Rest Between Sets

How long should you rest between work sets? The obvious answer is … as long as it takes if strength is your primary goal. Today, we are going to discuss rest periods in training and the recommendations we make at the gym.

A common conversation at our gym might go something like this:

  • New Athlete: whew, that was a tough set.
  • Me: how long did you rest
  • New Athlete: I don’t know, maybe like 2 minutes
  • Me: that’s not going to work
  • New Athlete: but it’s light and I don’t feel tired
  • Me: that’s not going to work
  • New Athlete: so … rest like 2 and a half minutes

“Strength Training”

Having the “why should I rest longer” conversation with a new athlete is inevitable at our gym. We expect this conversation to occur somewhere in the first couple of weeks, when the weight starts getting heavy. The athlete is most likely coming to us from another gym that over prioritized conditioning modalities. At this point we need to explain how adequate rest is necessary to complete the required work. This conversation is inevitable because most often “strength training” is bastardized, typical sessions often looks something like this:

  • 15 DB Rows + 12 DB Bench + 20 DB Lunge
  • 4 rounds, rest 60 seconds, wash, rinse, repeat.

At Brentwood Barbell, we feel the purpose of strength training is to GET STRONGER and the purpose of conditioning is to IMPROVE CONDITIONING (aerobic, anaerobic performance). Neither are explicitly designed to promote fat loss. Sure, fat loss can occur but most fat loss happens in the kitchen and anybody that isn’t a baby novice knows this. Despite this fact, in an effort to be more efficient, many gyms sacrifice effectiveness. Strength and conditioning are two separate physiologic adaptations that don’t play well together. Sacrifices will be made by one to accommodate the other. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have conditioning in your program … you should, and, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t be lean … you should, we’re just recommending that trying to do it all at the same time might not be the best approach.


The SAID Principle states that specific adaptations occur under imposed demands. If you’re trying achieve a specific goal, you should go about it in a specific way as specificity will likely minimize the time needed to realize the adaptation. The adaptation that we are interested in today is increased force production against an external resistance, i.e. strength. Strength training, like any other adaptation, must be intentionally trained for and a hallmark requirement of proper strength training is adequate rest between sets. Adequate rest allows for progressively heavier weights at increasingly higher volumes to be used in training.

Why Rest

Rest periods are essential in the reestablishment of blood and oxygen into the muscle. Energy substrates (i.e. fuel) are replenished and metabolic end products (such as hydrogen ions) are removed. All of this happens so that your muscles can perform repeated bouts of high output. Like any other mechanical system, our body needs the requisite fuel to perform these repeated bouts. By resting too little, we are limiting available fuel. Robinson, et. al. showed significant improvements in squat 1-rep maximum values can be achieved (9 kg. vs. 3 kg.) when longer rest periods (3 min) vs shorter rest periods (.5 min) are used. Similarly, in his review of the literature, Williardson noted rest intervals between sets for maximal strength increases must allow for increasingly higher levels of volume at increasingly higher levels of intensity. Additionally, he noted to achieve a given volume goal, longer rest intervals of 4 to 5 minutes should be utilized.

Strength Training (proper) & Practical Recommendations

Given the totality and conclusiveness of research on the subject, the “why should I rest longer” conversation should really be the “how can I rest long enough to do the work but not be in the gym all day” conversation. The truth is, how strong you are able to get is largely dependent upon the amount of time you have to dedicate to the pursuit. Proper strength training will demand a requisite amount of volume (sets x reps x lbs used) and intensity (percentage of your maximum) to be fully realized. Over time these requisite demands grow. Turns out, strength training is like any other endeavor, you get out of it what you put into it.

At Brentwood Barbell we think the basic barbell training (squats, presses, and pulls) is the perfect modality for getting strong. Barbell training works the whole body and is never limited by the amount of weight that can be used like it’s dumbbell and calisthenic counterparts. Additionally, micro plates and training bars can be used if needed and any barriers to entry can effectively be eliminated. We prefer these exercises be done for low to moderate repetitions (1-10) with adequate rest between sets. Additional hypertrophy work and conditioning can certainly be layered into the program but they are not trained in the same manner that our basic barbell lifts are. More importantly, our basic barbell lifts are not trained in the same manner as our hypertrophy and conditioning work as this would be a misrepresentation of the specificity needed to actually drive strength. At the gym our programming utilizes the research available to us. We are constantly striving for better programming and ultimately better strength outcomes. Below are a few take-home ideas we use with our athletes.

  • Use complete rest intervals between barbell work sets (3-5 minutes)
  • Complete conditioning on “off days” if possible
  • Complete conditioning after strength work if they need to be done on the same day
  • Hypertrophy work can employ much shorter rest periods (1-3 minutes)
  • Complete hypertrophy work after strength work

Sample Session

  • Squat x 3-5 reps x 1 set, 3-5 reps x 2 sets @93% of top set (rest 3-5 min, record RPE)
  • Press x 3-5 reps x 1 set, 3-5 reps x 4 sets @95% of top set (rest 3-5 min, record RPE)
  • Dips x 6-10 reps x 3 sets (rest 1-3 min, record RPE)
  • Sled Push x 100′ x 5 (rest 1 min)

Strength is Important

If you’re thinking, “I don’t care about how strong I get, I just want to lose a few pounds” that’s cool with us, but strength training should still be your priority in the gym as it provides a “bottoms up” or foundational approach that will support your pursuit of:

  • more muscle
  • less fat
  • staying out of the nursing home
  • a more powerful golf swing
  • running faster
  • everything

Considering the fact that the American College of Sports Medicine states progressive resistance training as necessary in order to drive continued training goals, everyone should care about strength training. In fact, at Brentwood Barbell we really can’t think of a reason to not be actively pursuing the hell out of strength. At our gym every athlete we work with is screened and vetted to make sure they are like-minded and understand the value of strength. We don’t mind having the “why should I rest longer” conversation with new athletes, in fact, we look forward to it. We enjoy educating athletes on what proper strength training is. Once the athlete knows the basics of the strength training, they can leverage that information against the time they can devote to training and make informed decisions moving forward.


American College of Sports Medicine. Position stand: Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc 34: 364–380, 2002.

Rippetoe, M & Baker, A. (2013). Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd Edition. Wichita Falls, TX: The Aasgaard Company.

Robinson, JM, Stone, MH, Johnson, RL, Penland, CM, Warren, BJ, and Lewis, RD. Effects of different weight training exercise/ rest intervals on strength, power, and high intensity exercise endurance. J Strength Cond Res 9: 216–221, 1995.

Williardson, J.M. (2008). A Brief Review: How Much Rest between Sets. National Strength and Conditioning Association, 30, 3 (44-50)