Recently, research has been coming out showing that long rest periods between sets are best for building muscle. With longer rest times, our muscles can better recover their strength between sets, allowing us to maintain more of our performance from set to set. More weight lifted for more sets means more mechanical tension, higher training volumes, and thus more muscle growth. Because of this, most bodybuilders rest 2–5 minutes between sets.
But a decade ago, short rest times were thought to be best for building muscle. Bodybuilders would rest just 30–60 seconds between sets because it gave them better muscle pumps, kept their workouts short, improved their fitness, and, they thought, helped them build more muscle.
What’s neat is that both approaches are correct. Using long rest times allows us to use heavier weights and gain more strength, helping us to build more muscle. Short rest times, on the other hand, help us to improve our work capacity and general fitness, also helping us to build more muscle.
The Benefits of Long Rest Times
The reason long rest periods are good for building muscle is that they give us a chance to catch our breath and recover our strength between sets. If we don’t catch our breath between sets, we might be limited by our cardiovascular systems instead of by the strength of our muscles, and so we might cause the wrong type of adaptation—we’d grow fitter instead of stronger. And if we don’t recover our strength between sets, we won’t be able to lift as heavy for as many reps, putting less mechanical tension on our muscles. We’d still be stimulating muscle growth with every challenging set, but we’d need to do more sets to make up for the dwindling training volume.
However, fully recovering our strength between sets can require monstrously long rest periods. A 2020 study found that resting eight minutes between sets allowed people to maintain more reps from set to set than five-minute rests, and it’s unclear if that’s even the limit. Imagine how many sets you could do within that same timeframe. Even if you aren’t getting as many reps in later sets, the overall training volume would still be much higher, presumably leading to more muscle growth within the same timeframe.
The next thing to consider is strength. Gaining strength isn’t just about gaining muscle, it’s also about training ourselves to contract our muscles as forcefully as possible. To practice that, we need to be starting each set feeling fairly fresh. This is why strength trainees often leave a couple of reps in reserve, rest for at least a few minutes between their sets, and stop doing sets before they get too fatigued. It’s conceivable that if we bring this mindset into our hypertrophy training, we’d learn to lift heavier weights, allowing us to stimulate more muscle growth with every set.
All three of these points make logical sense, and all three were subsequently backed up by well-conducted research, leaving us little doubt that longer rest times can certainly help us build more muscle:
- Dr Schoenfeld’s famous 2016 study found that 3-minute rest periods yielded more muscle growth than 1-minute rest periods when lifting in the 8–12 rep range.
- Another 2016 study found that 5-minute rest periods roughly doubled the amount of protein synthesis compared to 1-minute rest periods.
Now, we’re seeing that both 3-minute and 5-minute rest periods were tested. 2-minute rest periods are often tested as well. But there’s no magical number of minutes we need to wait. It all depends on how heavy the lift is, how big the range of motion is, how many reps we do, how fit we are, and how much time we’re willing to spend waiting between sets.
For example, the conventional deadlift uses a larger range of motion and engages more of our upper-back musculature than the sumo deadlift, causing it to use 25-40% more energy (study). As a result, we’re often able to eke out more reps and get away with shorter rest periods when using a sumo stance. Mind you, conventional deadlifts might be the better lift for building muscle and improving our fitness. And as we get stronger, deadlifts will only get harder on our cardiovascular systems, allowing us to get even more robust fitness improvements from lifting weights.
- Stronger lifters are able to lift heavier weights or do more reps, meaning they’re doing more work, and thus it takes them longer to recover between sets.
- Heavier compound lifts (such as squats and deadlifts) engage more muscle mass and burn through more resources, increasing the amount of time it takes to recover between sets.
- Lifting with a larger range of motion means doing more work, again increasing recovery times.
- Fitter lifters are able to recover more quickly between sets.
So we can imagine how a skinny new lifter with a history of doing cardiovascular training being able to recover super quickly between sets, perhaps to the point where they can get away with doing circuits and supersets. On the other hand, a grizzled powerlifter who only ever lifts in low rep ranges might need to take a nap between sets. Hell, he may even get winded halfway through a set of ten.
This is all to say that rest times can vary greatly. To solve this, Mike Israetel, PhD, developed a simple rule of thumb: we should rest until our breathing has returned to normal. That might be five minutes between heavy sets of squats, two minutes between sets of biceps curls, or one minute between sets of wrist curls.
Longer rest times allow us to put more mechanical tension on our muscles with every set, making each set very efficient. Longer rest times are also better for our improving our maximal strength. To get those benefits, we should wait until our breathing has returned to normal between sets.
The Benefits of Short Rest Times
So, first of all, there may be a myth to banish. One of the reasons that short rest times were thought to cause more muscle growth is because they were associated with elevations in growth hormone. This idea even had a name: the hormone hypothesis. Bodybuilders would design their entire workout routines to maximize anabolic hormone production. Thing is, despite its awesome name, recent research shows that growth hormone doesn’t cause extra muscle growth.
It seems like higher training volumes cause more muscle growth and more growth hormone production. The growth hormone isn’t causing the muscle growth, it’s merely being produced alongside the growth. The short rest times were allowing bodybuilders to fit more high-rep sets into their workouts, raising their training volume up way higher, and it was that extra training volume that was making their bodybuilding routines so effective. Now, that doesn’t mean that short rest times aren’t good for hypertrophy, it just means that the mechanism may have been misunderstood. In this case, it seems like the shorter rest times were merely a way to do more work in less time.
What’s neat about workouts designed to pack a ton of work into a short timeframe, though, is that they cause us to adapt by storing more fuel in our muscles—sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. We aren’t just improving our maximal strength, we’re also improving our ability to do more work in less time. And both of those adaptations will make us bigger, more capable, and better looking.
Hypertrophy training is the combination of increased strength and muscular work capacity.Eric Helms, PhD
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is sometimes thought of as being the bad type of muscle growth. People assume that it will lead to softer muscles or fewer performance benefits, but that isn’t true. First, since the growth is still taking place within our muscle fibres, there’s no reason to think that our muscles would feel any different. And second, developing a greater work capacity is an incredibly useful performance advantage.
Plus, muscle growth aside, short rest times can also be incredibly healthy, especially if we don’t do very much dedicated cardiovascular training. Short rest times are great for improving our general fitness, work capacity, and oxygen delivery. That’s why a lot of general fitness lifting programs use circuit training with short rest times between each exercise. You also see this same idea being used with high-intensity interval training (HIIT), where cardiovascular fitness is improved by doing a series of short bursts of intense work with inadequate rest periods between them. That’s not so different from doing a few ten-rep sets of squats with 1–2 minutes of rest between them.
But we do care about muscle growth, and it would suck to stay weak and skinny just for the sake of living longer and healthier lives. Fortunately, by using higher-rep sets and shorter rest times, if we do it right, we can get more muscle growth than with longer rest periods. For example, this study found that using shorter rest times roughly doubled muscle growth:
- Long rest times, 8 reps per set: muscles grew 4.73% bigger.
- Short rest times, 20 reps per set: muscles grew 9.93% bigger.
If we use examples of extremely short rest periods, such as drop sets, where we lift to failure (or close to it), reduce the weight by 20%, and then immediately start lifting again, we see some nifty research findings:
- Normal sets with 90-second rest periods (3 sets total): muscles grew 5% bigger.
- A normal set immediately followed by three drop sets (4 sets total): muscles grew 10% bigger.
In this case, what we’re seeing is that drop sets can allow us to build more muscle in less time, perhaps simply by increasing the number of challenging sets we’re doing in our workouts—by increasing our training volume.
Now, to be fair, most research finding an advantage for shorter rest times either had the short-rest groups lifting in higher rep ranges or doing more sets. We could say that it’s the extra volume that’s causing the extra muscle growth. However, with shorter rest times, we can do more sets in less time, making it a great way to build tons of muscle with short workouts. For example, if we’re pressed for time, we could do a single heavy set and then sneak in a few drop sets. That might mean doing four sets instead of three, sure, but we’d be finished all four sets inside of two minutes, whereas it might take us a good ten minutes to get through three sets with longer rest periods.
Combining Long & Short Rest Times
Instead of saying that longer or shorter rest intervals are better for hypertrophy, it’s more accurate to say that when we’re aiming for size and strength, we should use lower reps and longer rest periods, and when we’re aiming for size and fitness, we should use higher reps and shorter rest periods.
Of course, we don’t need to pick one or the other. We could use our big compound lifts to train our strength, and then we could use our assistance and accessory lifts to train our work capacity, improve our fitness, and to get a good muscle pump going. We could also dedicate some of our training phases to building muscle by improving our work capacity, dedicate other phases to building muscle by improving our strength.
The trick, again, is to make sure that the various factors line up.
- Big compound lifts: best to use longer rest times so that we can lift heavy and gain strength. However, using short rest times can be a great way to improve our fitness, so they have a role as well.
- Smaller isolation lifts: shorter rest times can work very well, allowing us to sneak in a ton of extra volume in a short amount of time, build up a fearsome pump, and improve nutrient delivery to those muscles.
- Strength phases: if we’re trying to build muscle and gain strength, it can help to use longer rest times.
- Fitness phases: if we’re trying to improve our cardiovascular fitness, lifting fitness, or general health, it can help to use shorter rest times.
- Longer workouts: if we have the time for longer workouts, then feel free to take some extra rest time. We’ll be able to use higher training volumes and recover our strength between sets.
- Shorter workouts: if we don’t have much time to work out, it’s probably best to cram as much volume as we can into our workouts, and so short, strict rest times are best. And if we don’t have enough time to do dedicated cardiovascular training, at least we’ll be getting better cardio adaptations from our lifting.
Another way to combine shorter and longer rest times is to use antagonist supersets or circuits.
- Antagonist supersets: an antagonist superset is when we pair two lifts together that work opposing muscles. For example, we could pair chin-ups (biceps and back) with overhead presses (shoulders and triceps). We might still have rest periods between each lift, but we might rest one minute between sets instead of three, allowing us to essentially sneak our overhead pressing into the rest periods of our chin-ups, getting twice as much done in the same amount of time. Other examples of antagonist supersets are bench presses with barbell rows, biceps curls with triceps extensions, neck curls with neck extensions, and wrist curls with wrist extensions.
- Circuits: a circuit is when a few different exercises are strung together into a series. For example, we could do a set of biceps curls, a set of lateral raises, and then a set of hanging leg raises. As with supersets, we can rest between sets, but the idea is to rest only long enough to ensure that our cardiovascular systems aren’t our limiting factor. If these exercises aren’t overly tiring, we can get a lot of work done in a short amount of time while still giving our muscles enough time to recover between sets.
So if we put together a lifting program, we might start off with a training phase or two that are focused on improving our work capacity. Those phases might user higher rep ranges, shorter rest times, and higher training volumes. Then we might transition to more strength-oriented phases where we’re using lower rep ranges, longer rest times, and more moderate training volumes.
And if we’re structuring a workout, we might start off with a couple of big compound lifts done for fewer reps and with longer rest times. Then we might move on to smaller isolation lifts done for higher reps and with shorter rest times. And at the end of the workout, we might blast through a quick circuit or toss in some drop sets.
Long rest periods are better for strength training, and they stimulate more muscle growth per set. To get those advantages, we should let our breathing return to normal between sets.
Short rest periods are better for improving our work capacity, and they stimulate more muscle growth per unit of time. To get those advantages, we can use strict rest times between sets, often around 1–2 minutes of rest for compound lifts, 30–60 seconds for smaller isolation lifts. We can also use drop sets, antagonist supersets, and circuits.
If we’re trying to build muscle, gain strength, and improve our health, it’s probably best to use both long and short rest times at various points in our training.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you liked this article, you’ll love the full program.