How Much Rest Do You Need During Your Workout?

Here’s how much rest to get during your workout, to build the muscle and fitness you want

Many of us think about rest as that wonderful reward we get to enjoy at the end of our workout. But here’s some food for thought: Rest is as important for muscle recovery (and muscle building) as the workout itself.

As we’ve explained before, your muscles burn a lot of energy when they’re working. And, depending on the load, intensity and duration of the exercise, they get the energy needed for the work from one of three energy systems in the body.

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But without rest, these systems simply don’t recover sufficiently. What’s more, without rest the by-products of exercise (such as lactic acid and pyruvate) build up and further limit your exercise capacity.

This is why it’s essential to incorporate rest periods into your workout. The question is, how much rest should you get, and how often during the workout?

How much rest is ideal?

The amount of rest needed between sets is generally governed by the dominant energy system used while exercising, which is determined by the type of exercise you are doing and the type of muscle fibres (slow or fast twitch) you are targeting. A general rule of thumb is, the higher your repetitions and the lighter the weights, the shorter your rest periods should be (check out the table below for some basic pointers).

But since the human body is a complex organism, figuring out the ideal rest period isn’t always easy. There are a number of other factors that have a bearing on the length of time you should wait before unracking that Olympic bar again for your next set. For instance, heavier weights have a greater impact on your nervous system, more so than lighter weights. This means you need to rest for a longer duration between heavy, near-maximal lifts to help your central nervous system recover.

Also, when targeting type-II muscle fibres (the ones responsible for increased size and power) you need sufficient rest between sets to ensure that you can work them to their maximum potential during the next set. If the rest period is too short, the load you’ll be able to lift will decrease and you won’t get the desired result. Conversely, if your rest periods are too long between sets of lower weights with higher reps you will diminish the metabolism-boosting effect that this type of training has.

Studies have found that testosterone and growth hormone production also increases when you rest for short-to-moderate periods between sets of heavy weight lifting, which is an additional consideration.

Follow these rest period guidelines:

• 1 to 3 reps: Rest for to 5 minutes

• 4 to 7 reps: Rest for 2-3 minutes

• 8 to 12 reps: Rest for 1-2 minutes

• 15 reps or more: Rest for 1 minute or less

Energy system Amount of rest between sets Need to know facts
ATP-PCr At least three minutes to fully recover (i.e. convert adenosine diphosphate or ADP back into usable ATP)
Anaerobic or glycolytic One to two minutes, to allow for at least partial recovery and the removal of lactic acid and hydrogen ions (by-products of glycolysis which start to inhibit muscle contraction). One reason for keeping rest periods short enough for only partial recovery is the fact that the more you overload your glycolytic system, the better you’re able to buffer these ions and the faster you can recover between sets of medium-to-high-intensity exercise. Shorter rest periods are also better for hypertrophy (building more muscle) as it imposes more stress on the muscle. This is what promotes muscle cell regeneration during the post-exercise recovery period.
Aerobic or oxidative Between one and five minutes Recent research suggests that this system is heavily involved in the recovery process between sets of high-intensity anaerobic work like squats. If you intend doing high-intensity cardio work such as interval sprints or fartlek training that lasts less than five minutes, then the ideal rest period is 1-5 minutes. If your intervals are 20 minutes or more then you should rest for 5-10 minutes between efforts to allow for at least partial recovery.

Author: Tanja Schmitz

Co-Publisher at Maverick Media and until recently, Fitness Magazine editor. Tanja now manages multiple digital platforms, consults and create exciting campaigns and opportunities in the fitness industry. You’ll find her behind her computer or on her bike, dreaming up new ways to improve or create content for you.