Rest periods are often a point of contention in training. We see many high level bodybuilders swearing by 30-, 60-, or even 90-second rest periods while the research suggests longer periods are more effective for growth. What’s the takeaway here? Do you need a stopwatch on you at all times? Let’s discuss.
The rest period is simply the amount of time you take between sets on the same exercise/muscle group. It’s important to keep this distinction as we often implement agonist/antagonist supersets; there’s really no “set” rest period in the middle of each superset, but we still want sufficient rest before you get back to the first exercise again.
With that definition out of the way, is there a rule to rest periods? Do you have to rest a certain period between sets? In short, no. There’s no rule to rest periods, much like the other 99% of training variables. For the most part, we typically recommend to simply rest as needed; use as much rest as you need in order to feel ready to hit your next set with 100% effort. This recommendation works for most training, but there are a few scenarios in which we’d recommend specific rest period lengths. Let’s cover those next.
30-seconds: When would you use a 30-second rest period? These typically aren’t recommended as they won’t allow you to hit each set with 100% intention, but these short rest periods are great for increasing metabolic stress and giving a great pump. While metabolic stress likely isn’t the most important determinant of growth (Wackerhage et al. 2019), it’s still a great way to mix things up to continue stressing each muscle. We typically recommend this rest period with isolation exercises or lighter weights/higher reps. Going heavy with only 30-seconds between sets confers more risk than benefit.
60-90-seconds: We typically use this as a range as there’s really no secret difference between 60- and 90-seconds of rest. When performing isolation exercises, people will probably default to a rest period somewhere in this range anyways as they’ll feel like they’re ready to hit an exercise with 100% intention again. You can still get away with this range on compound exercises, but you might want to keep in mind that you could have some lasting fatigue between sets, especially on heavier leg exercises. If you want to keep rest periods shorter on compound movements while still getting good results from each set, the 90-120 second range might be a good spot for you. We usually prefer this for upper body exercises like pulldowns or dumbbell bench press.
120-180-seconds: The 2-3 minute range is usually the sweet spot for getting the most out of each set of a heavier compound exercise. This allows sufficient recovery between sets without entering a, “cool down,” type of feeling. If you’ve ever done a tough set of 8-10 reps on squats, you’ll need that 2-3 minute period between sets just to get some feeling back in your legs. It’s not that a 2-3 minute rest period is too long for isolation exercises, it’s probably just unnecessary.
180-seconds+: The 3-minute+ range is typically preferred for all out lifting, where you’re attempting to hit repetition maxes or even a new 1RM. This is especially important for super heavy lifting where you don’t want any fatigue remaining between sets; you need your form to be perfect in order to safely complete the set. This is where we see many Olympic weightlifters set their rest periods. Even though they might only be doing 1-3 reps per set, the Olympic lifts are so technically complex that you need enough rest between sets to both recover and mentally prepare for the next set.
All-in-all, there’s no Golden Rule for rest periods. Once you have a goal and start planning workouts to support that goal, just make sure your rest periods align with what gains you’re trying to make. If you want better endurance or pumps, stick to the lower end of the range. If you want more size and strength, stick to the moderate range. If you want to lift your neighbor’s house, take a good chunk of rest between sets. As long as your training variables support your goals, you’ll be set.
American College of Sports Medicine. (2009). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 41(3), 687.
Kraemer, W. J., Noble, B. J., Clark, M. J., & Culver, B. W. (1987). Physiologic responses to heavy-resistance exercise with very short rest periods. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 8(04), 247-252.
Richmond, S. R., & Godard, M. P. (2004). The effects of varied rest periods between sets to failure using the bench press in recreationally trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 18(4), 846-849.
Schoenfeld, B. J., Pope, Z. K., Benik, F. M., Hester, G. M., Sellers, J., Nooner, J. L., … & Just, B. L. (2016). Longer interset rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(7), 1805-1812.
Wackerhage, H., Schoenfeld, B. J., Hamilton, D. L., Lehti, M., & Hulmi, J. J. (2019). Stimuli and sensors that initiate skeletal muscle hypertrophy following resistance exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology, 126(1), 30-43.
From being a mediocre athlete, to professional powerlifter and strength coach, and now to researcher and writer, Charlie combines education and experience in the effort to help Bridge the Gap Between Science and Application. Charlie performs double duty by being the Content Manager for The Muscle PhD as well as the Director of Human Performance at the Applied Science and Performance Institute in Tampa, FL. To appease the nerds, Charlie is a PhD candidate in Human Performance with a master’s degree in Kinesiology and a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science. For more alphabet soup, Charlie is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), an ACSM-certified Exercise Physiologist (ACSM-EP), and a USA Weightlifting-certified performance coach (USAW).