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Pretty much every gym goer makes it a point to do the right sets and reps on the correct exercises based on their goals. However, rest between sets is that critical gym element that sometimes falls through the cracks. Getting your rest between sets is important because resting too long can kill your pump while not resting long enough can hamstring strength gains or can even invite overtraining. Below is a basic guide on rest periods and when you should apply them.
While there are some extreme examples in which rest between sets can be in the 15-20 seconds range (e.g. – a Vince Gironda 6×6 or 8×8 program – read about old school workout routines here), this is generally too short to not adversely affect your workout. It’s just not enough time to adequately recover and put enough effort into your next set.
The only caveat is in the case of any sort of superset style training (to include circuits and complexes), where you’re moving from one exercise to another. A minimal rest break here is allowable because while your heart and lungs are still working, you’re getting localized rest. This means that one set of muscles is working while another rests, allowing you to cut your rest breaks and increase the density of your workout.
Rest between sets lasting 45-90 seconds is pretty standard fare for most bodybuilding work. You might not want to use this for strength-based hypertrophy, but almost any time you’re doing sets of 8-15 reps is fine. This allows you enough time to catch your breath and minimize localized muscular fatigue. However, it’s also not so long that your body starts to cool down or that you lose your pump.
When you’re taking two or more minutes of rest between sets, it’s because you’re primarily focused on strength and moving as much weight as possible. This is because you’ll want the muscles, tendons, and ligaments to be able to recuperate after having so much strain on them. At the same time, you’ll also want to give your nervous system a break as doing too much ultra-heavy work too fast can cause your CNS to overtrain and burn out.
If your focus is strength-based hypertrophy and you’re doing sets of 4-6 reps, then you can keep the rest periods in the 2-3 minutes range. This will give you adequate rest, but not be so long that it really hinders any muscle building efforts.
However, if all you care about is moving maximum weight, don’t be afraid to rest 3-5 minutes between sets. This is especially true if you’re really strong and using a lot of weight. At this point, your nervous system will almost need the rest more than your body does, anyway.
One last thing to consider is that you don’t have to be perfect about your rest breaks. You probably noticed that each range had a bit of wiggle room in it, and that’s by design. While 45-90 seconds rest might be ideal for hypertrophy work, it could be that you’re ready to go again after 50-60 seconds while your training partner needs the full 90. As long as you’re in that range, you’re fine. You’re totally free to use whatever gives you the best results as long as you’re within each prescribed span.