How Long Should You Rest Between Sets?

Key Points:

  • Short rest periods (<1 minute) between sets sharply decrease the number of reps you can do with a given weight.
  • Resting 3–5 minutes between sets leads to greater muscle growth and strength gains than resting one minute, given that you perform the same number of sets.
  • By supersetting exercises for different muscle groups, you can effectively double your “rest” for a given exercise without increasing your total workout time.

How long should you rest between sets, if your goal is to build muscle and strength?

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • How quickly your muscles restore their energy after a set.
  • How short vs. long rest periods affect your performance, muscle growth, and strength gains.
  • How supersets might make your workouts more time-effective, without negatively affecting your training results.

Your rest interval between sets is one of the fundamental training variables in your control. After reading this article, you will have a better understanding of how it affects your strength training.

How Long Does It Take to Recover after a Set?

Almost every process in your body, including your muscle actions, uses ATP (adenosine triphosphate) as it’s energy source.

Your muscles’ store of ATP, however, only lasts long enough to fuel a few seconds of maximal work, such as a heavy lift of a short sprint. Your muscles’ quickest means to resynthesize ATP is to break down creatine phosphate, which is also stored in your muscles.

As soon as you start expending ATP in a set of a given exercise, creatine phosphate is broken down to create more ATP. This enables your muscles to work at high power for a little longer: up to about a 10-second sprint or a few heavy lifts. At this point, muscle glycogen becomes the primary source of ATP, but this process is slower and cannot fuel as powerful work as during the first 10 seconds.

ATP production from PCr vs glycolysis
ATP production from creatine phosphate (red) vs glycolysis (gray) during high intensity exercise.

After a challenging set to failure, the level of creatine phosphate in your muscles can be as low as 15–30% of its resting levels.1 Your stores of creatine phosphate is then quickly restored, mainly using muscle glycogen as the energy source, over the following minutes.

As a rule of thumb, creatine resynthesis can be approximated to a half time of about 30 seconds. That means that you have recovered 50% of the creatine you used in a set after 30 seconds, 75% after 60 seconds, 87.5% after 90 seconds, and about 95% after two minutes of rest. This resynthesis is slower if you are low on muscle glycogen, and doesn’t happen at all if you have occluded the blood flow to the muscle.2 3

Recovery of creatine phosphate between sets

Your recovery of creatine phosphate closely matches the recovery of your ability to generate force. After about two minutes you will have recovered 95% of your force. For recovery closer to 99%, which might be necessary between sets of really challenging weights, you might need to rest five minutes or more.

Two practical conclusions can be drawn from this:

  1. Most of your recovery (95%) happens during your first two minutes of rest.
  2. The difference between resting 1 and 2 minutes, is larger than the difference between resting 2 and 3 minutes.

How Does Rest Between Sets Affect Your Performance?

The implications of your rate of recovery between sets is illustrated beautifully by the results from a Brazilian study on bench press performance.4

Twelve resistance-trained young men with an average bench press max of 1.5 times their body weight, was tested on two different occasions for how many reps they could do in 5 sets with their 10RM in the bench press. That is the maximum weight that they could lift for 10 reps, which was tested before the two subsequent sessions.

In each of the following two sessions, the participants did as many reps in the bench press as possible over:

  • 5 sets on their 10RM, with 1 minute of rest between sets.
  • 5 sets on their 10RM, with 3 minutes of rest between sets.

Here’s how the difference in rest periods affected the average number of reps performed.

Number of reps per set in the bench press at different rest intervals

The participants performed significantly fewer reps with the same weight, when they were only afforded one minute of rest between sets. They did 44% more reps in all five sets combined when they rested three minutes between sets instead of one.

You could, of course, argue that the short rest group could compensate by doing an additional 4–5 sets of 2–3 reps, which was the average number of reps in their last set, to make up for the difference. But, as most people base their training around the number of sets they do rather than the number of total reps they do, I’d say that this is seldom done.

And, as we will see, those extra reps can make quite a difference in the long term.

How Does Rest Interval Between Sets Affect Your Muscle Growth and Strength Gains?

In a 2016 training study that spanned over eight weeks, participants resting three minutes between sets increased their muscle mass and strength twice as much as participants who rested only one minute between sets.5

A meta-analysis from 2009 agrees with these results, finding that resting 3–5 minutes between sets produced greater increases in absolute strength than one minute or less.6

As we briefly touched upon earlier, there does seem to be a drop-off point after about 2–3 minutes, where resting any longer doesn’t seem to make as much of a difference as increasing your rest from one minute to two or three. One training study saw similar gains in muscle size and strength from training with 2 minutes vs. 5 minutes of interset rest periods, although the 2 minute-group performed extra sets to match the training volume of the 5 minute-group.7

Taken together: longer rest between sets, at least 2–3 minutes, seem beneficial for muscle growth and strength. But, if you don’t want to rest that long yet still want similar training results, you can probably compensate by doing additional sets.

Or, you could do supersets.

What About Supersets?

Instead of sitting on your ass for three minutes, you could train another muscle group while the one you just trained is recovering.

This is called supersetting, and it could be defined as a pair of sets of two different exercises.8

Common forms of supersets are two exercises that targets …

By supersetting exercises, you are able to pack in more training in the same time-frame.9 And, if you choose exercises intelligently, you can do so without hurting your performance (and as a consequence: your long-term gains).

By switching back and forth between two exercises, you can effectively double the rest time for those muscle groups, without your workout taking any longer.

Here are three examples of how it works out in practice:

  • In one study, participants trained bench press and seated row. One group did traditional training where they first completed all three sets of bench press before moving on to the seated row. They rested for two minutes between each set of each exercise. The other group alternated between the two exercises, so they did one set of bench press, rested for two minutes, then did one set of seated row, rested for two minutes, then one set of bench press, and so on, effectively getting four minutes of “rest” between each set of the same exercise. Both workouts took just as long, but the group alternating between exercises were able to lift 13% more weight in total than the group who completed all sets of one exercise before moving on to the next.10
  • A second study, similar in design, had one group of participants train three sets of bench press with two minutes rest between sets, followed by three sets of seal rows, also with two minutes rest between sets. Another group had the same rest between sets, but alternated the exercises, thus getting four minutes of “rest” between each set of the same exercise. Even though both sessions took the same amount of time to complete, the group that alternated exercises lifted 27% more weight in the bench press and 21% more weight in the seal row.11
  • In a third study, supersets consisting of bench press immediately followed by lat-pulldown and then resting for 180 seconds before the next superset, resulted in 10% more weight lifted than traditional training with 90 seconds of rest between each set: first three sets of bench press, then three sets of lat-pulldown.12

Taken together, supersets offer a nice way of squeezing in more training in a given time frame, without it negatively affecting your training.

Conclusion and Practical Recommendations

To summarize:

  • Short rest periods (<1 minute) between sets decrease the number of reps you can do with a given weight, which risks negatively affecting your muscle growth and strength gains.
  • Resting 3–5 minutes between sets leads to greater muscle growth and strength gains than resting one minute, given that you perform the same number of sets.
  • You have recovered most (~95 %) of your strength and power after just two minutes of rest. To recover near 99%, however, can require resting five minutes or more.
  • By supersetting exercises for different muscle groups, you can effectively double your “rest” for a given exercise without increasing your total workout time.

Generally, allowing your muscles at least two minutes of rest between sets is a good idea. If you don’t like waiting for that long, utilizing supersets is a great way to keep you busy and cut your workout time short. Another alternative is to simply perform more sets.

My general recommendation for rest between sets is this:

Rest for as long as is necessary, so that you can perform the next set with good technique, at the desired weight, and with the number of reps that you want to.

Don’t get too caught up in the minutiae just because the evidence I’ve presented here points in favor of slightly longer (2–3 minutes) rather than shorter (<1 minute) rest periods. Training hard and trying to improve your performance using one minute rest periods, will blow longer rest periods out of the water in terms of training results if you’re not making an effort. If you enjoy training with short rest periods or find that you get more work done that way, then by all means: do so.

Paying attention to your rest periods simply offers one more tool for succeeding at the fundamental principle for building muscle and strength: doing more than last time.

References

  1. Sports Med. 2002;32(12):761-84. Factors affecting the rate of phosphocreatine resynthesis following intense exercise.
  2. Pflügers Archiv volume 367, pages137–142(1976). The time course of phosphorylcreatine resynthesis during recovery of the quadriceps muscle in man.
  3. Scand J Clin Lab Invest. 1967;19(1):56-66. Breakdown and resynthesis of phosphorylcreatine and adenosine triphosphate in connection with muscular work in man.
  4. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Nov;25(11):3157-62. The effect of rest interval length on multi and single-joint exercise performance and perceived exertion.
  5. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1805-12. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men.
  6. Sports Med. 2009;39(9):765-77. Rest interval between sets in strength training.
  7. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Aug;19(3):572-82. Short vs. long rest period between the sets in hypertrophic resistance training: influence on muscle strength, size, and hormonal adaptations in trained men.
  8. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec; 16(24): 4897. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods.
  9. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017; 117(9): 1877–1889. The effects of traditional, superset, and tri-set resistance training structures on perceived intensity and physiological responses.
  10. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Oct;31(10):2777-2784. Volume Load and Neuromuscular Fatigue During an Acute Bout of Agonist-Antagonist Paired-Set vs. Traditional-Set Training.
  11. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2632-40. The effect of an upper-body agonist-antagonist resistance training protocol on volume load and efficiency.
  12. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2019 Dec;59(12):1991-2002. Neuromuscular responses for resistance training sessions adopting traditional, superset, paired set and circuit methods.