This Is the Optimal Rest Time Between Sets Based on Your Workout Goals, According to an Exercise Scientist

Photo: Getty Images/ RobertPetrovic
Working out in group fitness classes tends to encourage people to go all-out, all the time. But when it comes to lifting, there’s something to be said about taking breaks. While some people worry that lagging between sets can be a sign of laziness or disinterest, in reality, taking breaks enhances the effect of the lift. That’s why apps, like Alive by Whitney Simmons, incorporate regimented rest time between each set, and even longer breaks between exercises. But it begs the question: How long should you rest between sets?

Although it may seem counterintuitive to working out—or like it’s slowing you down—CPT and ACE Senior Director of Science and Research Sabrena Jo, PhD, says that spending at least one minute between sets is necessary to really reap the rewards of lifting.

Experts In This Article
  • Sabrena Jo, PhD, personal trainer and the American Council on Exercise senior director of science and research

The importance of resting between sets while lifting

Spending a minute or more between sets can feel annoying, however, the benefits of doing so can prove extremely beneficial. When you take a minute (or more) between sets, you…

Prevent fatigue

Continuous, intensive exercise without rest can lead to premature muscle fatigue, which reduces your ability to maintain form and intensity across the entirety of your workout,” Dr. Jo says. “This can limit the effectiveness of your training and increase the risk of injury.”

Allow yourself to recover neurally

"The central nervous system [CNS] plays a significant role in weightlifting,” Dr. Jo says. “Rest periods allow the CNS to recover from the high-stress activity, ensuring you can maintain control and form during your lifts.”

Give yourself a psychological break

"Resting provides a mental break, which can help you maintain focus and intensity throughout your workout,” Dr. Jo explains. “This can be especially important during high-intensity or high-volume workouts.”

With all this in mind, Dr. Jo says that, ultimately, taking breaks between sets can help you train more effectively.

How long you should rest between sets

Now that you know the benefits of rest periods, you may be wondering how long you have to dilly-dally to achieve them. According to Dr. Jo, it depends on your lifting goals. “To increase muscle size, or hypertrophy, resting for one to two minutes between sets after you’ve lifted to failure can support this goal; to increase strength and power, resting for three to five minutes between sets allows for more recovery time and can support this goal,” she says.

The one exception for shorter rest periods is for muscular endurance. If that’s your goal, Dr. Jo says resting for just 30 seconds will do the trick.

Remember though, these are merely guidelines. “As with so many things exercise-related, each person will have a unique response to their training sessions,” Dr. Jo says. “So, even though these rest intervals are a good place to start, you may find that sticking strictly to them during a workout is somewhat limiting—that is, you may need a little more rest when moving between really challenging muscle-building sets, and that’s okay."

Dr. Jo says it’s better to feel fully recovered so that each subsequent set can be performed safely and with good form, rather than sticking to a timed rest interval.

How to incorporate rest times into your lifting sesh

The most accurate way to count time between sets is with a timer. While many trainer-led apps feature built-in timers in their programming, if you’re designing your own workout, using a Tabata timer or even just your phone’s timer will work.

“A timer can be helpful if you become familiar with how you feel during appropriately timed rest intervals, especially for beginners,” Dr. Jo says. “However, once you get the hang of it, you can go by how recovered your body feels. Ideally, you want to feel psychologically and physically rested enough to take on your next set without fear of being too fatigued to continue.”

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