Time to Change How You Recover Between Sets

How much rest between sets? It’s a question every gym goer has probably asked at one point or another. A new study sheds light on a different question: what kind of rest between sets?

When it comes to exercise recovery, most of the glory goes to post-workout recovery. However, recovery in between bouts of exercise within a given workout can make or break a performance. For example, if a fighter doesn’t get the most efficient recovery in between rounds, that can mean lights out. In a recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers looked at what methods of recovery between sets were the most effective.

In this study, the researchers were particularly interested in the diverting method of recovery. Adding a diverting task to the recovery method is intended to activate the central nervous system in a new way. This diversion is thought to prevent inhibition of the muscles being exercised. As a result, the diverting task should help you to maintain performance over time.

In this study, the researchers used four different kinds of recovery methods in between sets of leg extensions:

  • Passive: This is the most common kind of recovery used. Passive recovery is when the muscle being exercised rests completely in between sets.
  • Active: A less common recovery method that you’ll still sometimes see in the gym is when an unloaded or light lift is done in between sets that works the same muscles. The idea behind active recovery is to keep the blood flowing to the muscles that need it. In this case, the participants did unloaded leg extensions.
  • Passive Diverting: The participants squeezed a sponge eighty times over the two-minute rest period to activate the nervous system in a manner that was unrelated to the exercise.
  • Active Diverting: The participants squeezed the sponge and did the unloaded leg extensions.

Over the course of several weeks, each participant tried each of these recovery methods to see which would work the best. They did two sets of fifty leg extensions, each with maximal torque. In between the two sets, they had two minutes to test one of the recovery methods.

The research team discovered that, indeed, peak torque declined faster from the first set to the second set when the participants used only passive recovery. This means what people usually do in the gym in between sets isn’t the best option.

Each of the other three methods of recovery was roughly the same, with about a 32-33% reduced torque on the second set. Compare that decrease to the 35% reduced torque that occurred with the passive recovery. It’s not a huge difference, but upwards of three percent might make a difference between first and last place. Over time, it adds up.

There’s even more to consider here. Each set during this test involved fifty maximal efforts, which is no small task, and hardly a typical set. With only two minutes to recover from a long and brutal set, and only two sets total, it’s not like these recovery protocols had a lot of time to shine.

I’d be curious to see what happens in a more typical setting with less severe sets and more of them. If the rest periods were a more significant part of the workout than they were in this study, perhaps the different methods of rest would become more delineated. Or perhaps not. Until more research comes we won’t know for sure, but in the meantime, try out some of these methods yourself and see what you think.


1. Kristen Cochrane, et. al., “Effects of Diverting Activity on Strength, Electromyographic, and Mechanomyographic Signals,Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000378.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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