For years, we’ve heard the strength-training rule of thumb that the more weight you lift, the longer you need to rest between sets. But is it really a hard-and-fast truth? And does it best serve your particular health and fitness goals? Here’s what you need to know about rest intervals, based on the results you’re looking for.
You Want: Toning
In order to determine how much rest is best, it’s important to first identify what the goal of your strength-training workouts actually is. If it’s getting in better shape by improving your muscle fitness or boosting your muscular endurance, then keeping rest periods to a minimum is actually the better way to go, says Ryan Rogers, certified strength and conditioning specialist at Fitness Quest 10. “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 says.
To give muscles a little bit of a breather while keeping 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 says.
You Want: Strength
If your objective is building serious strength and power, then the old rule still applies: You’ll need more rest to allow for adequate recovery, according to Pete McCall, science officer for the Institute of Motion in San Diego, CA. “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.” To enable muscles to replenish the energy they need for contraction and allow the nervous system to recover, McCall recommends two to five minutes of rest between sets.
You Want: Guns
If your main goal is hypertrophy—that is, an increase in the cross-sectional size of the muscles—the ideal rest period between sets is just about one minute, says Sabrena Merrill, senior exercise scientist for the American Council on Exercise. “Pausing much longer than 60 seconds would compromise the metabolic stress aspect of training and decrease the potential for muscle growth, while resting for less than 60 seconds doesn’t allow enough recuperation for the muscle to perform well in the next set.”
You Need: To Factor in Your Fitness Level
While training goals help determine the ideal rest period, so should your current fitness level. Fairly new to strength training? “You’ll benefit from more rest between sets so you don’t push yourself to the point of nausea,” says Rogers, “whereas someone who is in very good shape can rest less without much of a problem.”
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, faculty instructor at San Diego State University and director of continuing education at the National Academy of Sports Medicine. “For more inexperienced exercisers, longer recoveries can promote self-efficacy,” he says. In other words, if an extra minute or two of rest allows you to knock out that last set, 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.