How Long Should You Rest Between Sets When Strength Training?

Strength and conditioning experts set the record straight about a strength-training rule of thumb.

how long should you rest between sets? a woman doing a child's pose stretch on a yoga mat, with her phone, a set of dumbbells, and two weight plates at the top of the mat
Photo: Getty Images/kovaciclea

You've likely heard the strength-training rule of thumb that the more weight you lift, the longer you need to rest between sets. If so, you may have wondered if this is really a hard-and-fast truth — or if longer rests serve your particular health and fitness goals.

Exactly how long should you rest between sets? The truth is, the answer differs depending on your desired result: Building strength calls for longer rest times than increasing endurance, for example.

Below, experts explain what you need to know about rest intervals, based on your intended results.

Tone, Lose Weight, or Increase Endurance

Rest for: 20 to 60 seconds between sets

If your goal is to get in better shape by improving your muscular fitness or boosting your muscular endurance, keeping rest periods to a minimum is actually the better way to go, says Ryan Rogers, C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning specialist at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego. "For the majority of people who are looking to stay in shape and lose a little weight, I recommend minimizing rest by simply keeping moving during workouts," he notes. (See also: What's the Difference Between Muscular Endurance and Muscular Strength?)

To give muscles a little bit of a breather while keeping the heart rate up, Rogers typically has his clients complete circuit workouts in which the only rest is during the transition from one movement to the next — typically less than 30 seconds. "This approach helps burn more calories than resting fully between sets while still enabling the muscles to recover a bit so they can push a little more weight," he explains. (More: How to Build the Perfect Circuit Training Workout)

Build Strength

Rest for: 2 to 5 minutes between sets

Want to get stronger? This rest interval time enables muscles to replenish the energy they need for contraction and allows the nervous system to recover, says Pete McCall, C.S.C.S., an ACE-certified trainer based in San Diego. "When lifting heavy weights such that you're performing 10 reps or less, proper rest and recovery is essential for the activation of muscle fibers, which ultimately leads to the hormone response that's responsible for muscle growth. Essentially, heavy lifting creates mechanical damage, and the hormones help repair the damaged tissue and initiate growth," he explains. (PS: Here's how often you should be doing heavy strength-training workouts in the first place.)

Get Bigger Muscles

Rest for: 1 minute between sets

If your main goal is hypertrophy — that is, an increase in the cross-sectional size of the muscles — this is the ideal rest period. "Pausing much longer than 60 seconds would compromise the metabolic stress aspect of training and decrease the potential for muscle growth, but resting for less than 60 seconds doesn't allow enough recuperation for the muscle to perform well in the next set," says Sabrena Jo, senior director of science and research at the American Council on Exercise (ACE). (See: How to Gain Muscle In and Out of the Gym)

Master Your Form

Rest for: 3 minutes between sets

Why three minutes? According to research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, you'll recover more quickly than you would by resting only two minutes between sets. Plus, you'll have more time and energy to focus more completely on the movement you're working on mastering.

Just Starting Out

Rest for: longer than you think you need

Fairly new to strength training? "You'll benefit from more rest between sets so you don't push yourself to the point of nausea, whereas someone who is in very good shape can rest less without much of a problem," says Rogers. (Also: Don't miss this strength training workout that's perfect for beginners.)

For beginners, taking more time to recover (without letting heart rate and body temperature fully return to resting levels) offers some additional benefits, too, notes Fabio Comana, a lecturer at San Diego State University's School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences. "For more inexperienced exercisers, longer recoveries can promote self-efficacy," he says. In other words, if an extra minute or two of rest between sets allows you to knock out that last effort, you'll have more confidence to stick with the workout long-term — which, of course, is the best way to see results, no matter what your goal. (Up next: Common Weight Lifting Questions for Beginners Who Are Ready to Lift Heavy)

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles