November 09, 2020 10 min read
We work hard and then we play hard, but do we always get enough rest to make up for it?
Rest allows for your body to recuperate and it doesn’t just happen. It’s an entire process that ranges from the moment you set down the barbell, to the next time you pick it up again—whether that happens in 20 seconds or 2 days.
And as with most things, there are good and bad ways to go about resting. Depending on your fitness goals, you’ll be either wanting to wait for shorter or longer periods of time between sets. We’ll look at that below—and more—helping you not leave any gains on the table (or the pillow).
There are several different mechanics within our bodies that help us power through workouts and other exerting activities. Different aspects come into play over the short term, long term, and extended long-term—but the key fact to remember is that everyone needs rest.
To maximize muscle growth and strength gains, it’s important to line up your rest times with your intended goals. First, let’s take a look under the hood.
The phosphagen system is your short-term, heavy exertion fuel. It comes from the Adenosine Triphosphate Phosphocreatine system (ATP-PC for short), and it uses these phosphagens to create necessary energy very quickly without using any oxygen.
This can be thought of as the “burst” energy, so your body doesn’t have a lot of it in its stores—about 15 seconds worth. Replenishment of phosphagens takes around 3 minutes, but this depends on the individual.
But what happens once your ATP is depleted? Then your body switches over to the glycolysis system.
This energy system uses stored glucose from the carbs that you eat in order to power the body. It usually kicks in after 30 seconds of exertion and lasts to about 2 minutes. There’s around 300 to 300 to 400 grams of glycogen in your total muscle mass—but this number can increase with more training.
If you’re training really hard, it’s entirely possible to go through your entire glycogen supply (at least in some muscles). This is why eating carbs after a workout is important for recuperation and it’s also why it’s sometimes a good idea to take BCAAs around a workout.
The aerobic system is the one that most people are familiar with. It powers us over the longer term, and it utilizes carbs, fats, and proteins in order to provide energy—in that order.
Any high-intensity activity or exercise lasting over 3 minutes will tap into the aerobic system—everything endurance based.
It’s important to keep in mind that these systems overlap. Maybe not so much the phosphagen and the aerobic, but in stepping from one “energy source” to the next, your body is using everything at its disposal to keep you going. Long-distance running will increasingly rely solely on the aerobic, and a deadlift 1 rep max is going to mostly use phosphagen—but there is a large overlap in most cases.
Knowing how these energy systems work can better tell us how much rest we need to take between both sets and between workouts. We’ll focus mostly on rest times between sets since they matter more when we’re working for specific goals.
Let’s kick things off with strength training.
One way to categorize workout programs is by looking at goals. Specifically, strength training versus bodybuilding (or hypertrophy). For now, let’s take a look at strength.
Strength training is all about using heavier weights with low reps and higher rest times in between. But how do the rest times factor into the equation?
Longer rests are good for several reasons.
For one, they allow us to catch our breaths and settle our heart rate. What happens if we don’t catch our breaths before going to the next set? We might end up being limited by our cardiovascular health instead of our muscular strength. Waiting for several minutes between sets also allows us to recover a larger portion of our strength between lifts. But why would we want this?
Strength training is all about generating as much force as possible with our muscle contractions. While a lot of time is spent talking about form, actually performing an exercise correctly is another story. An advanced weightlifter isn’t just going to be stronger, but they’re also going to know how to contract all of the necessary muscle groups to their fullest potential to lift heavy weights.
When we give our muscles enough time to recover between sets, we’re maximizing the potential force generation for each subsequent rep. You want to be starting each set as fresh as possible in order to move the volume with the intensity required to elicit gains. This requires the ATP system we were talking about earlier, which is why rest times with strength training are usually recommended to be 2 minutes of rest at the minimum.
However, this is also dependent on several different factors—some of which seem to even work against each other.
It goes without saying that more seasoned lifters are going to be able to recover more quickly between sets—makes sense, right? But at the same time, those that are stronger (more seasoned) can also lift heavier, thereby moving more volume and requiring a long rest.
Different exercises in weight training play a part in required recovery time as well.
Chances are that if you’re strength training, you’re already focusing the majority of your attention on compound lifts. These lifts are going to necessitate a greater time between sets just because of the nature of them being heavier. However, not all compound lifts are built equal, and so it stands that not all rest times should be equal.
Even looking at different variations of compound lifts (such as the standard deadlift versus the sumo) tells us that one will need a greater recovery time because muscle engagement happens over a greater range of muscle groups. Even the range of motion in a compound lift plays a part in how long a rest period should be.
This isn’t to say that you should be breaking out a pen and calculator after every set in order to calculate your optimal rest time—just keep in mind how these things affect your training. Follow the rule of thumb of 2-3 minutes, but also don’t be surprised if it takes longer than that for your breath to return to normal.
And if you’re coming from an aerobic training background, your rest times might not even need to be as long. Which brings us to….
Bodybuilding, also known as hypertrophy training, is all about muscle mass gains. While increased strength is going to come along with bigger muscles, the primary focus is to get big muscles rather than big strength gains.
This training tends to have light to medium weights with high rep ranges and shorter rest periods. Hypertrophy draws from all three energy systems in a way—to differing degrees. The ATP system to start, then the glycolytic takes the brunt of the workout, and your aerobic metabolism also plays a small role.
When we talk about short rest periods for bodybuilding the advice ranges anywhere from 30 seconds to 2-minute rests. But like we discussed in the previous section, that will largely depend on your own experience level and also the lifts you’re doing. An isolation exercise that’s only used to pump up and home in on a particular muscle isn’t going to necessitate as long of a rest time as a compound lift.
So, shorter rest periods result in greater muscle mass gains. But why?
It has to do with volume over intensity. The thinking used to be that a shorter rest period meant the production of more growth hormones in the body. And as the name suggests, growth hormones would cause your muscles to grow. This doesn’t seem to be thinking anymore, and it’s instead believed that growth hormones come along with the muscle gains rather than causing them.
This isn’t to say that short rest times don’t mean increased hypertrophy—but it does mean that the increased hypertrophy is due to an increase in training volume rather than growth hormone.
Since a bodybuilding routine will have you doing several high rep sets in a relatively shorter amount of time, your muscles are challenged in a way that makes them gain mass. Some studies have shown very significant effects on muscle growth when rest times were minimized.
This plays into the volume versus intensity training approaches. While strength training relies on intense bursts of energy, bodybuilding requires the body to be challenged over an extended period of time with a lower intensity but higher overall volume.
Another benefit of short rest times is the increased workload.
This is something that’s largely ignored in strength training since there’s zero emphasis on endurance, but training with volume in mind will also help your body’s muscles learn to work harder for longer periods of time. This is a fantastic way to boost your gains and muscular endurance.
At the end of the day, shorter rest times are more efficient if your goal is bodybuilding. You’ll be able to cram more sets into a workout session, thereby increasing your overall training volume. As with most things, we can push this to the extreme—which leaves us with endurance training.
Endurance training is usually associated with long-distance aerobic activities, but muscular endurance is also an important training method.
Rest times are usually much shorter, and the weights used are light to moderate with reps ranging from 15 to 20 (in conventional cases). This type of training relies more heavily on the aerobic system than the previous two training methods, and the intention is to reduce muscle fatigue.
Fatiguing happens with a build-up of lactic acid in the body and athletes who do endurance training become better at clearing out the acid from their muscles.
Since endurance training is a natural progression from hypertrophy training, it means that bodybuilders tend to be more fatigue-resistant than powerlifters.
Other than the muscular and workload gains, there are other benefits to endurance training (and hypertrophy, to a lesser extent) that make this a worthwhile way to organize your workouts. The improvement in work-capacity can help in a whole manner of lifts and functional activities.
Challenging your muscles in this way will also lead to an improvement in general fitness and the ability for your body to deliver oxygen throughout your systems. If you’ve been skimping on the cardio (which you shouldn’t be), then this is also a great way to garner some of those benefits.
There are several ways that you can increase training volume in your workouts.
If you're looking to get more out of your workouts in terms of either endurance or hypertrophy, there are a few ways you can organize things in order to optimize time and energy. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a classic example that usually involves cardiovascular workouts rather than resistance training.
Circuit training is when exercises are organized with little time to rest in between them. This usually consists of 3 (or more) movements that require you to move from one to the next. While some rest is allowed, it should only be enough to allow your cardiovascular system to recover. Allowing your cardiovascular system to recover fully between sets means that it won’t be the limiting factor. That is, unless, you’re trying to specifically target cardiovascular development.
The biggest benefit of circuits is that you can move a lot of volume in a relatively short period of time. This is best for hypertrophy training.
Supersets are also a popular choice and they’re excellent for really hammering a muscle group. They can either be done with a focus on an individual muscle or antagonist muscles.
Focusing on a single muscle will effectively hit it from different angles (based on the lifts involved) and will place a significantly greater amount of volume on it—eliciting more growth. However, it’s important to keep in mind not to over-train a muscle. There’s a risk of injury and diminishing returns on the work put in.
The more popular superset is the antagonist superset. This is where you pair two exercises that target “opposing” muscles. For example, pairing a chest-targeting exercise with a back-targeting exercise. Since antagonist muscles are “turned off” when their counterpart is working, the time doing a set is effectively used as a rest period for the antagonist.
Examples include bicep curls paired with triceps extensions and barbell rows paired with the bench press.
The most important thing to consider when deciding on how long to rest is what your goals are. However, there are also other considerations.
A practical thing to think about is how much time you have to work out. While a lot of us would spend as much time as possible in the iron temple if it was possible, the reality is that we don’t. If you have time for longer workouts, it might make more sense to allow yourself a longer recovery time.
While this seems best suited for strength training, it doesn’t necessarily mean forgoing hypertrophy since you can also get in the required amount of volume to elicit muscle mass gains. Just make sure that your rep ranges and weights align with bodybuilding expectations.
The type of lift you do is also important. Compound lifts are generally heavier, and you’ll need more rest in between them—whether you’re training for hypertrophy or strength. On the other hand, isolation exercises will be easier to recover from since less of your muscles are being used.
The other key element of recovery is the rest that happens in between your workouts—not just within them.
This will largely come down to the individual and their training volume and intensity on gym days. There are different splits that require you to workout anywhere from 3 to 6 days a week (in conventional cases), and so it might be difficult to gauge when you need to rest.
This will come down to balancing on the edge of working your body hard while also not over-training it. If you don’t work hard enough, you won’t see gains and you’ll be dissuaded from working out. But if you over-train, it leads to injuries and then you can’t progress in your training program.
The best thing to do is start slow and pick up the pace if you feel good. Furthermore, rest days don’t have to mean that you sit on the couch doing nothing all day. Going for a hike or doing some active recovery is a great way to keep your body in shape without going overboard.
All of this relies on having some clear-cut goals. It’s going to be your individual, small decisions that get you to your goals, but you also don’t want to lose sight of the objective—whether that’s strength, size, or endurance.