Lifters often associate a good workout with lots of sweat and muscle soreness, so sitting around “resting” seems counter-productive.
This idea about resting leads to shorter rest intervals and, sometimes, no rest at all—and thus drop sets and supersets were born.
Building muscle and power involves heavy lifting. When you lift heavy weights, you push your muscles to the absolute limit. Before your muscles can be pushed to that same limit again, they need sufficient recovery time.
Regardless if you’re doing high-intensity or high-volume workouts, adequate rest is vital to gaining muscle and strength!
If you want to make massive gains and crush your PRs, you’ll need to start resting the optimal amount between your sets.
How Rest Intervals Affect Your Gains
Now, some will make this an argument of opinion. But you don’t need to make this a guessing game—research has proven the optimal rest times!
Researchers at the Federal University of Parana1 found lifters were able to perform more repetitions of the bench press when given a 2-minute rest interval. As they decreased the rest periods by 15-second increments, the amount of repetitions also decreased.
By the end of this research study, those who continued with 2-minute rest interval training had significantly greater gains on their bench press and squats.
Remember, you’re trying to gain more muscle and strength, and this requires more workout volume. You achieve this total workout volume by completing more repetitions of greater amounts of weight.
Another study by researchers at State University of Rio de Janeiro2 found “resting 3-5 minutes between sets produced greater increases in absolute strength” when compared with 1-minute rest intervals.
You can see now that longer rest intervals are crucial to building your muscles and increasing your strength.
But how long exactly should you be resting between sets?
How Long Should Your Rest Intervals Be?
If longer rest periods mean greater muscle growth, then why not wait 8-10 minutes between sets? Or 10-15 minutes?
What is the optimal rest time to maximize muscle growth without wasting time or losing the “rest” benefits?
Easter Illinois University conducted a study3 and found lifters made large squat strength gains with 2-minute rest intervals. But those who trained with 4-minute rest intervals experienced “little additional gains.”
The team performed another study4 and found lifters significantly increased their bench press repetitions with a 3-minute rest interval when compared to a 2-minute rest interval.
From the research, 3-minute intervals result in the greatest increase in repetitions of heavy volume, leading to greater muscle strength.
No, you don’t need to watch the clock like a hawk and make sure you start benching again after exactly 180 seconds. But now you can see at least 2 minutes of rest is necessary for significant gains and 4 minutes or more of rest will have only a small benefit.
Therefore, a good rule of thumb will be to rest 2.5 to 3.5 minutes between each set.
Sticking to Your Schedule at the Gym
Knowing your optimal rest intervals is just the first step. Now you’re going to need to find a way to stick to your schedule.
Here are some tips to help you stick to your rest intervals:
1. Use an interval timer: As soon as you finish your set, start the timer. Set an alarm to go off at the end of the timer. Don’t use a stopwatch. You can lose track of time and forget to check how much time has passed. You don’t need anything fancy—your phone should have a timer already installed.
2. Stay focused: It’s easy to look around the gym and see other lifters performing super-sets and feel like you’re not doing enough. You might even be embarrassed to sit still for 3 minutes. Don’t give in to peer pressure! You know resting the optimal amount will maximize your gains. Stick to your rest times and don’t cut yourself short just to impress others.
3. Keep a record: You’ll be more likely to stick to this new schedule when you see the gains you’re making. Write down your volume and repetitions each week to see how much your strength increases.
From My Own Experience
I once was victim to the work more, rest less mantra. I’d lift constantly throughout my entire 60-minute workout, only resting to put new weight on the bar or to take a sip of water.
After months of hard work, I had little to show for it. I’d increased very little on all of my lifts, and I was getting increasingly discouraged.
I was burning fat, but that was because my workouts resembled a high-intensity cardio workout rather than a muscle-building weight lifting workout.
When I switched to heavy weight lifting with longer rest intervals, I began to see gains immediately. In less than 10 months, I increased my deadlift and squat by over 100 lbs.
I decreased my workout to only 45 minutes and still continued to increase my lifts. The pressure occasionally gets to me, and I find myself jumping into the next set before my timer has gone off. Despite my increased effort, I’m not able to perform as many repetitions and my strength doesn’t increase as quickly.
Thus, I try to always stick to at least 2-3-minute rest intervals.
This is a perfect example of working smarter, not harder.
Find Your Optimal Rest Interval
If my own personal experience and the scientific studies don’t convince you, then it’s time for you to perform the experiment yourself.
This will take some time, but if you’re serious about lifting and need to find a solid answer, you’ll find this worth your effort.
- Do heavy lifting with 1-minute rest intervals for 4 weeks. Record your lifting weight and repetitions throughout the 4-week experiment.
- After the initial 4-week period, start doing heavy lifting with 2-minute rest intervals for 4 weeks. Continue recording your lifting weight and repetitions.
- Increase your rest intervals to 3-minutes for 4 weeks and measure your progress.
Once you’ve completed the experiment, determine during which month you experienced the most strength gains.
Now that you’ve found your optimal rest interval, you’ll see a greater increase in your lifting volume and strength. Overtime, you might be tempted to decrease your rest time, but don’t go below 2 minutes.
You’ll still experience plateaus and have challenging days—optimal rest intervals don’t make you immortal! With adequate rest, you’ll have the diligence and strength to crush your PRs and keep progressing.
This optimal rest interval research applies to increasing strength through heavy weight lifting. It should be noted, however, that rest intervals do not need to be as long when performing higher repetitions with lower loads.
If you’re lifting anywhere between 8-12 reps, then you will only need to rest 60-90 seconds—but you’ll still need to rest!
Ditch the bro-science and try this logical approach to muscle building. Failure to rest sufficiently will leave you at the same strength levels week after week, and that’s not worth your time, sweat, or pain.
With 3-minute rest intervals, you might not be the life of the gym anymore, but you’ll accelerate your muscle growth faster than ever before.
- Strength and hypertrophy responses to constant and decreasing rest intervals in trained men using creatine supplementation.
- Rest interval between sets in strength training.
- The effect of different rest intervals between sets on volume components and strength gains.
- The effect of rest interval length on bench press performance with heavy vs. light loads.