By Rob Clarke Driven Sports
Now that we have extensively covered the hows and the whys it is time to look closely at what it all means in practice. Just what is the idea rest period between sets?
Strength vs. stamina
Up to this point what we are essentially left with is a rather colossal introduction to the rationale behind both long and short rest periods. And as you will now see, neither is necessarily “best” and both have significant merit in your training program. In other words [spoiler alert] there is no “ideal” interval. Without doubt, however, is the reasoning behind the powerlifter’s extended rest period in the 3-5 minutes region. They want near-complete muscular recovery because their aim is to perform to their best for that solitary effort. But for maximum muscle growth there is somewhat of an impasse. This is a trade-off between maximum force production and the build-up of metabolic stress.
The duration of the rest interval has been categorized into short intervals of 30 seconds, moderate intervals of 1-2 minutes, and long intervals of three or more minutes. A 30 second interval allows you to really maximize metabolic stress build-up, but it comes at the expense of strength. We are fully aware that building the strength of the muscle plays a huge role in the growth of the muscle, but the hypertrophic potential of metabolic stress should not be ignored. With longer rest intervals in the 3-5 minute range we can maximize our ability to generate force on each set which would allow us to take advantage of higher mechanical tension. This, of course, minimizes metabolic stress, but it’s not like powerlifters mind as metabolic stress plays no significant part in strength acquisition. In the middle we have 1-2 minute rest intervals which would appear to be ideal for sufficient force production between sets, while still allowing for a good deal of metabolic stress build-up and the release of testosterone and growth hormone that comes with it.
Resting anymore than five minutes would seem somewhat counterproductive as you would ultimately end up cooling down more than you may like. While a longer rest period may still allow you to take advantage of postactivation potentiation for subsequent exercise, you will lose some of the cellular swelling that you have built up in any warm-ups and previous working sets – and effect that supports strength in successive sets. Alternatively, using a rest period of any less than 30 seconds would be too soon to gain any advantage in, right? Well…
The exceptions to the minimum rest period
Given that I’ve covered everything from phosphocreatine to hypoxia this series would be at quite a loss if I didn’t also include a brief discussion into some old school bodybuilding. Science can and should be used for developing the best training programs and systems, but we can’t forget that a lot of science was only looked into because a history of experience dictated it. There are a handful of exceptions where resting shorter than 30 seconds can be advantageous, but they are not necessarily devices that should be employed with high frequency.
While discussion into intensity and what it means is forthcoming, a lot of these devices are called “intensity techniques” or “bodybuilding principles”, seemingly coming from the shortlist of training ideas Joe Weider promoted as the “Weider principles.” These include rest-pause, drop-sets, tri-sets and giant-sets.
A rest-pause set is one where you complete your set as normal and then re-rack the weight. You wait a short period of time, usually 10-20 seconds, and then knock out 2-3 more reps. In some cases that is the rest-pause set complete. In other cases this cycle is repeated for several of these low-rep sets. More often than not the first set is performed to muscular failure, as are the consequent rest-pause sets.
Drop-sets also go by the name of descending sets or strip sets. It involves completing a set as normal, before – typically – hitting failure, reducing the weight used and then continuing the set. This can be done several times for multiple drop-sets. Some people like to do an absolute ton of them in successive fashion with dumbbells in a style called “running the rack”.
Tri-sets are typically done focusing on the same target muscle group. Three exercises are chosen and then executed without rest. Only once the third exercise is complete is it considered “a set”. An example for this could be a barbell bench press followed by an incline machine press followed by a pec-deck flye. All exercises are chosen to target the chest. If you up the exercise selection to four or above it becomes known as a “giant set”. When using two exercises rather than three some people will refer to it as a superset, but as far as I know a superset is specifically where you work two antagonizing muscle groups with no rest between, like bicep curls followed immediately by triceps pushdowns. But it is largely unimportant. You could call it a gobbledigook if you like.
All of these intensity techniques are used to generate more time under tension and more metabolic stress. All can be of benefit for building muscle, but I do believe that most weight trainers take the ideas to an extreme that becomes more of a hindrance than a help. Too many of them miss the forest for the trees, aiming almost exclusively to “feel” the muscle rather than work or overload it. Or they aim to overload it excessively, eating into their recoverability.
Rest intervals are variable. By definition a variable is a feature that is liable to change. And to truly take advantage of all possibilities it should change. For the most part, when you train in the hypertrophy rep range of 6 or 8-12 reps I personally think that around 60 seconds rest between sets is more or less ideal regardless. If you need it, take two minutes, but to really stimulate the muscle it’s a good idea to avoid extending beyond this. Heavier weight training, however, is more variable.
You could spend time doing heavier loads and low reps with long intervals during periods of raw strength building. You could then switch the program up so that you spend time doing the heavier loads and low reps with shorter rest intervals. From personal experience I can tell you two things here. First that you will need to reduce the weight you use on some subsequent sets, and second that you should give at least 60 seconds between sets if you want to stand any chance of a productive workout.
So we want longer rest periods to maximize strength gains, but we also want shorter rest periods to maximize metabolic stress. From previous articles we also remember that we want lower reps around the 6-rep range for overload, but we also want higher reps in the 12-rep region for hypertrophy. In a perfect world we could achieve all of these things in a single set, but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. The way we can do it, is through proper program design. Individual workouts can separate exercises or sets between higher load, lower reps and lower load, higher reps. Obviously in this case you use more effort to lift the heavier loads, so they naturally come first in the workout (or in the exercise selection). Following that, higher rep sets. Alternatively we can separate the heavy load and lighter loads into distinct workouts during the same week. And with this we can look into another of bodybuilding’s oldest dogmas – the frequency a body part should be trained.