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Are You Resting Long Enough?

Dec 07, 2023

If you ask 100 average people what comes to mind when they think of a hard workout, you’ll probably get the same answer 90 times.

Heavy breathing. Muscles burning. Dripping in sweat.

It’s why so many people conflate short rest periods with getting results.

After all, if you’re moving quickly between sets, you’re more likely to see those physical responses. All surefire signs of progress, right?

Well, not necessarily.

The thing is, the human body is great at adapting to whatever demands you place on it.

If you run, you get better at running. If you lift heavy, you get stronger. And if you train in a way that gets your heart rate up and your lungs working hard, you adapt accordingly.

So less rest is more likely to improve your muscular endurance, heart health and aerobic capacity.

Which is great!

But most people in the gym also want to see an increase in muscle mass and strength. And this is where resting longer can be beneficial.

Let me explain.

More Rest, More Muscle

Muscle growth occurs due to 3 factors: mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.

Mechanical tension refers to the force applied to muscles through a full range of motion, usually from external resistance.

Muscle damage means localised damage to muscle fibres that then grow back stronger, and metabolic stress is the build-up of byproducts as a result of increased blood flow to muscles.

While all 3 factors play a role, mechanical tension is the most influential in maximising muscle growth.

This is why longer rest is important.

If you usually take a short rest, you’ll notice that your output diminishes from set to set. Maybe you pump out 10 reps on your first set but only reach 6 on your second. So you could have lifted more, if not for fatigue.

While some reduction in reps is normal, if you’re seeing a dramatic drop-off from set to set, it might be because you’re not resting long enough.

By taking a longer rest, you allow your muscles and energy systems more time to recover.

This enables you to move more weight or complete more reps on your next set. Both of which mean more mechanical tension, and therefore more muscle growth.

On top of that, mechanical tension increases the close you get to muscular failure: the point at which you couldn’t possibly lift the weight anymore because your target muscles have given out.

So to properly stimulate your muscles for growth, it’s best to work somewhere around 0–4 reps from failure.

If you’re truly taking your sets this close to failure, you’ll want the rest. Trust me.

If you can easily move on to your next set within a minute, you’re probably not working hard enough to drive progress.

Using Rest to Get Stronger

Longer rest periods are also beneficial for getting stronger.

Remember, your body adapts to the demands you place on it.

So to get stronger, you need to lift heavy. That means submaximal loads in the 1–6 rep range.

The body’s ATP-PC System produces the energy required for these low-rep sets. This system produces energy for muscular contractions requiring high force output, lasting between 6 and 10 seconds.

Complete recovery of the ATP-PC system is relatively slow and takes between 3 and 5 minutes.

So to keep performance high during low rep sets, it’s important to rest long enough for your ATP-PC System to recover.

That’s why you see powerlifters taking a relatively long time between sets — they want to be able to perform at their best set after set.

The Case for Shorter Rest Periods

Considering the benefits of resting longer, you might be wondering if there’s ever a case for shorter rest periods.

I think the answer is yes.

As I mentioned earlier, shorter rest periods can be useful if you’re looking to build endurance or cardiovascular health.

But there are other benefits as well.

You might remember that one driver of muscle growth is metabolic stress, which involves the build-up of byproducts in response to resistance training.

This occurs when your muscles work for longer periods with less time to relax, causing blood to pool and metabolites to accumulate.

You’ve probably noticed it as a ‘burn’ or ‘pump’.

And while metabolic stress is not the primary driver of muscle growth, there is still some utility in including it in your training. This can be achieved via shorter rest periods.

If you’re pushed for time, short rest periods can also be a great tool.

Using techniques like supersets (2 exercises back-to-back, with 30–60 seconds rest in between) or rest-pause sets (one set to failure, followed by a 30-second rest, then another set to failure) are a great way of still getting the work in while shaving time off your session.

While I wouldn’t recommend these techniques all the time, they can be useful for accessory exercises toward the end of your session.

Putting it All Together

So, what does all of this mean in practice?

When it comes to straight sets, rest until you feel ready to complete another set at the same level of performance.

You want your muscles to feel recovered, your heart rate and breathing to return to normal, and to feel mentally ready to push hard again.

For your main, compound lifts, this probably means at least 2 minutes rest, and up to 5. For smaller muscle groups, you’ll want at least 90 seconds.

You can start by timing your rest and beginning your next set when you feel ready. If you’re seeing a dramatic drop-off in reps, try resting longer.

If you’d like to know more, feel free to get in touch.