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How long should I rest between sets for optimal strength and muscle growth?

How long should I rest between sets for optimal strength and muscle growth?

Posted by Bulk Nutrients on Jun 17, 2021

Estimated reading time: 3mins

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Walk into any gym and you'll see it all: The person talking in between sets like they're hosting a radio program, performing a set every 5 minutes. Another on a mission to leave as soon as possible, resting about 1 minute. So who's right? What IS the best time to rest between sets for optimal strength and muscle growth? By the end of this article, you'll have a clearer answer to this question, so you can set your stopwatch in the gym and be sure you're getting maximal results.


Time in between sets for muscle growth

A recent study examined well-trained men and split them into two different groups:

  • Group one: Rested 2 minutes between sets

  • Group two: Rested 5 minutes between sets

They found no differences in muscle growth between both groups! Great, so we know that 5 minutes is too long (and no one does that besides the gym talk-show host) and that 2 minutes might be ideal. But what about less than 2 minutes when we're time-poor?

Another study looked at 3 minutes of rest vs 1 minute of rest. It examined 21 young men, who performed 7 different exercises working major muscle groups of the upper and lower body. They did three sets of 8-12 reps per exercise, and they trained for 3 days a week for 8 weeks.

The researchers found that strength was greater for the 1 rep max in the squat and bench press for the 3-minute rest group (no surprises there), but muscle growth was greater in the 3- minute rest group!

So how did this occur? The researchers speculated that lesser periods of rest (1 minute) meant there was a reduction in the volume load over the workout; the amount of weight they could lift was reduced. Because there is a dose-response relationship between volume and muscle growth, it stands to reason that by resting for just 1 minute, you're taking shortcuts on the amount of weight you can lift.


The longer you rest between sets, the stronger you'll be each set.
The longer you rest between sets, the stronger you'll be each set


Another study found that roughly 2 minutes of rest in between sets was superior for single-joint exercises like chest flies, but 3 minutes was better for compound movements like bench- press. This is pretty consistent with the aforementioned cited research.

So is that it? 2-3 minutes between sets for single-joint exercises and multi-joint exercises respectively?

Well, not quite. For two reasons: first of all, more research is needed, and secondly, the researchers of one of the aforementioned studies suggest it may not be necessary for all muscle groups and exercises. Brad Schoenfeld, one of the world's leading muscle growth researchers, says:

"It would appear that you can self-select a rest period that allows you to exert the needed effort into your next set without compromising hypertrophic results."

So that might be 90 seconds for one person, and two minutes for another.

Moreover, it makes sense that on larger compound movements like rows, presses and squats, that you rest for longer periods to ensure the maintenance of volume. With other exercises like tricep press downs or bicep curls, shorter rest periods shouldn't be an issue as the research states. You might find 90 seconds if perfect; the key is to ensure that overall volume isn't compromised as we've outlined.


How to grow maximal muscle: Metabolic stress

The other important thing to remember is one of the key principles of muscle growth: metabolic stress. You'll certainly know this feeling: lifting weights with limited rest in between and feeling the burn from the higher reps. This is also what is referred to as the "pump", a big build-up of metabolites like lactate, hydrogen ions etc.


Longer rest times are needed for compound movements like chin-ups.
Longer rest times are needed for compound movements like chin-ups.


And this metabolic stress comes about from lesser recovery periods, meaning that they are still beneficial when it comes to muscle growth. It's recommended that we perform our shorter rest sets at the end of our workouts to ensure we don't hinder performance during compound exercises. For example, let's take a look at a sample quadricep workout of Bulk Nutrients customer "Jake."

Legs:

  • 5 x squats (12 reps, 10 reps, 8 reps, 8 reps, 8 reps). Resting 2-3 minutes between sets.

  • 5 x leg press (15 reps, 12 reps, 8 reps, 8 reps, 8 reps). Resting 2-3 minutes between sets.

  • 5 x leg extensions (15 reps, 15 reps, 12 reps, 12 reps, 12 reps). Resting 60-90 seconds between sets.

So when it comes down to it, we know longer rest periods are better for strength. But when it comes to muscle growth there's not a magic number: 60-90 seconds for metabolic stress is important for muscle growth, as is resting for up to 3 minutes on compound movements. What matters is that you use this research as a yardstick and investigate what works best for you. Whilst more studies are needed for more definitive solutions, putting your time limits to the test based on these findings is the best way to find what works.


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References

  1. Ahtiainen JP, Pakarinen A, Alen M, Kraemer WJ, Häkkinen K. Short vs. long rest period between the sets in hypertrophic resistance training: influence on muscle strength, size, and hormonal adaptations in trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):572-82. doi: 10.1519/15604.1. PMID: 16095405.

  2. Schoenfeld BJ, Pope ZK, Benik FM, Hester GM, Sellers J, Nooner JL, Schnaiter JA, Bond-Williams KE, Carter AS, Ross CL, Just BL, Henselmans M, Krieger JW. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1805-12. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001272. PMID: 26605807.

  3. Krieger JW. Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for muscle hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1150-9. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d4d436. PMID: 20300012.

  4. de Freitas MC, Gerosa-Neto J, Zanchi NE, Lira FS, Rossi FE. Role of metabolic stress for enhancing muscle adaptations: Practical applications. World J Methodol. 2017;7(2):46-54. Published 2017 Jun 26. doi:10.5662/wjm.v7.i2.46

  5. Senna, Gilmar W.; Willardson, Jeffrey M.; Scudese, Estevão; Simão, Roberto; Queiroz, Cristiano; Avelar, Raoni; Martin Dantas, Estélio H. Effect of Different Interset Rest Intervals on Performance of Single and Multijoint Exercises With Near-Maximal Loads, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: March 2016 - Volume 30 - Issue 3 - p 710-716 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001142


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