How long you should rest between sets depends on various factors, like training experience, your goals, and age. But are current guidelines in exercise up-to-date in exercise recovery research?
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that if you are training for maximum strength and power, you should rest between three to five minutes between sets. For muscle growth, rest between one to two minutes. (1) But are these guidelines still up-to-date based on current research that may challenge common claims about rest periods and weight lifting?
Rest interval for muscle growth
A 2017 systematic review by Grgic et al. found that resting for 60 seconds or less have similar benefits at resting for more than 60 seconds. However, resting longer than a minute can be “advantageous” because this allows you to pump more iron or complete a desired number of reps to sustain training volume. (5)
Among the six included studies, five of them involved untrained subjects while the remaining one involved experienced weightlifters with a total of 97 men and 18 women. Short-duration rest periods were between 20 to 60 seconds, and long-duration periods were 80 seconds to six minutes. The studies lasted an average of a bit more than eight weeks where the subjects trained two to three days a week with a blend of single-joint and multi-joint training. None of the them had the subjects train at high intensities.
The researchers suggested that the “best approach to a hypertrophy-based resistance training session may be to
focus on training volume by performing complex, multi-joint exercises and incorporating longer interset rest intervals in the first part of the training session, and then shift the focus to inducing a greater metabolic stress by performing isolation exercises and incorporating shorter inter-set rest intervals towards the end of the training session.” (5)
In other words, try doing exercises that involve more than one joint, such as a squat, lunge, and dumbbell curl and press in the first part of your training session, finishing with exercises that focus on one joint movement, like a biceps curl, chest fly, and leg curls.
Rest interval for strength training
If you are looking to increase maximum strength, research finds that resting for longer than two minutes is better than less than two minutes. A systematic review by Grgic et al., published in the same year as the previous review mentioned earlier, examined 23 qualified studies that had mostly untrained subjects (413 men, 78 women) that lasted between four to 16 weeks. Two of these studies involved older adults (age 65-plus). (2,4)
Although both short and moderate rest intervals are almost quite effective in gaining maximal strength, longer rest intervals may be ideal for multi-joint training and shorter rest intervals are just as good as longer rest intervals for single-joint training. (2,3)
Timing and exercise selection matters in how long you should rest between sets
Although the ACSM guidelines are pretty close to what research says, they are vague and miss other factors that can affect the quality of your workouts. If you working out at home or at the gym, try to do exercises that work on multiple body parts first before ending with single-joint exercises.
Consider the number of sets and reps, how much effort you are lifting, and the speed of your muscle contractions, factoring in the rest period with exercise selection should give you a more complete workout.
1. American College of Sports Medicine. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):687-708. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181915670.
2. Grgic J, Schoenfeld BJ, Skrepnik M et al. Effects of Rest Interval Duration in Resistance Training on Measures of Muscular Strength: A Systematic Review. Sports Med 2018; 48:137-151.
3. Schoenfeld BJ, Pope ZK, Benik FM et al. Longer interset rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. J Strength Cond Res 2016; 30:1805-1812.
4. Jambassi Filho JC, Gurjao ALD, Ceccato M et al. Chronic Effects of Different Rest Intervals Between Sets on Dynamic and Isometric Muscle Strength and Muscle Activity in Trained Older Women. Am J Phys Med Rehabil 2017; 96:627-633.
5. Grgic J, Lazinica B, Mikulic P et al. The effects of short versus long inter-set rest intervals in resistance training on measures of muscle hypertrophy: A systematic review. Eur J Sport Sci 2017; 17:983-993.
A native of San Diego for nearly 40 years, Nick Ng is an editor of Massage & Fitness Magazine, an online publication for manual therapists and the public who want to explore the science behind touch, pain, and exercise, and how to apply that in their hands-on practice or daily lives.
An alumni from San Diego State University with a B.A. in Graphic Communications, Nick also completed his massage therapy training at International Professional School of Bodywork in San Diego in 2014.
When he is not writing or reading, you would likely find him weightlifting at the gym, salsa dancing, or exploring new areas to walk and eat around Southern California.