How long should you rest between sets?

If you read the latest Muscle & Fiction magazines you’ll say 60-90 seconds is the optimal rest interval between sets. This assertion is rarely backed-up with scientific research, and when it is, they will say it increases human growth hormone levels in the body temporarily, which is true, but I haven’t found any studies that correlate it with long-term increases in muscle mass. I have no doubt that many people achieve respectable results from this protocol, especially the enhanced lifters that fill the pages of the muscle magazines, but what is optimal for the natural lifter. What does the science say?

If you want to build strength and muscle, it is best done naturally by resting 3 to 5 minutes between working sets. The only time I recommend one-minute rest intervals are between low-intensity warm-up sets.  A study conducted by the Kennesaw State University found that subjects that rested 2.5 minutes between sets made substantially greater gains in muscle mass than the subject that only rested 1-minute between sets.[i]

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Eastern Illinois University conducted a study that concluded, “When the training goal is maximal strength development, 3 minutes of rest should be taken between sets to avoid significant declines in repetitions. The ability to sustain repetitions while keeping the intensity constant may result in a higher training volume and consequently greater gains in muscular strength.”[ii] Another study by the State University of Rio de Janeiro found that resting longer, 3 to 5 minutes between sets led to more repetitions being performed over multiple sets and higher rates of muscular power.[iii] These two factors would result in greater overload being applied to the muscle. Progressive overload is required to produce increases in muscular size and strength.

I could site more studies, but I think is clear that resting a minimum of three minutes between sets is best for producing strength and muscle gains. If you are like me, you don’t want to sit and wait for 3-minutes before performing your next set. I recommend you structure your workouts so that you superset opposing muscle groups, or you include sets for unrelated muscle groups during your rest interval so you can perform more work in less time while still allowing yourself 3-minutes or more between working sets.

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[i] Buresh R, and Berg K, French J, “The effect of resistive exercise rest interval on hormonal response, strength, and hypertrophy with training,” Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jan; 23(1):62-71. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318185f14a.

[iI] Willardson JM, and Burkett LN, “The effect of rest interval length on bench press performance with heavy vs. light loads,” J Strength Cond Res. 2006 May; 20(2):396-9.

[iii] Salles BF, Simão R, Miranda F, Novaes Jda S, Lemos A, and Willardson JM, “Rest interval between sets in strength training,” Sports Med. 2009;39(9):765-77. doi: 10.2165/11315230-000000000-00000.

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