As UK gyms re-open again from the end of the month, all eyes (in the weights room at least) will be on one thing: gaining muscle. And as with most things fitness related, marginal gains are everything.
From tracking the exact time to give your body a protein hit after a workout to eating carbs half an hour before bed and planning intricate weekly workout splits months in advance; if you’re serious about your resistance training you’re probably going to be interested in everything around that simple act of lifting the weight.
Which is where the concept of rest comes in, and more specifically, your rest between sets. Some swear by short rest periods, jumping back onto the squat rack after mere seconds to keep their heart rate up. Others prefer to take their time, believing that too short a rest time will lead to lower training volumes.
So then, how much rest is actually best? Well, it’s a simple question with a complex answer. But by delving into some of the studies investigating this subject, we’ve come up with some useful guidelines.
How Much Rest Should You Take Between Sets?
A team including internationally-renowned fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld carried out a systematic review on this very question. For the uninitiated, a systematic review looks at all the studies on a particular question that meet some criteria.
In this case, they looked at all published studies longer than four weeks that measured muscle mass and compared rest intervals of less than 60 seconds to rest intervals greater than 60 seconds where subjects were healthy and injury-free. From an initial cohort of over 1,000 studies, the criteria narrowed it down to just six.
So what did they find? At a very high level, it looks like longer rest periods, i.e. more than 60 seconds between sets, seem to favour hypertrophy (muscle growth) when compared to rest periods shorter than 60 seconds. Why? It’s simple really, more rest enables a higher total volume.
Digging deeper, results are more nuanced when you look at trained and untrained people. Trained people (those with a decent amount of strength training under their belts) are almost certain to benefit from longer rest periods. Untrained people (gym newbies) seem to make good progress regardless of their rest period. Perhaps not surprising when you consider the concept of ‘newbie gains’.
The final piece of the puzzle to understand is intensity. Working to failure, the research favours longer rest periods simply so you can recover and lift heavy again in the next set, keeping your total volume high. The logic being if you’re not working to maximum intensity or failure, shorter rest periods are sufficient.
How To Implement This Knowledge In Your Training
- If you’re relatively new, don’t worry too much. Rest as you need, lift and gain experience.
- If you’re well trained, lift to failure and use longer rest periods of around 2-3 minutes.
A final note on structuring your workouts, the researchers suggest, “the best approach to a hypertrophy-based resistance training session may be to focus on training volume by performing complex, multi-joint exercises and incorporating longer inter-set rest intervals in the first part of the training session.
“Then shift the focus to inducing a greater metabolic stress by performing isolation exercises and incorporating shorter inter-set rest intervals towards the end of the training session.”
Happy resting (and lifting)!
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