doesn’t it?

Not necessarily! You see, unless you’re moving a higher volume of weight by the time you get done doing your few weeks of the lower reps, your biceps won’t get any bigger. Moreover, you’d need to move that higher volume of weight without taking any greater amount of time to do it in order that your biceps increase in size.

But here’s a more long-term possible problem: If you manage to move up to a higher volume in the weeks of using the heavier low-reps sets, it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be capable of a higher volume movement at the high-reps sets when you go back to them. And in the bigger picture, there’s no guarantee that you won’t slip down in volume-lifting capability on the heavier sets after you’ve gone back to weeks of using the lighter sets for higher reps. If you never move significantly more than 1,620 lbs. of volume on the higher reps, your biceps won’t get bigger. Likewise, if you don’t become capable of lifting substantially more than 2,120 lbs. on the lower reps, your biceps won’t get any bigger. If you move upward in volume on either reps scheme while using substantially more time to perform the workout, your muscle size will also remain plateaued.

Another consideration: Different repetition schemes tear down different muscle fiber types. The heavy lower reps will generally tear down the ‘Type 2b Fast Twitch fibers.’ The higher reps will tear down the ‘Type 2a Fast Twitch’ or the ‘Type 1 Slow Twitch’, or a combination. These different muscle fiber types don’t possess a universal amount of recuperation time after being torn down; the ‘Type 2b Fast Twitch’ fibers often require more rest days for growth. This is a factor often not accounted for by muscle builders who simply “change their routines” in the name of mixing things up.

Here’s the point: Changing your routine is NOT some magic bullet for making muscle building gains. The real answer to the question “how can I build muscle” is in ‘volume overload’ applied during workouts combined with compensative adaption during recovery between workouts.

‘How Can I Build Muscle?’ By Paying Attention to Feedback

What this all points to is a need to apply ‘attention to feedback’ (ATF) to your muscle building regimen.

When I was in the military, the phrase that was pounded into our heads was ‘attention to detail’: “Pay attention to detail, son”… was what we constantly heard as we were going through BUD/S Training.

While ‘paying attention to detail’ is great advice, I want to recommend that you to apply it more pointedly in the context of muscle building. The detail you pay MOST attention to is what can make the difference between making non-stop gains and being stuck in a frustrating plateau. You need to pay attention to feedback. This means noticing the number of rest days between workouts that’s commensurate with the amount of stress you’ve applied to the muscles. It means noticing the amount of volume improvement you’ve made in your past few workouts. It requires seeing any halt or slowdown in that improvement. In a nutshell, it means…


… The question “How Can I Build Muscle” has One Best Answer

That answer is simply the following: ‘Keep a Record of What You Do’

Before you begin rejecting that idea with the notion that it would be “confining” or “limiting” or “laborious”, consider the fact that I once thought the same things. How wrong I was; it’s exactly what UNLEASHED my muscle building potential.  Recording my workouts in a log book is what started making workouts rewarding. They went from being merely rewarding to providing results that were nothing short of EXCITING.

“Why would that be”… you ask?

Because natural muscle building gains need to happen on the micro level of sets, reps, exercise selection, inter-set rest, workout time, etc…, before they show up on a scale or in the mirror. They have to happen at the micro level before they’ll occur at the macro level.

Likewise, if there’s a problem at the micro level, you’ll feel frustration as you simply generalize that you’ve “hit a plateau” without being able to see what the probable reason is and what should be the likely remedy. Seeing what’s happening at that more detailed level will allow you to quickly identify a solution and get back to gaining muscle.

Muscle Building ATF: Isn’t it Painful?

Many aspiring muscle builders fear that paying ‘attention to feedback’ through workout record-keeping might be a chore. They’re afraid that recording workouts might transform the activity of going to the gym and “releasing stress” into just another stressful endeavor, like work.

I once believed the same thing. In retrospect, it’s no coincidence that at the time that  I believed that, I was constantly asking the question “how can I build muscle.”

One reason for muscle building aspirants to think this is that they’ve never been shown how pleasurably easy it can be. Personally, I use a muscle building system and a method of recording it that’s so simple… it actually becomes easier to keep a record of workouts than to go back to NOT doing it.

Why would I ever go back to asking ‘how can I build muscle’ when I can do it with exciting predictability?

“What is Macro Nutrition”; will it help you get in great shape?

If you’re asking the question “what is macro nutrition”, it’s likely because you suspect or have heard it can play a key role in losing body fat, gaining muscle, and getting into your best shape ever. It does tend to be a more easily applied and less simplistic tactic than is simply counting calories – a practice that not only results in hunger pangs but also in becoming a constant reminder that we’re being deprived of a certain amount of caloric energy.

So ‘what is macro nutrition?’

It’s simply the ratio of the macro nutrients… protein, carbohydrate, fat, and fiber that we apply to our eating habits.  For example, let’s say you and I grab a dish of food from one of those recently-so-popular lunch trucks. After browsing the menu, we each settle on having a mayonnaise-dowsed lobster roll. Unbeknownst to us, each of these juicy little morsels of bread-wrapped shellfish packs about 35 grams of fat, 31 grams of carbohydrate, and 27 grams of protein. With four calories present in each gram of carbs and protein combined with nine calories in each gram of fat, we’d each be getting about 547 calories from these little meals. The question is: what’s the percentage of these calories that we’d be getting from fat?


35g. x 9cal. = 315; (315/547) x 100 = 57%

And what percentage from carbohydrates:

31g. x 4cal. = 124; (124/547) x 100 = 23%

And what percentage from protein:

27g. x 4cal. = 108; (108/547) x 100 = 20%


Rapid Fat Loss (2)This is not a horrible ratio of macro nutrients to eat on an occasional basis. However, if this (or something worse) became our daily habit for most of our meals, we could end up with big problems. Our meals would contain too many calories coming from fat in both relative and absolute terms. This could lead to high cholesterol levels, unhealthy LDL to HDL cholesterol ratios, along with body fat gain and all the problems associated with it.

So ‘what is macro nutrition’ in the bigger picture?

Well, suppose later that day you decide to stop on your way home from work and get a sub sandwich. You’re a lot more conscientious about your eating at this point so you get an oven roasted chicken sandwich on wheat bread. You tell the deli person to hold the condiments and, instead, give you a double serving of chicken with a lot of low calorie/high fiber veggies to moisturize and texturize the meal. Your double roasted chicken sandwich provides 9 grams of dietary fat, 46 grams of carbs, and 36 grams of protein.  You decide to chase it down with 8oz. of low-fat milk that has 4.5 grams of fat, 12.5 grams of carbs, and 9 grams of protein. This comes out to a meal of about 537 calories – very close in total calories to the previous meal.  

But ‘what is macro nutrition’ with regard to this meal?


Calorie percentage from fat:

13.5g x 9cal. = 121.5; (121.5/537) x 100 = 23%

Calorie percentage from carbohydrates:

58.5g. x 4cal. = 234; (234/537) x 100 = 44%

Calorie percentage from protein:

45g. x 4cal. = 180; (180/537) x 100 = 33%


This would be a much healthier ratio in comparison to the meal you and I had (hypothetically) at lunch. Someone could argue that the carbs should be 4 percentage-points lower, the protein 3 percentage-points lower, and the fat 7 percentage-points higher. That would make it into the perfect Zone Diet ratios. However, it can be tough to maintain sanity while being so strict. This second meal has a fairly close-to-ideal macro-nutritional ratio.

‘What is Macro Nutrition’; do the “daily totals” matter most?

In really answering the question “what is macro nutrition”, it might behoove us to add the second hypothetical meal listed above to the first one. That’s because if we eat a more macro-nutritionally ideal meal after one that’s less than ideal, we end up with a new, ‘combined ratios’ total.


Calorie percentage from fat:

48.5g x 9cal. = 436.5; (436.5/1,084) x 100 = 40%

Calorie percentage from carbohydrates:

90g. x 4cal. = 360; (360/1,084) x 100 = 33%

Calorie percentage from protein:

72g. x 4cal. = 288; (288/1,084) x 100 = 27%


With the totals of the two meals combined, we have a more favorably balanced ratio of macro-nutrients.

Let’s say in the early evening of the same day, you decide to have a high protein, super smoothie that you enjoy regularly mixing up in your blender. After pouring two cups of nonfat milk into your blender, you add a couple scoops of whey protein. To this you add some carbs in the form of a banana and a cup of frozen strawberries. In order to get some healthy fat and a bit of fiber, you throw in twenty-four almonds. This 600-calorie blender smoothie comes up with a macro-nutrient reading of the following:


Fat: 14 grams (21%)

Carbs: 72 grams (47%)

Protein: 49 grams (32%)


In adding up the macro nutrient percentages and calories for this smoothie, I used the handy calculator to make it easy. In fact, if you look at the image below, you can see how I quickly and easily added up the ingredients on this macronutrient/calorie meal calculator:

Meal Calculator HardBody Success10

And just to give you an idea of “what is macro nutrition” from an even bigger picture, let’s see what this more favorably balanced smoothie did to your hypothetical ratios for the day.

Calories: 1,694

Calorie Percentage from Fat:

62g. X 9cal. = 558; (558/1,694) x 100 = 33%

Calorie Percentage from Carbohydrates:

162g. X 4cal. = 648; (648/1,694) x 100 = 38%

Calorie Percentage from Protein:

121g. x 4cal. = 484; (484/1694) x 100 = 28%


Notice this final macro nutrient breakdown is very close to that espoused by The Zone diet; it’s just a few percentage points from 40/30/30 (40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat).

My point: A day that was begun with a meal that had fattening macro-nutrient ratios was altered with just a couple additional meals. Moreover, if we’re going to eat meals with less-than-ideal macro nutrient ratios, this is the way to do it; eat the more fattening meals in the early day and optimize the ratios toward the end of the day (carb tapering).

Why does Macro Nutrition “Work” for Getting Lean?

Despite claims by some trainers and dieticians who say that shedding body fat is merely an equation of “calories in… calories out”, many people (myself included) have experienced the positive effects of controlling macro nutrient ratios. Its most powerful effect is in producing fat loss with less hunger. That’s a great reason for most of us to give it some credence.

But to answer the “what is macro nutrition” question without providing a theory of ‘why it works’ would be a disservice. So let’s look at a couple of most likely reasons why it contributes to getting in great shape.  

1. Optimizes hormone levels: By eating a more balanced ratio of macro nutrients, insulin levels are kept lower. This effect is due to the lower carbohydrate intake of only 40% of daily calories. It can result in reduced hunger, better insulin sensitivity, and less proneness to store body fat.

However, whether this effect is ‘real’ is not without its controversy. After all, the ‘calories in/calories out’ crowd claims a calorie-strict twinky diet will “work” just as well. I’d bet against that… if only from a ‘health’ standpoint.

2. Protein burns Calories: Many people will lose fat just by raising their protein intake while reducing their consumption of dietary fat. In the example of the first meal described above, the dietary fat was at nearly 60% of calories. When that pattern is followed for the entire day, every day, it typically results in long-term gains of substantial body fat.

Part of the reason for this is the relative calorie-burning effect of digesting each of the respective macro nutrients. The body only burns 2.5 to 3 calories in digesting any 100 calories of dietary fat. In contrast, it burns 20 to 30 calories in digesting and processing any 100 calories of protein. Thus, increased protein consumption with decreased fat consumption turns the body into more of a calorie burning machine. When this effect is combined with the lower insulin levels of reduced carb intake, the synergistically produced result is usually a drop in body fat.

So, ‘what is macro nutrition?’

It’s paying attention to the content of the calories we eat rather than simply the calories themselves. And “yes”… it can help you get into better shape with a lot less deprivation and hunger.