Ask Stew: How to Build Rest into Your Workouts

Senior Airman Terrence Ruffin, 16th Electronic Warfare Squadron, lifts 25-pound dumbbells at the fitness center on Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. In November, the Airman became the youngest professional bodybuilder on the circuit at age 21. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

Resting in between sets of heavy weight lifting, lightweight circuits, running intervals, or other cardio events varies in time depending upon the goal you are seeking.  Typically, there are five goals various athletes seek when starting a training program:  bigger muscles, stronger muscles, muscle stamina, cardiovascular endurance, cardiovascular event speed (run, swim, bike, other). The amount of rest in between events can mean the difference between moderate gains and optimal gains.  Here is a question from a reader seeking to know how much time to rest in between sets when not specifically stated:

Stew, When you write workouts, I notice you do not always like rest periods with weight training sets as you do with running or swimming sets.  What do you recommend for rest sets in between weights, circuits, running and swimming if the goals are varied through the year like your periodization training programs?  Bob

Great question Bob!

The answer to this question depends on three things really:  your age, conditioning, and goals.  As we age we may need more rest in between sets of everything in order to fully recover, but that time and type of rest depends on the other two factors (athlete’s conditioning and goals).  Here are the types of rest you can use.  My recommendation is to try several of them and see what works best for your goals, daily timeline to train, and current conditioning.

Types of Rest Active Rest – Active rest is typically done by group training programs where the “rest” is built into workouts by doing other muscle groups immediately after each other.  For instance, a circuit where you do pullups and then “rest with squat” in between is a way to recover for the next set when muscle stamina and cardiovascular endurance is the goal. Some running endurance / muscle stamina goal workouts such as run and leg PT can challenge both the lungs and legs and adding an active rest of squats, lunges, or stair climbs in between running intervals of 400-800m distances.  I personally prefer active rest in all the activities I do – even with building strength in lifts, I prefer to do some form of easy core activity in between sets instead of just sitting in the gym watching people workout.

Some competitive lifters who are trying to not gain too much weight or lose weight while maintaining strength, may hop on a cardio machine for 3-5 minutes in between sets to keep burning calories but recover for the next heavy lift as well.  You typically do not see active rest in optimal performance goals for strength and hypertrophy, but workouts can be adjusted to make the most effective use of time and athletic conditioning as needed.

Inactive Rest – Inactive rest can be done in all athletic goals and is by far the most common of rest types as it means to actually doing NOTHING in between sets.  Simply walking in between sprint intervals, walking to get a sip of water, or sitting in between lifts are examples of inactive rest periods. The time depends upon the activity and goal. 

  1. Short Rest Periods – Short rest periods are typically defined as 1-2 minutes (in between sets) in the weight lifting and muscle growth (hypertrophy) training with a moderate level of repetitions and weight.  Doing repetitions in the 6-12 zone will help you build muscle optimally when done with moderate to heavy weights.  
  2. Longer Rest Periods – Long rest periods are typically defined at 3-5 minutes in between sets.  You will see this type of rest period when power lifters and heavy weight training goals (1-5 rep max weight lifted: 1-5RM) are being chased. The 3-minute zone is ideal as it allows for the body to refuel itself and not cool down too much. If you think 3-5 minutes is a long time to rest, try being a sprinter. If a sprinter seeking to increase speed in 50-100m sprints, consider resting 30-60 seconds per 10m in between sets but staying warm by moving.  
  3. Ratio Rest – Ratio rest depends on the goal as well as the conditioning of the athlete. For instance, if sprinting, an athlete may want to have a rest to work ratio of 1:1 if fast paced endurance is sought or even 2:1 or longer if working on pure sprinting speed.  As an example, an athlete seeking to run 400m distances for multiple sets to increase the pace of the 1.5 mile timed run, may strive to rest as long as it took to run or as progress is made push themselves to rest 50% of the run time.  A person running a 1:30 400m pace may first start out at 1:30 rest and advance to 45 second rest as improvement in cardiovascular endurance increases.

In the end, it is up to you, your goals, and abilities as to what you can do with an active rest or if you need longer periods of time of inactive rest. The goal is to be as best recovered as you can for the next working set.  Sometimes staying tired and getting into the condition to handle minimal rest is part of the program goals, especially when the days are long and turn into night as many of the military selection programs for special operations require.

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