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  • Writer's pictureDat Do

Duration of Rest Periods

How Long to Rest Between Exercises


There are multiple factors involved in determining the appropriate rest period between exercises which will be covered.


The four main considerations are as follows:


1.     Target muscle recovery

Are the target muscles recovered enough to be able to perform another productive next set?If you’re doing bicep curls and you just finished a set to near failure, you’ll need some time for your muscles to restore enough energy to be able to perform again.

2.     Synergist muscle recovery

Are the muscles that assist the movement recovered enough to be able to perform another productive next set for the target muscles?Some muscle groups recovery slower or faster than others and you’ll only be as strong as your weakest link. Let’s say you’re performing barbell back squats with your target muscles being the glutes, quads and hamstrings. Your lower back plays an integral role in the movement and if all the target muscles are ready but your lower back is not then your next set will be hindered by lower back fatigue and not your target muscles.

3.     Nervous system recovery

Am I psychologically ready to perform my next set and do I physically feel ready for my next set? After a set taken close to failure there will be a degree of fatigue via the nervous system in that the message from your brain to your muscles will be temporarily dampened. You might perform a heavy set of deadlifts for 2 reps and there isn’t much muscular fatigue but a huge amount of central nervous system fatigue which will require time to dissipate. Psychologically there will be some fatigue as well if the set was pushed hard enough. It's daunting to know that when you begin your next set you have to push yourself hard again. If you feel like you need more time to muster up the mental drive to push hard enough in your next set it would be wise to do so.

4.     Cardiorespiratory recovery

Is my heart rate and breathing rate low enough to allow another productive set?Certain movements in certain rep ranges will elicit a cardiovascular response that will dramatically increase your heart rate and breathing. Even if you decide to perform an exercise that is completely different to the muscles you just targeted, your performance will be impaired. Imagine doing a hard set of squats for 15-20 reps and immediately performing pull-ups. Your performance will take a hit and giving yourself sometime will make a noticeable difference.


Productive set. What does this mean exactly? That depends on your goal.


Are you aiming for a personal best? Then your next set ideally exceeds your performance from your last session. Resting between 3-5 minutes is typically a good recommendation for most people. High level sprinters rest at least 15 minutes between their runs for completely recovery but this is impractical for the average gym session.


If you’re after hypertrophy (muscle growth), your next set should exceed 5 reps when the set is pushed close to failure. This could be anywhere between 30 seconds to 5 minutes.


Typically speaking exercises that target larger muscle groups for heavier loads warrant longer recovery between sets such as squats or deadlifts.


The exception would be during the warm-up sets. Generally, you can perform your early warm-ups sets as soon as you load up the barbell or grab the next dumbbells. You would rest 3 minutes between your last warm-up set and your first work set if performance was your priority.


Smaller muscle groups might warrant shorter rest periods such as the biceps or shoulders.


There is nuance to everything including rest periods. Over the course of your training career your rest periods will change. When you first start out and you’re using relatively low loads so the central nervous system fatigue won’t be as dramatic but your cardiorespiratory system might not be good.


As you continue training and your loads increase, you’ll feel more central nervous system fatigue but your cardiorespiratory system might be functioning great allowing you to superset two exercises for different muscle groups fairly seamlessly.


Sometimes you might be in a time pinch and sacrificing a little performance for more overall productive work sets is worth the trade-off.


Four Question Checklist


1.     Are my target muscles ready to perform another productive set?

2.     Are my synergist muscles recovered enough to allow my target muscles another productive set?

3.     Do I feel physically and mentally ready to go for my next set?

4.     Will my heart rate and breathing rate impair my next set from being productive?


If you answer no to even just one of these questions, rest a bit longer unless otherwise indicated. You can practice breathe control while pacing, taking a sip of water or performing a simple mobility/balance movement in the interim.


If you have any questions let me know in the comments below!




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