Watching the Clock: Rest Time Between Sets

ClockI like to keep a running list of questions people ask me about getting in shape and health in general. When I see the same or similar questions popping up again and again, I figure there are others who might like to know the answer as well. So, I share the question on here and give my opinion on the matter, as well as ask readers to chime in with their opinions.

Today’s Question: “How long should I rest between sets?”

The short answer is, it depends. But let’s dive into the long answer.

If you’re lifting light (low- or only bodyweight), you don’t have to rest long between sets. Some workout programs that are designed around low-weight with high-reps move almost immediately from one move to the next with virtually no rest. An example of this might be a dance exercise class. Many group exercise classes fall into this category, actually.

Why do rest times matter?

Simply put, you engage different muscles when you lift light than you use when lifting heavy. Plus, with light lifting, you use a lower percentage of your maximum strength; the heavier you lift, the higher the percentage. Pretty straightforward, right?

The closer you get to your max, the longer you need to rest and recover. If you jump right into another set after some seriously heavy lifting, your muscles are not going to perform well–you’d be lucky to complete one full rep.

Here’s a chart of suggested rest times from Men’s Health (note: the lower the reps, the higher the weight you are lifting):

  • 1 to 3 reps: Rest for to 5 minutes
  • 4 to 7 reps: Rest for 2 to 3 minutes
  • 8 to 12 reps: Rest for 1 to 2 minutes
  • 13 reps or more: Rest for 1 minute

Of course, these aren’t hard and fast rules. I don’t do CrossFit (yet, anyway), but I know that “CrossFitters” don’t follow this traditional pattern of sets/reps. Additionally, you can mix up your workout with power sets or by alternating between muscle groups (for example, targeting quads for one set then immediately performing a set that targets calves), thus reducing rest time. I’ll do a post on some of these options later.

WeightsPersonally, I usually lift fairly heavy and do ten reps with a one-minute rest between sets. Sometimes on my second and third sets, I reach failure at rep number seven or eight. I also like to alternate between muscle groups (as discussed above) to save time and keep my heart rate up.

I often use the stopwatch on my iPod to make sure I rest long enough between sets because I have a terrible habit of jumping into another set after just a few breaths. The result? I reach failure much sooner than I should (for my current goals).

But you don’t have to be so meticulous about it. Many people just go by how they feel–judging appropriate rest time by getting in tune with their bodies. What you have to be careful of with this approach is not resting too long.

Rest time between sets is important. You don’t want to skip your rests or rest for too short of a time period because then you risk poorer performance and may shortchange yourself. After all, you want to increase your strength, right? But you also don’t want to rest too long. Resting too long lets your heart rate drop and gives your muscles too much recovery time.

So stop watching the TV, talking, and surfing the internet on your phone and instead pay attention to your body’s needs. And please, PLEASE stop with the selfie photo shoot and get back to your workout.

How long do you rest between sets? Do you agree with the Men’s Health numbers? If you follow a different lift/rest pattern, please share!

(Images: clock by Earls37a; weights by Gary Moore)


Watching the Clock: Rest Time Between Sets — 2 Comments

    • Hi Alissa!

      Same here. I often want to recover a little longer, but one minute seems to be the magic number for me.

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment 🙂

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