We’ve been conditioned to believe that in order to get results from our fitness regimen, we have to constantly do more -- more weight, more reps, more workouts, etc.
Part of this is driven by social media and advertising, but the concept of continually pushing ourselves to the brink is also something steeped in the very roots of bodybuilding.
And, while there is something to be said for working hard in the gym and pushing beyond your comfort zone (especially since most people who go to the gym aren’t working nearly hard enough to ignite the change they want), it can also be beneficial to “tap the brakes” and pull back from time to time.
As crazy as that may sound, the properly timed rest day or deload week, or even waiting just a few more seconds between your next set, can do wonders to help you push harder and ultimately take your fitness and results to the next level!
The Importance of Rest
Rest is your body recovering, regaining energy, so that you can continue to get after it. This applies to not only your rest between sets, but also your rest between workouts.
You see, the body can only produce so much work before it needs to recharge. Liken it to a battery in your phone. It goes and goes…until it starts to get too low at which point you need to plug it in and recharge it.
The body is much the same. It has a certain amount of energy reserves, in the form of:
- Glycogen (stored carbohydrate)
- Body fat
In the moment, the body utilizes the ATP it has on hand to perform whatever actions are needed. Whether that’s folding laundry or attempting a new deadlift PR.
The issue is that muscles exhaust ATP reserves pretty quickly (especially if you’re doing intense exercise). Supplementing with creatine can help increase how much fast-acting ATP you have on hand, and thus extend the time you can train at a high level before needing a rest (or exhibiting a drop-off in performance), but you’ll still have to take a break at some point.
To replenish ATP levels and continue to power you through your workouts, the body will turn to either glycogen or body fat.
Depending on which type of activity you’re performing (resistance training vs steady-state cardio) will determine which energy reserve is more heavily taxed.
During exercise, both glycogen and fatty acids are mobilized for energy production (it’s not an either/or proposition, it’s BOTH).
However, the more intense your activity, the greater percentage of carbohydrates (glycogen) are used to fuel muscle contractions, since carbohydrates are more quickly broken down and converted to ATP than fatty acids.
During low level activity (steady-state cardio), a greater percentage of ATP is generated from the breakdown of fatty acids than glycogen. Think of fat as your “slow burning fuel.” It can power you for long periods of time doing moderately-low intensity work.
Carbohydrates are the high-octane fuel. They can provide enormous output (power), but don’t have the longevity of fat.
How Long Should I Rest Between Sets?
The answer is…it depends.
What is your goal?
Are you looking to build muscle? Gain strength? Improve conditioning?
The goal you are pursuing as well as your current level of fitness will dictate how long you should rest between sets.
Generally speaking though…
If you want to build lean muscle, the current recommendations are to rest 1.5-3 minutes between sets. More complex, multi-joint exercises that recruit large amounts of muscle (e.g. squats, rows, etc.) require more rest than simple, single-joint exercises (e.g. bicep curls).
When you’re training for muscle growth (hypertrophy), you want your muscles to be the limiting factor, not your cardiovascular system. Your focus is on stressing and fatiguing your muscles, not seeing how quickly you can complete your workout.
To make the most of each set, your muscles need to be stressed hard, then allowed to rest so that they recover enough energy (ATP) so that they can do another really hard set.
Building muscle and strength are often viewed as one-in-the-same. While there is some overlap between the two, they are not identical.
Building pure strength is accomplished by multiple sets of low reps (3-5 reps per set), very heavy weight (85-95% of 1-RM), and long rest periods.
Whereas building muscle is about exhausting muscle fibers, building strength is being as fresh as you can for each set and exerting maximum force.
As such, if your goal is to maximize strength (a la powerlifting), rest periods will be between 3-5 minutes, depending on the particular exercise and amount of weight you're lifting.
Endurance training typically trains the cardiovascular system and strength-endurance of your muscles. It essentially involves lower intensity weight (relative to 1RM) but for longer time under tension (i.e. higher reps).
Endurance training typically involves shorter rest between sets, often as little as 20-30 seconds between sets.
Don’t Neglect Rest Days
Going back to what we said at the beginning of the article, it can be tempting to abide by the “#nodaysoff”mentality, but in reality, you need rest days.
Professional athletes understand the importance of rest days, and know that (even if they don’t like rest days) it ultimately helps them to perform better and get results.
Rest days are important for several reasons, including:
- Repair micro tears caused by intense resistance training workouts
- Replenish depleted energy stores
- Reduce stress and cortisol levels
- Decrease the risk of burnout
- Reduce inflammation and swelling
- Allows joints and connective tissue to heal (muscles aren’t the only thing stressed during exercise)
As for how often you should take a rest day, that depends on a few factors, including age, training experience, style of training, injury history, and other lifestyle factors (job, stress level, sleep, nutrition, etc.).
Generally speaking, though, you should take at least one complete rest day each week. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to be a complete sloth. You can still be active (walking, hiking, yoga, etc.) as this will help recovery, but don’t push it so hard that you feel more fatigued than when you woke up that day.
Supplements to Enhance Recovery
A good diet and plenty of quality sleep is key to optimizing recovery and making the most of your rest days.
Supplements can also enhance recovery and allow you to get back in the gym quicker so you can keep training hard.
Some of our favorite supplements for recovery are:
- Creatine: often thought of as a “muscle building” supplement, creatine actually helps replenish energy stores and aids hydration. It’s also been shown to enhance muscle recovery following exercise.
- Protein Powder: protein supplies the key building blocks (amino acids) your muscles need to repair themselves. Protein powder provides a quick, easy, delicious, and nutritious option to help meet your protein requirements.
- Amino Acids: In addition to protein powder, supplementing with essential amino acids (EAAs) and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) can help reduce muscle soreness and enhance muscle recovery.
- Nighttime Recovery Aids: the value of sleep can’t be emphasized heavily enough when it comes to recovery from exercise. The issue is that many individuals struggle to consistently get good sleep. Using nighttime recovery and relaxation supplements, such as Recharge PM or Beauty Dream PM can help achieve the state of calm needed to achieve deep, restorative sleep.