Practical Recommendations for Rest Times in Strength Training for Various Goals
Many people are unknowingly sabotaging themselves in the weight room by taking too long or too short rest periods between sets in their strength training workouts. So what is an appropriate amount of rest? Like nearly everything else in fitness, that depends.
Let's start with those aiming for physique related goals. Many are surprised to find out that the research is actually pretty conclusive that longer rest periods (between 2 and 4 minutes) are the most beneficial in not only gaining muscle, but also losing body-fat (2).
When aiming to lose body-fat as opposed to gaining muscle, training parameters should actually remain quite similar. If you are a beginner, your training should be aimed at gaining strength and challenging yourself to get better (specifically in the weight room). If you are intermediate or advanced and have had any sort of success with your training in terms of muscle building thus far, your training should remain the same throughout a fat loss phase with a goal of increasing or maintaining strength and, again, improving in the weight room. The main thing that should change during a fat loss phase is nutrition, specifically, calorie content (aim for a slight surplus to gain lean mass, and a slight deficit to lose fat).
With rest periods of 2-4 minutes between sets, that could severely limit the amount of working or number of sets you can accomplish in any given workout. This may actually be a good thing. There is a point of diminishing returns when it comes to training volume, meaning that at a certain point, if you do too many sets/reps you could actually be signaling your body to break down muscle mass as opposed to build it (1).
But the key to longer rest between working sets isn't to simply take up more time during your workout. The key point of taking a longer break between sets is to allow you to put forth more effort per set than you might be able to if your rest was shorter. Research has shown that performance is best across multiple sets with longer breaks between sets (with 15-30 seconds rest yielding the least amount of total quality work accomplished and 2+ minutes yielding the most). If you are able to accomplish more in a given set (i.e. lift more weight, get more quality reps, improve form, etc.) then you probably don't need as many sets as you think to get a good amount of quality effort in.
But what if your goals are performance related instead of physique related? Depending on the goal, rest periods of anywhere between 20 seconds and 5 minutes can be effective. Let's break it down by goal:
Muscular endurance: rest 20-60 seconds between sets, ideally working in a higher rep range (15+ reps per set).
Muscular growth/"toning"/fat loss: rest 2-4 minutes, working with rep ranges anywhere from 5-25(+?) reps to failure per set.
Muscular strength/power: rest 3-5 minutes between sets, working in lower rep ranges (1-6 reps per set).
Many people may run into the problem that they just don't have that much time to spend in the gym and want to make the most out of the time they do have. In this scenario, there a few things you can do to accomplish your goals as effectively and efficiently as possible:
Option 1: Supersets. Supersets are when you switch from one exercise directly into another with as little rest as possible, and they can be very effective for decreasing the total amount of time spent resting per workout. This method is especially effective when training two or more muscle groups per workout so that you are able to perform an exercise for muscle group one, go right into an exercise for muscle group two, and then rest. This would allow muscle group one to rest while muscle group two is working and vise versa, while still maintaining 2+ minutes between sets working the same muscle group.
Option 2: Train more frequently. This may sound directly counter-intuitive to what I mentioned earlier about achieving more by doing LESS, but training more frequently actually can enable you to do just that. If you are limited on time in any given day, and can only get a 30-45 minute workout in, you might be best off splitting your training across more days so that you are still able to get all of your work in while resting appropriately between sets. This could mean training 4 days per week for 30 minutes each as opposed to 3 days per week for 45 minutes, or 5 days per week for 30 minutes as opposed to 2-3 days per week for an hour. This may equate to less total work performed per workout, but you would be working out more frequently, allowing you to accomplish all of your work throughout the duration of the week.
Option 3: Daily doubles. I really only recommend this option for those whom are very serious about their training goals, and are able to put the gym and their training near the top of their priority list, however, it can be an effective method nonetheless. By training multiple times per day, you would be able to take more time to get the same amount of work done by splitting your training sessions in half. This is most effective if you can train different muscle groups and/or training modalities during each of the two sessions.
Bottom line: rest times between sets should depend primarily on your training goal, and may be longer than you think. Once you have established an ideal amount of time to rest between sets for your goal, make sure you are choosing a weight/rep range that challenges you enough by the end of a given set to feel that you actually need that long to recover in order to put forth a good effort for your next working set and accomplish more from your workout, possibly with less total sets.