Rest Between Sets: How Much Do You Need?
There are many variables you can adjust in a given workout, and even for each exercise in that workout. This is plainly evident to anyone just starting out with a structured workout program for the first time. Many beginners start an exercise program only to realize they don’t know how many reps to do, how many sets, how long each rep should be, how long they should pause between reps, what weight to use, and so forth. It can be a bit complicated.
Happily, we have science to guide us. One variable we need science to weigh in on is how long we should rest in between sets. And in a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers did just that.
Now don’t get me wrong - it’s not like rest periods haven’t been studied before. In fact, they have been studied quite a bit. And besides legit science, there’s a lot of bro science about how long to rest between sets too. So it might seem a bit redundant to have more of the same, but this study is different. Most studies on the topic use a rep range from around eight to fifteen reps when looking at how long to rest. This is what we might consider a size-building protocol. This study, however, used fewer repetitions.
The reason for using fewer repetitions is based on general recommendations for building strength. While the preponderance of literature points us in the right direction for muscle building, it doesn’t tell us what to do for strength building. Since strength building protocols tend to use sets of five reps or less, the researchers wanted to know how rest intervals would affect the expression of strength over the course of the workout.
The plan was simple. The researchers studied intermediate weight lifters, to ensure the results of the study weren’t mucked up by beginner’s gains (what make us get a lot stronger when we first start lifting), and figured out their three repetition max (3RM) on the bench press exercise. Then, the lifters did five sets using the weight of their 3RM and were instructed to do as many reps as they could for each of those five sets. Each lifter rested for either one, two, three, or five minutes during each workout. After a few rest days, they came back and did it again with a different rest period until they’d tried all the rest periods.
The researchers found that the one minute rest period had a significant drop off in reps as each set went on. All the other rest periods substantially outperformed a one-minute rest. The two-minute rest also had a significant drop off in the final set, making the three-minute and-five minute rests the best. Although only the five-minute rest didn’t correlate with a significant difference between the first rep and last rep, the three-minute rest was hot on its heels. Furthermore, the researchers measured how hard the sets seemed to the participants, and for three minute or longer rests, the sets seemed much easier.
Although this study would have been better with more participants, its results are still pretty clear. Longer rest gives you more reps, with three to five minutes being the most consistent for performance.
1. Estevão Scudese, et. al., “The Effect of Rest Interval Length on Repetition Consistency and Perceived Exertion During Near Maximal Loaded Bench Press Sets,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning, DOI: 10.1097/JSC.0000000000000214
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.