One of the most commonly debated questions between gym-goers is “what is the best amount of time to rest between sets?” You’ll often hear powerlifters saying that it takes 2-5 minutes to fully recover from a set, while bodybuilders will argue that anything over 1-2 minutes is just wasting time. Endurance athletes and those chasing extreme fat loss goals may argue for as little as 15-30 seconds of rest! With all of these conflicting ideas, it can be extremely difficult to decipher between fact and fiction. This article is here to help you sort through the broscience and figure out the best rest time for you!
So who’s right? Truthfully, all of them are right! There is no real optimal rest time for overall fitness. However, there is definitely an optimal rest time for each person depending on their current goals. Check below for more information on the optimal rest time to help you reach your goals!
When training for strength or power, the goal should be to recover as much as possible in order to lift the heaviest weight possible for your prescribed amount of reps with proper form. The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends resting 2-5 minutes between sets in order to maximize the intensity of each set (1).
Muscular overload is essential in order for muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) to occur (2). Thus, when training for hypertrophy, the primary goal should be to overload the muscle. Muscular overload is reached by placing a stress on the muscle greater than what it typically handles. This “stress” can come from more reps or more weight than your muscle is accustomed to. Less rest between sets can also make the exercise more difficult, further overloading the muscle. However, taking an extremely short rest will likely force you to use a weight that is far too light to cause any overload. For these reasons, the NSCA recommends taking a 30-90 second rest between each set (1). These shorter rest periods also ensure an increased response from the endocrine system, increasing testosterone and growth hormone levels significantly more than exercise with 2.5 minute rest periods has been shown to (3). It should be noted, however, that while circulating hormone levels were significantly different between groups resting 1 minute and 2.5 minutes respectively, no significant difference existed after 10 weeks of training. This is likely due to muscular adaptation.
Muscular endurance is defined as the ability to maintain submaximal muscle actions (4). Essentially, it is the muscle’s ability to work under submaximal loads for a prolonged amount of time. Because the loads are submaximal, not a lot of rest time is required for your muscle to recover. This does not mean that endurance exercise is not physically and mentally taxing, however, your muscles will recover from it quickly. As such, the NSCA typically recommends 30 seconds of rest between each set (1). Exercises can also be performed in a circuit fashion, moving from one exercise to the next until you have reached the end of the circuit, allowing for some cardiovascular endurance training to be done simultaneously. Circuit training is not optimal for strength training because of the decreased recovery it allows, however it is a great option here due to the low recovery demands of endurance training.
Determining the optimal rest time for fat loss is a bit convoluted, as fat loss occurs through a multitude of processes. It is true that fat loss occurs as a result of consuming fewer calories than are burned, however, exercise can greatly help this. Hypertrophy should be a primary training goal of those looking to lose fat, as increased muscle mass will result in an increased basal metabolic rate (BMR) (5). Even if you are unable to gain significant amounts of muscle due to caloric restriction, hypertrophy training will help you to maintain your current levels of muscle, preventing a huge drop in your metabolism from occurring. Resistance training also boosts post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), further increasing the amount of calories burned. Cardiovascular and muscular endurance exercise may also be beneficial due to the immediate calories burned while they are being performed. For this reason, supersets may be extremely beneficial for fat loss. Essentially this means performing two or more exercises without rest in between, allowing you to keep up your heart rate and burn more calories. It is best to superset movements that work two different muscle groups in order to allow maximal muscular recovery. For example, if you performed a set of push-ups immediately after a set of bench press, your chest would give out almost immediately and you would not be able to do many push-ups. However, if you did a set of rows after a set of bench press, the limited rest would have little impact on your performance because there would be little to no muscular fatigue. This allows you to maintain your increased heart rate without sacrificing muscle gains. At the end of each superset, rest 30-90 seconds (the usual hypertrophy rest period) before repeating the superset. This will allow just enough time for your muscles to recover while keeping up your heart rate and burning extra calories. Supersetting is also great for strict hypertrophy or endurance training if you simply are looking to optimize the time you spend in the gym! If you have not done supersets before, you are missing out on some phenomenal benefits.
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