How long should you rest between sets to maximize growth and strength? It’s one of the most important workout questions, but one that too many trainers never consider. They go by feel. When they feel recovered from a set they move on to the next one. But is this the best practice? What does science say about between-set rest? We investigated.
STRESS VS. VOLUME
One key factor in muscle growth is metabolic stress. This is the burning feeling you get in your muscles, especially when you perform techniques like supersets or drop sets. Another key factor is workout volume: the number of sets, reps, and the amount of weight used. Because you experience more stress with less between-set rest but you can get more reps or use more weight with longer rest, the interset rest question comes down to stress versus volume. Which wins?
One study randomly assigned young, resistance-trained men into two groups. One group performed weight-lifting exercises for 8-12 reps per set with three minutes rest between sets. The other group did the exact routine with one-minute of rest between sets. All other variables were identical between the groups. After eight weeks, those who rested three minutes were significantly stronger (tested in the squat and bench press) and muscle growth was also significantly greater (measured in the thigh and triceps). The authors concluded: “The issue appears to be that very short rest periods reduce the amount of weight that can be used on the subsequent set.” Those who rested three minutes did more work than those who rested one minute because they were able to get more reps or use more weight with the longer rest.
So, volume and, therefore, longer rest periods win.
Another study parsed the results even finer, looking at the difference of one, two, three, and five minutes rest between sets on barbell bench presses and mechanical flyes. This study concluded: “For different exercise modes (single- and multijoint), the main difference in repetition performance became evident around the 2-minute mark.” Three to five minutes rest was best for the compound movement (bench press) but two minutes was sufficient for the isolation exercise (machine flye).
5️⃣ No study has found a downside to long interset rest, and longer is better for strength. You may want to rest for five minutes between your heaviest sets of compound exercises like the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
3️⃣ Otherwise, rest three minutes between sets for those and similar compound exercises, like the overhead press, barbell row, and leg press.
2️⃣ Two minutes of interset rest should be sufficient for isolation exercises, like dumbbell curls, triceps pushdowns, and side laterals.
1️⃣ Rest one minute or less to increase metabolic stress as when doing supersets or circuits. It’s best to do this with only isolation exercises, as when supersetting pushdowns with cable curls or preforming abdominal circuits of vertical leg raises, incline curl-ups, roll-outs, and bicycle crunches.
U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen