Ask Stew: Rest during Workout Sets – It Depends

U.S. Army Reserve 1st Lt. Caroline Shaw, of Lower Burrell, Pa., an aide-de-camp for 335th Signal Command (Theater) deputy commanding general of sustainment Brig. Gen. Nikki Griffin-Olive, does sit-ups to pass the Army Physical Fitness Test (Photo Credit: U.S. Army photo by Ken Scar)

People often ask me, “How much rest do I need in between sets?” Typically, if you are coming from the body building, power lifting, and even speed / agility training background, the rest periods are greater in order to be at near 100% for the next tough strength or speed set. However, transitioning into a timed running endurance or muscle stamina training goal program, the rest sets are typically best accomplished through what is called “active rest.”

Here are a few questions that are combined from several commonly asked questions concerning a variety of types of training protocols:

  1. Is 3 minutes enough rest between rounds of your running and leg PT  or am I overdoing the rest period?
  • Well, it depends. But no, you do not need that much rest if you are in good shape.  But if you are starting out with running timed run pace at 67 minute mile paces, you may find you need that much rest.  Usually, for running goal paced interval sets, the rest in between is spent either doing other exercises like squats, lunges, or core work while you catch your breath OR take about 50% of the time it took you to run your distance and limit your rest to that amount of time.  As in the above linked running and leg PT article that workout has running to do and leg exercises each set.  Rest your lungs while doing leg PT, then get moving again with the next set.  Add time to consume water or do a leg stretch if needed each set.
  1. How much rest is required in between sets or levels of the PT pyramid?
  • No, you do not need to rest during the PT pyramid. In fact, you treat each set of the pyramid as a circuit. These exercises can be arranged so you do not work the same muscle groups in a row. For instance, if the PT pyramid has you doing:  Pullups x 1, Pushups x 2, Abs Exercises x 3, Dips x 2 , like the PT pyramid above, you actually rest the pullup muscles while you work the pushing muscles and core exercises. You “rest” the pushing muscles by doing the pulling and core exercises. This is a true active rest. Eventually, your body will grow accustomed to the challenge and you will be able to do a 110-1 PT pyramid without rest other than a short stretch and sips of water in between levels of the pyramid occasionally.
  1. How much rest is done during the circuit workout?
  • If you arrange the circuit similarly to the above style (working upper body then lower body or push / pull muscle groups) you will find the rest needed is minimal other than the transition from one exercise to the next.  It is up to you how you arrange your circuits, but having a system of push, pull, core, legs, short cardio is a good way to get a full body workout with an “active rest” built in. But obviously, if you need a rest, take it.  Get your heart rate back down and when you feel it is possible, start moving again before you are completely recovered with your breathing or muscle fatigue as you can catch your breath and rest / stretch opposing muscle groups if the exercises are arranged in such a manner.

The goals to training are unlimited.  Many people seek heavy 1 repetition maximum lifts, many are searching for bigger muscles, and many seek better PT scores and run times.  The goal you have does affect the rest periods, however, if you are trying to get into better over all shape, have a higher work capacity, faster times, and higher reps on PT tests, training so the rest periods get smaller each week is a logical progression for you.


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