Rest periods are not a “one-size fits all” answer.
As a trainer, I tell my clients that you need to determine how long your rest periods need to be between sets based on the initial goal of the movement, training session, and program.
When training for strength, rest periods are typically 3-5 minutes long to allow adequate recovery between sets. Training for muscle hypertrophy (1-3 minutes) and muscle endurance (30-90 seconds) typically have shorter rest periods, however not too short that they cannot complete the necessary reps per set.
In this article, I will discuss why rest periods are important and break down the science behind various rest periods length based on the goal (strength, muscle growth, muscle endurance, and fat loss).
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Why Is It Important To Rest Between Sets?
When training, rest periods are important because they allow for your body (and mind) to recover between sets.
Without taking a rest period (the exact durations can vary based on your goals), you are just accumulating fatigue without a clear goal or understanding of how the energy systems of the body works.
Below, we will discuss the main energy systems of the body, and how they relate to specific goals and rest period needs.
It is important to note that all energy systems are active at the same time, however, certain types of goals (strength vs muscle hypertrophy vs endurance) rely more heavily on (and prefer) using one system over another.
ATP-PC System (Power, Strength, and Hypertrophy)
This system is typically used for short, intense bouts of activity lasting less than 10 seconds.
This system tends to be the first line of energy when training hard and depletes itself very rapidly (the body can deplete itself in a few minutes).
While it depletes itself rapidly, it is also the most optimal form of energy for power and strength movements.
Lactic Acid System (Hypertrophy and Endurance)
The lactic acid system, also called the anaerobic system, produces energy from muscle glycogen (energy stored within the muscle cells).
This system is used during harder exercises, especially when the body does not have enough oxygen to support the aerobic system.
Unlike the aerobic system, which can (for the most part) operate indefinitely, the lactic acid system has a finite amount of energy and can be depleted.
When training for muscular hypertrophy and muscle endurance, this is why carbohydrates (glucose) are key, as that turns into fuel that can be stored in the muscles for harder intensity training.
Replenishing the muscles (allowing them to refuel and recover between workouts) is essential and can take much longer than the ATP-PC system (which is why proper nutrition and carbohydrate intake are key).
The aerobic system uses primarily fat as a fuel and is most active during long periods of exercises done at lower intensity exercise (and throughout daily life).
At higher intensities, the body shifts its energy needs to the lactic acid system and ATP-PC systems, as oxygen is less present in the body and therefore the needs shift more to anaerobic (without oxygen) systems.
How Long Should Your Rest Periods Be?
Ideal Rest Period When Training For Strength
When looking to optimize strength, rest periods of 3-5 minutes should be taken.
Research has shown that 3-minute rest periods were optimal for both building strength and muscle mass more than resting 1 minute.
In another study, they looked at the performance differences between those who rested 90 seconds vs 2 minutes, and found no difference, which could also support the need for longer rest periods (3 minutes or more) for the development of strength.
A third study found that muscle hypertrophy, strength, and basal hormone levels were similar in groups who rested 2 minutes vs 5 minutes.
They also found that potentially taking 2 minutes of rest could be the shortest amount of rest taken between sets without performance decreases, however, bumping it up to 3 minutes could offer you better results if your primary goal was strength.
Related Article: Hypertrophy vs Strength Training: Main Differences You Should Be Aware Of
Ideal Rest Period When Training For Hypertrophy
When looking to build muscle mass, rest periods of 1-3 minutes between sets seem to be an optimal rest period range.
This is a wide range, and can vary depending on the movement you are doing and how challenging the rep ranges are.
For heavier, compound exercises trained in the 5-10 rep range, you may want to take that full rest period, however, if doing moderate or higher rep (10-20) hypertrophy training or isolated exercises, you could rest as little as 1 minute between sets.
Research shows that when resting for 1 minute only, the total number of reps completed in a set was significantly lower than those who took longer rest periods.
This would decrease your overall training volume, which could potentially limit your ability to maximize muscle growth.
On the other hand, rest periods of 1 minute did have a greater effect on growth hormone, an anabolic (muscle-building) hormone the body produces in response to exercise.
It is for this reason that a 1-3 minute rest period can be used and justified based on the movement, loading, and rep range goal.
Lastly, researchers concluded that resting less than 1 minute between sets results in decreased performance and muscle growth than groups who rested 3-5 minutes between sets. These findings further support the recommendation that you should take no less than 1 minute of rest between sets.
Ideal Rest Period When Training For Muscular Endurance
When training for muscle endurance, your rest periods should be between 30-90 seconds.
Furthermore, researchers suggest that less-trained individuals may want to start towards the higher end of that range to improve their ability to recover, whereas more-trained individuals should take shorter rest periods to maximize results.
Researchers found that 30-90 seconds rest periods offered many of the same benefits for muscle hypertrophy (release of growth hormone), with added abilities to promote high amounts of fatigue within the muscle fiber, forcing the muscle to become better at buffering out fatigue to allow for continued use of the muscle tissue.
Researchers also found that one of the best ways to improve muscle endurance was to increase maximal strength.
Interestingly enough, they concluded that increasing your strength (training heavier loads and taking 2-5 minute rest periods) had a greater effect on improving muscle endurance with lighter loads than training with lighter loads!
The takeaway here is that if you want to train muscle endurance, you should still devote some training to also improving your max strength.
Ideal Rest Period When Doing HIIT
Research indicates that the ideal rest periods for HIIT are based on a work-to-rest ratio, rather than a standard time amount. Typically, work-to-rest periods should be between 2:1 and 1:1.
For example, if you perform 2 minutes of an exercise or activity, a rest period of 1 minute (2:1 work to rest ratio) or 2 minutes (1:1 work to rest ratio) is acceptable. This can vary based on the absolute intensity of the work done and the level of the individual.
Some research has found that a 2:1 ratio was better at fat loss than 1:1, however, both rest intervals resulted in significant amounts of fat loss compared to those who did not perform any exercise.
Ideal Rest Period When Trying To Lose Weight
It is important to remember that to lose weight, you must understand the mechanism behind weight loss.
Exercise can help you increase energy expenditure to place yourself in a greater energy deficit, but you still need to eat fewer calories than you burn to lose weight.
As such, your rest periods won’t have a significant impact on your weight loss goals if you’re not in a caloric deficit.
Instead, the ideal rest period for weight loss should vary based on the other goals above.
That said, if you are not concerned with losing strength or muscle during a weight loss phase, you want to focus on resting anywhere between 30-90 seconds in that session.
Shorter rest intervals (30 seconds) can help to increase caloric expenditure from exercise, improve muscle endurance, and help improve cardiovascular fitness.
Short rest periods however will have a negative impact on your ability to build muscle mass (train hard and in high volumes) and strength development.
Resting 60-90 seconds between exercises will allow for slightly more recovery, which can help lifters perform more intense bouts of exercise (closer to their maximum).
This is key if you are looking to improve muscle hypertrophy and want to prioritize maintaining or gaining muscle during your weight loss phase.
If you are looking to lose weight yet are trying to maintain or gain strength, you should still be resting 3-5 minutes between sets, as this will allow you an adequate rest period to not allow decreases in strength.
Related Article: How Long Does It Take to Lose Fat and Get RIPPED?
Do Men Need Longer Rest Periods Than Women?
Contrary to what some may find on the internet, research has not shown that women need longer rest periods than men (when comparatively relative loading and force outputs are used).
Rather, rest needs are more influenced by muscle mass and force output (instead of a blanket statement such as “men need longer rest periods than women.”).
Generally speaking, men do tend to be able to carry more muscle mass and strength potential than women due to body size differences and hormones, which would then lead some individuals to claim men need more rest than women, however, this is not universally true.
The reality is that the amount of rest period is not a man vs woman discussion, but rather one based on experience level and muscular development.
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What To Do During Your Rest Periods
The purpose of a rest period is to recover for your next work bout. This typically means you can do whatever you want (sit or stand), as long as it does not increase your mental and physical fatigue.
I generally tell my clients and athletes that they can do whatever they want on their rest period unless it (1) adds mental or physical fatigue, (2) is distracting and detracts from other people’s workouts, or (3) takes up more time than the rest period allows for.
Whatever you do, pay attention to your rest periods. Too often people end up taking too long of rest because they are not intentional about their rest periods and paying attention to the rest timer.
Related Article: How Long Should Your Workouts REALLY Be?
Frequently Asked Questions
Is 3 Minutes Too Long To Rest Between Sets?
No, research suggests that 3 minutes may be the optimal time to rest if your goals are strength, power, or muscle hypertrophy.
If you are looking to develop muscle endurance then 3 minutes may be slightly too long. The only exception would be if you are training longer for work sets,such as 3 minutes of hard intensity effort followed by 3 minutes of rest (1:1 work to rest ratio).
Is a 2 Minute Rest Between Sets Too Long?
2 minute result periods are ideal for muscle hypertrophy and potentially the development of muscle endurance, however if you are looking for more strength and power adaptations, you may want to rest longer.
Is 90 Seconds Rest Between Sets Enough?
If your goal is muscle endurance and/or muscle hypertrophy, 90 seconds may be an acceptable amount of time to rest between sets.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.