There are conflicting opinions when it comes to how long you should rest between sets for muscle growth. Some believe you should rest very little to stimulate growth hormone, whereas others rest longer to maximize performance.
In this article, we’ll discuss the science behind rest intervals. With the use of the available scientific evidence, we’ll look into the effects of different rest times between sets. This will help you make more informed decisions on how long you should rest between sets to maximize muscle growth.
Typical Rest Interval Recommendations
You probably have seen a figure like the one below before on the internet or in an old-school exercise textbook.
The rest periods for muscular endurance and strength make sense. In line with the principle of training specificity, your muscles need to “endure” more if you have rest intervals of under a minute. So you’ll mostly achieve muscular endurance adaptations if your rest between sets is short.
For strength, the opposite applies. When you rest longer, you are able to train with heavier weights, which then results in strength adaptations that help you produce more force.
Now, when it comes to muscle growth, the typical rest recommendations we see that state you should rest 30-60 seconds are mostly based on outdated theories.
Hormonal Response & Rest Intervals
The idea that short rest periods are beneficial for muscle growth is primarily based on the finding that short rest intervals increase human growth hormone levels (HGH). Since HGH is an anabolic hormone, increasing HGH by having short rest intervals must be beneficial for muscle growth, right?
Well, not really.
First of all. HGH has a weak relationship with muscle growth. HGH is mostly involved in building up connective tissue (tissue that attaches muscle to bone), not so much muscle itself.
Also, temporary increases in anabolic hormones do not increase muscle growth. Even if it’s testosterone. Changes in anabolic hormone levels can only influence muscle growth if these changes occur over the long-term.
Just think about it, cortisol (= stress hormone) and muscle protein breakdown (= breakdown of muscle) also increase after training. But we know this isn’t harmful because it’s not a long-term change, it’s just a temporary spike. The same holds true with temporary spikes in HGH or testosterone, these mean very little.
So just because HGH or any other anabolic hormone is acutely increased after having short rest periods, doesn’t mean this will translate into more muscle growth.
Research on Rest Between Sets
Training volume is the main driver of muscle growth. Volume can be defined as the total of Reps*Sets*Weight you perform per muscle group. Up to a certain point, research consistently shows a positive relationship between volume and muscle growth.
Having short rest intervals directly impairs the amount of volume you can do in a workout. As a simple example, if you rest 45 seconds between each set of your squat, you’ll perform worse than if you rest 2-3 minutes between each set.
So having longer rest between sets allows you to perform more volume in your training. If you consistently can perform more volume, you generally also get better training adaptations. The research supports this.
A 2016 study led by Dr. Schoenfeld randomly assigned 21 trained males to a 1-minute rest between sets (SHORT) and 3-minute rest between sets (LONG) group. After an 8-week training period, the long rest group gained significantly more muscle than the short rest group. Most likely because the long rest group was able to handle more volume in their training.
Another 2009 study had similar findings. In this research, the group that rested 2.5 minutes between sets gained more muscle than the group that rested only 1 minute between sets. Again, this likely was because the long rest group was able to perform more volume.
Exercise Selection & Rest Intervals
So it’s evident that having longer rest periods is beneficial for muscle growth. But exactly how long you should rest between sets depends on the type of exercises you perform. The goal is to adequately rest so you can perform well again on your next set. On some exercises, you need more rest to recover than others.
Compound exercises like the squat, bench press and overhead press are inherently more fatiguing than isolation exercises like the side delt raise or bicep curls. So it’s a good idea to rest a bit longer between sets when you perform compound movements and a bit shorter during isolation lifts.
A good general rule of thumb is to rest 2-3 minutes between sets on heavy compound exercises and 1-2 minutes on low-stress isolation exercises. For most people, this should be enough to recover properly and hit it hard again when your next set comes up.
Shorten Training Time
A common concern when it comes to resting longer between sets is that the training time increases drastically. If you have only limited time in the gym but would still like to maximize performance, there are a few training tools that can help you. To be specific: Supersets & Rest-Pause Training
The primary reason short rest periods are suboptimal for muscle growth is that they impair training volume. One way you can work around this while still having short rest periods is by performing more sets in your training until you reach your volume goal. This is exactly what rest-pause training allows you to do.
With rest-pause training, you take your first set close to failure, rest for 10-15 seconds and repeat the process until you reach your volume goal.
For example, you are in a hurry and need to perform 3 sets of 10 reps on cable side delt raises, you can set a volume goal of 30 reps and use rest-pause sets (see picture above) to quickly finish your workout. Recent research shows this is an effective way to accumulate volume for muscle growth.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that a breakdown in form is common when using rest-pause training because of its fatiguing effects. So it’s a good idea to use this training tool with isolation lifts only to minimize the risk of injury.
Conclusion: How Long You Should Rest
If we take all points discussed above into consideration, we reach a simple conclusion about how long you should rest between sets for muscle growth.
Long rest periods are more effective than short rest periods because they allow you to accumulate more volume.
This primarily holds true on heavy compound exercises like the squat, bench press, overhead press etc. On these heavy compound movements, rest ~2-3 minutes between sets. For low-stress isolation exercises like the tricep pushdown and side delt raises, you typically can get away with shorter rest periods of ~1-2 minutes between sets.
Make sure you monitor how well recovered you feel after your rest periods. Feel free to rest slightly longer if you think this will benefit your performance or have shorter rest periods if you tend to recover quickly between your sets.
For times when you are in a hurry and would like to reduce your time in the gym, use training tools like supersets and rest-pause training, as described in the previous paragraph.
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