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Rest Longer to Get Stronger

Jun 04, 2024

This is the third in a six-part series. Click here for Part Two.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article on why your program is stopping you from getting stronger.

I wrote it because it’s incredibly common to see dedicated gym-goers experience great progress at first, only to find their gains stalling over time.

I’ve been there, and I know how frustrating it is.

In that article, I outlined five of the most common reasons I see for why that happens.

Today, we’ll explore reason #3: not resting long enough.



If you ask the average person what comes to mind when they think of a challenging workout, you’ll probably get a similar answer a lot of the time.

Heavy breathing. Muscles burning. Dripping in sweat.

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

By moving quickly between sets, you’re more likely to see those responses, which can make it feel like you’re working hard enough to make progress.

But none of these factors matter for strength or muscle growth. 

Which can leave a lot of people feeling like they’re putting in the work, without much to show for it.

Don’t get me wrong — effective strength training shouldn’t feel easy. 

A hard set will probably leave you sweaty and out of breath, especially as you get stronger.

But those are byproducts of effective training, rather than causes. They shouldn’t be the aim.

If you want to get seriously strong or build more muscle, longer rest periods are the way to go.

Let me explain why.


More Rest, More Muscle

One of the most important factors for growing muscle is your training volume  — the amount of work you do, usually measured in sets and reps.

The more volume you do, the more stress you place on a muscle, and the more that muscle will grow.

This is the first problem with shorter rest periods.

If you’re training hard but only taking a short rest, you’ll notice that your output diminishes from set to set.

You might hit the top of the rep range on your first set, only for the reps to drop off significantly on your second. You could have lifted more, if not for fatigue.

By taking a longer rest, you give your body more time to recover.

This helps you complete more reps on your next set, which means more volume, more stress, and, therefore, more muscle growth.

On top of that, stress on a muscle increases the closer you get to failure. 

And if you’re truly working close to failure, you’ll need at least 2 or 3 minutes just to get back to baseline and feel ready to lift again. 

If you can easily move on to your next set within a minute, you’re probably not lifting heavy enough to make maximum progress.


Using Rest to Get Stronger

Longer rest periods are also beneficial if you want to get stronger.

Strength is specific to a rep range. If you want to get better at lifting heavy weights, you need to practise lifting heavy weights, meaning a lot of your work will need to be done in the 1–6 rep range.

The thing is, the energy system needed for these heavy, low-rep sets, (known as the ATP-PC System) takes between 3 and 5 minutes to recover.

So if you want to keep performance high during these sets, you’ll need longer rest periods to recover properly.

Otherwise, you’ll see your strength drop off, or technique fall by the wayside, and your performance will be below what it otherwise could have been if you just rested a little bit longer.



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.

Shorter rest periods can be useful if you’re looking to build endurance or cardiovascular health.

But there are other benefits as well.

One driver of muscle growth is metabolic stress, which involves the build-up of byproducts in response to resistance training, especially when your muscles work for longer periods with less time to relax.

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

While I wouldn’t prioritise metabolic stress over mechanical tension, there is still some utility in including it in your training. 

This can be achieved via shorter rest periods.

Short rest periods can also be a great tool when you’re pushed for time.

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 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 strength training, I would argue that your rest time should be dictated by your training.

Show me someone who doesn’t need a few minutes in between sets, and I’ll show you someone who isn’t training as hard as they could or should be.

For straight sets, you should rest until you feel ready to complete another set at the same level of performance.

You want to make sure it’s the target muscle that limits you, rather than anything else.

Here’s a quick checklist to follow:

  • Do your muscles feel recovered enough to perform close to the same number of reps at the same weight?
  • Has your heart rate and breathing returned to near-normal?
  • Do you feel mentally ready to do another hard set?

If the answer to all of those questions is yes, then you’ve probably rested long enough to start your next set.

As a general rule of thumb, for your big, 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, to get a feel for how long you need. 

This is especially helpful if you’re someone who tends to err on the side of cutting your rest short.

If you’re seeing a dramatic drop-off in reps, wait a little longer next time, and see how that impacts your performance.

And if you find that you don’t need long to feel ready to go again, it’s worth asking yourself whether you’re training hard enough.