Learn about optimal rest times to increase your gains in the gym. This fool proof 3-2-1 method may be the key to your muscle building success. Check it out!

Rest periods are a critical but often overlooked component of a weight training workout.

Ask the average bro how many sets or reps he is going to do and you’ll get a surefire answer.

Ask him how long he rests between his sets and you’ll get a blank stare.

Rest periods may not seem like a big deal, but they make a difference in the effectiveness of your training.

It's not just the bros who sit around texting and talking between sets hurting their progress, the ones who are rushing from one set to the next without resting are too.

Weight training isn't meant to be cardio. Weight training is about building muscle and getting stronger.

You shouldn't simply sit around between your sets, but you also shouldn't try to turn every workout into a full on circuit either.

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Striking a Balance

To get the best results out of your workouts you must strike a balance between resting long enough to regain strength from one set to the next without resting too long that the hormonal effect from your workout becomes completely non existent.

It was once thought that maximally stimulating growth hormone production was the only factor in promoting muscle hypertrophy. Thus, the recommendations became to rest very little (30-60 seconds between sets) to promote maximal GH production.

Related: The Optimized Volume Workout (O.V.W) Program

However, it turns out growth hormone production is only a piece of the puzzle and probably not even the most important.

The three main factors involved with muscle growth are mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscular damage. Between those factors, mechanical tension is the most important and what will be responsible for the majority of muscle growth.

You must be consistently progressing over time if you want muscle growth to occur. The best way to do that is with compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and rows, all of which allow you to lift the most weight and train at a very high intensity.

The problem created by keeping rest periods to a minimum between sets is it makes it almost impossible to lift heavy enough to get stronger.

M&S Athlete performing a compound lift that will require a rest period

Sure, you can get a pump, feel the burn, get your heart rate up, and sweat all you want, but if you're not lifting heavy enough or adding weight and/or reps over time you will never build the muscle you want.

With that said, metabolic stress is still an important variable. Metabolic stress is essentially "pump training" and where stimulating growth hormone comes into play.

The best way to perform this type of training of course is with "higher" reps and secondary isolation exercises such as flies, curls, lateral raises, leg extensions, and leg curls. This is where shorter rest periods are beneficial in accumulating fatigue within the muscle and stimulating growth hormone production.

The final factor, muscular damage, is simply training to damage and break down your muscle fibers to the point where they have to be rebuilt. If you're taking care of the first two factors by training heavy enough and training with enough volume, you’ll most certainly be causing plenty of muscle damage.

While there are ways you can train specifically for more muscular damage by doing things like using slow eccentrics or performing heavy negatives, doing so may not be as effective as simply increasing muscular damage by adding more weight volume.

Putting It All Together

So now that we know the factors, let's talk about how can you use them to ensure optimal rest periods in your workouts. It's really as easy as 1-2-3, or 3-2-1 to be exact.

You see, since mechanical tension is most important, your workouts should always begin with big compound lifts focusing on heavy weights, getting stronger, and stimulating maximal testosterone production.

You should take a full 3 (sometimes even up to 5) minute rest periods between those exercises to ensure you can lift as heavy as possible without suffering from any sort of residual fatigue between those sets.

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After completing your big compound exercise(s) for the major muscle groups, you can move onto slightly less taxing exercises to get in additional volume and do some "pump" training for those larger muscle groups to satisfy the metabolic stress component of muscle growth.

Rep counts will fall somewhere in the 8-12 rep range and you want to make sure you break down and fatigue the muscle fibers by creating some residual fatigue from one set to the next. Do this through the use of restricted rest periods. Two minute rest periods here should be perfectly sufficient.

Related: Fast Mass Program: The 4 Day Superset Split Workout

Now it's time to move on to the fun stuff. Isolation exercises are perfect for obtaining more volume for smaller muscle groups and creating more metabolic stress and muscle damage. High reps, 10-15 per set, and short rest periods of about a minute are great for this.

Splitting Things Up

Depending on your training split and schedule you may need to train multiple muscle groups in one session. If that’s the case, it's optimal to do all of your primary compound movements first in the session. If you're doing a full body split you may have squats, bench press, and bent over rows all planned for a single training session.

You’ll want to train all of those exercises first before moving on to any secondary work for those muscle groups.

Female M&S Athlete resting in between sets and grabbing new dumbbells

Once you get through whatever compound movements you have planned for the training day you can go on to your secondary exercises and complete all of them for each muscle group you are training before you finally move onto your isolation exercises to finish your workout off.

Below is a sample training plan using the 3-2-1 rest protocol.

Day 1 - Lower Body
Exercise Sets Reps Rest
1. Squat 4 6-8 3 mins
2. Alternating Lunge 3 8-10 2 mins
3. Lying Leg Curl 3 10-12 1 min
4. Seated Calf Raise 3 10-12 1 min
5. Crunches 3 10-12 1 min
Day 2 - Upper Body
Exercise Sets Reps Rest
1. Bench Press 4 6-8 3 mins
2. Barbell Row 4 6-8 3 mins
3. Incine Dumbbell Press 3 8-10 2 mins
4. Lat Pulldown 3 8-10 2 mins
5. Lateral Raise 3 10-12 1 min
6. Barbell Curls 3 10-12 1 min
7. Tricep Pushdown 3 10-12 1 min
Day 3 - Lower Body
Exercise Sets Reps Rest
1. Deadlift 4 6-8 3 mins
2. Leg Press 3 8-10 2 mins
3. Leg Extension 3 10-12 1 min
4. Standing Calf Raise 3 10-12 1 min
5. Reverse Crunch 3 10-12 1 min
Day 4 - Upper Body
Exercise Sets Reps Rest
1. Overhead Press 4 6-8 3 mins
2. Pullup 4 6-8 3 mins
3. Dip 3 8-10 2 mins
4. Seated Row 3 8-10 2 mins
5. Dumbbell Fly 3 10-12 1 min
6. Alternating Dumbbell Curls 3 10-12 1 min
7. Lying Tricep Extension 3 10-12 1 min
Smarter Than Your Average Bro

If you want to seriously get stronger and build more muscle you need to start tracking and taking control of your rest periods.

Make sure you're resting an optimal amount of time between sets to achieve the goals you want to achieve.

Doing so is as easy as 3-2-1.

  1. Kraemer, WILLIAM J., and Nicholas A. Ratamess. "Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription." Medicine and science in sports and exercise 36.4 (2004): 674-688.
  2. Ahtiainen, Juha P., et al. "Short vs. long rest period between the sets in hypertrophic resistance training: influence on muscle strength, size, and hormonal adaptations in trained men." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 19.3 (2005): 572-582.
Posted on: Tue, 12/31/2019 - 04:42

The article (based on the references) is based on assumptions. You are referencing to a study conducted by Ahtianien et al.; however, the study itself actually concludes the following:

"The present study indicated that, within typical hypertrophic strength-training protocols used in the present study, the length of the recovery times between the sets (2 vs. 5 minutes) did not have an influence on the magnitude of acute hormonal and neuromuscular responses or long-term training adaptations in muscle strength and mass in previously strength-trained men."

One should read the studies before using them as reference to something they state. Did you?

Posted on: Sun, 03/05/2017 - 13:21

Great article and good workout split. That would work well for Mon-Upper Body, Tues-Lower Body, Wed-Rest, Thurs-Upper Body, Fri- Lower Body, Sat-Sun Active Rest / Cardio.

Dylan Willett
Posted on: Mon, 03/06/2017 - 17:36

That would be a great split Chris and would allow for great frequency and recovery!

Amit Sethi
Posted on: Sun, 03/05/2017 - 12:37

Thanks for workout plan. Just to make sure i understood clearly:- exercise where you have suggested 4 reps and 3 mins of break. You want us to lift heavy and gradually reduce the weight as indicated rest time is also reducing.

Dylan Willett
Posted on: Mon, 03/06/2017 - 17:35

Amit, you should lift as heavy as you can for each exercise while staying in the desired rep range. So for the exercises suggesting 4 sets and 3 minutes rest between sets you want to use a weight that allows you to get at least 6 reps but no more than. When you can perform 8 reps on all sets, you would want to increase the weight the next time you perform that exercise.

Ed Kennedy
Posted on: Tue, 02/28/2017 - 21:17

Great article! I would only add that you should also listen to what your body is telling you.