How Much Rest Between Sets in a Strength Workout? Expert Tips

How long you rest between sets of strength exercises is an important but often overlooked variable in a strength-training program.

Amie Dworecki, an RRCA- and USATF-certified running coach and personal trainer, says that too many people focus all their attention on the types of exercises they’ll do and how many reps and sets without giving their rest intervals a second thought.

“Between sets, they may spend random amounts of time zoning out, chatting with friends, or rushing through and only waiting a few seconds before starting their next set,” Dworecki says. In either event, this lack of consideration for downtime can make your workouts less effective.

 

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Suppose your rest period is too short. In that case, your muscles may not have enough time to get rid of metabolic waste (substances left over from the process of creating energy for exercise) or restock the fuel you used in your last set and need to perform the next one. “Your nervous system, responsible for starting your muscle contractions to perform the exercise, could also fatigue,” Dworecki says. “Not only could these effects lead to a less effective workout for your goals, but they could also lead to a potential injury.”

On the other hand, Dworecki notes that waiting too long between sets can lead to more wasted time during your workouts, so they take longer to complete than necessary. It can also curb your results if you’re training for endurance or hypertrophy. (More on this shortly.)

“Rest periods play a role in triggering specific physiological adaptations based on your training goals. If you’re looking for a specific type of improvement, you need to take specific rest periods to get the most benefit possible,” says Michael Hamlin, C.S.C.S., a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Alberta.

A review in Sports Medicine recommends the following rest periods for different goals:

  • To boost strength and power, rest 3 to 5 minutes between sets.
  • When training for hypertrophy (muscle growth), rest periods ranging from 30 to 60 seconds is ideal.
  • To improve muscular endurance, keep rest periods between 20 to 60 seconds.

Let’s dig into each goal and the importance of their respective rest periods.

Why Rest Matters for Strength and Power

Intensity and recovery have an inverse relationship, Dworecki says. In other words, the higher the intensity, the longer it takes to recover.

Strength and power activities, such as deadlifting a heavy weight or jumping as high as possible, primarily rely on the phosphagen system to provide energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), per the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Think of the phosphagen system as your immediate energy system; it excels at delivering ATP for rapid bursts of effort. However, your muscles only store a small supply of creatine phosphate (the material this system uses to create ATP). After only about 10 to 15 seconds, this supply runs dry. Then, it takes about three minutes to rebuild, Dworecki says. Hence, the reason experts recommend resting for three to five minutes between sets for strength and power—you need that time to replenish the chemicals that supply energy.

In fact, research shows that resting three to five minutes between sets when training with loads between 50 and 90 percent of one-repetition maximum (the most weight you can lift for a single rep) generates greater increases in strength than shorter rest periods.

If you cut your rest short, you won’t be able to handle the same heavy weights. “In other words, full recovery between sets enables you to lift more before fatiguing, leading to more significant gains from your strength workouts,” Dworecki explains.

Why Rest Matters for Hypertrophy

One way to increase size is to apply metabolic stress to the muscles, Hamlin says. To understand how this works—and where rest periods fit in—we have to consider the energy system at work.

Typically, hypertrophy sets use moderate loads and last longer than strength and power sets, so they primarily recruit the glycolytic energy system, which supports exercises lasting 30 seconds to three minutes. It creates ATP by breaking glucose (sugar) down into a simpler substance called pyruvate, per the ACE.

If exercise intensity is too high to allow oxygen into your muscles, the pyruvate converts into another substance called lactate before it’s turned into ATP. The downside of this extra step is it leaves extra lactate and hydrogen in your muscles. This causes the “burn” you sometimes feel during exercise. But it’s this “burn” that creates metabolic stress, which sort of tells your muscles to adapt and get bigger, according to a research paper published in 2017 in the World Journal of Methodology.

Research in Sports Medicine suggests that 30 to 60 seconds of rest between sets is the sweet spot for muscle growth. Hamlin explains that this duration strikes the ideal balance between giving your body a chance to recover and rebound for the next set and generating enough fatigue and stress for your muscles to adapt.

If you wait too long between sets, your muscles will have more time to clear out the byproducts, and the metabolic stress may not be high enough to spark the adaptations needed for muscle growth.

Why Rest Matters for Muscular Endurance

The rest periods for endurance tend to be short—between 20 to 60 seconds, the weights lighter, and the rep counts higher (around 12 to 20 or more reps per set). According to Hamlin, this combination keeps your heart rate elevated, “mimicking the demands of endurance sports,” and it teaches your muscles perform for longer periods of time without fatiguing.

The higher rep counts and shorter rest periods will call on your glycolytic energy system (as in training for hypertrophy) and, to a certain extent, your oxidative (aerobic) energy system. The oxidative energy system uses oxygen to turn carbs and fats into ATP, and it’s the same system that fuels easy jogs, 5Ks, and even marathons.

Granted, the research on the ideal rest periods for muscular endurance isn’t as definitive as for hypertrophy and strength. But 20 to 60 seconds is still a good starting point for endurance training, Hamlin notes.

How to Determine Whether to Train for Strength, Hypertrophy, or Endurance

So, which training goal should you choose? That may depend on your experience level, age, and injury status, as well as your running goals.

“If runners are new to lifting weights, are injured, or have low bone density, using a lighter weight with higher reps can be an excellent way to train,” Dworecki says.

An endurance-focused strength program can also help these runners build more robust muscles that resistant fatigue (helpful for long runs!), while giving their joints and nervous system a gentle introduction to weighted movements.

On the other hand, if you’re a high-mileage runner, you’re probably already building muscular endurance through your running workouts. In that case, training with a heavier weight and lower reps to build strength and power may be more effective for your running performance. “Compound exercises, in which you use more than one muscle group at a time to target the hips, quads, and calves can give you more muscular power to apply more force to the ground with each stride for a faster pace or to handle big climbs,” Dworecki says.

Meanwhile, older runners may want to consider hypertrophy training to help counter muscle loss with age. According to a review in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, starting around the age of 30, we begin losing 3 to 5 percent of our muscle mass per decade, and the rate increases dramatically after the age of 60.

Where you are in your racing season can affect which goal you choose, too. Generally, you’ll want to lower your strength training volume as you ramp up your running volume. If you’re in high-volume running mode or getting close to peaking before a race, Hamlin suggests doing strength work with fewer reps, less volume (which also means less frequency), and heavier weights (compared to what you’d use for hypertrophy or endurance training). “This will reduce the total strain and target the nervous system more to maintain or increase strength,” Hamlin says.

One quick caveat: Your energy systems don’t work solo, it’s just that one may be the lead singer while the others provide background vocals. So while you can target one particular goal with your reps, sets, and rest time, you’ll still gain some benefits in other areas of your fitness, just to a lesser extent. For example, if you’re training for strength, you might still see some muscle growth.

Lettermark

Lauren Bedosky is a freelance health and fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Runner’s WorldPrevention, Experience Life and Women’s Running.