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Long vs short rest periods when lifting weights- which one is superior?

The age-old debate of rest period has been going on ever since man picked up weights hundreds of years ago. Some would argue that you need to rest up to five minutes in-between each set. Others would have you believe that if you rest longer than sixty seconds, then you aren’t doing it right. How long should someone rest in-between each set? Is there an optimal rest period for maximal gains? Like with any training or nutrition questions, the answer is always IT DEPENDS!!

In today’s article, I want to explore the different beliefs behind short and long rest periods and present guidelines that can hopefully benefit everyone. Before I get to the guidelines, I just want to briefly explore the most common beliefs people at big box gyms (because that’s my background) have around short versus long rest period.

Short rest periods

A common thing I see general population gym goers do, with regards to rest period, is as follows; perform set, finish set, look at a phone or drink water from bubbler or drink bottle, then go again. All up there’s a total of 30 seconds or less in-between sets. Most general population gym-goers have this belief that short, barely any rest period is beneficial, especially if you want to lose body fat. I often question them why they are resting so short in-between sets, and the usual response I get is “I thought short rest periods were better for fat loss?”. The answer to this response is no; it’s not. Controlling your calories is the best fat loss tool we can use.

There are a few reasons why I don’t recommend short rest periods. In this context, I’ll refer to a short rest period as under 60 seconds. Below are the reasons why I don’t recommend short rest periods:

- Your muscles will get tired quicker. When this happens, the technique will breakdown. When lifting technique breaks down, our bodies will still do the movement you are making it do. The problem is, when the lifting technique breaks down, there is a higher chance that we start using muscle or muscle groups that we don’t intend to. If we do this enough, we teach our bodies the wrong technique, and this can eventually lead to injuries and muscular imbalances.

- Similar to the above point, when our muscles aren’t recovered enough, which is usually the case for short rest periods, we aren’t able to exert the same level of intensity as a muscle that has rested longer. Lower intensity output can potentially mean, you are not maximising the results that you could be getting.

But Bryan, what if I want to maximise fat loss?!? Shouldn’t I finish my workout as quickly as possible?! As I alluded to earlier, controlling your calorie consumption is what you should focus on. You can’t out-train a bad diet. Focus on building strength and muscle when you train, not to lose fat. Let your diet take care of the fat loss portion.

Long rest periods

Now, even though I believe everyone can benefit from more extended rest periods, the question then becomes how long is long enough? Generally, women don’t need to rest as long as men. For example, if a male and a female gym-goer both squat 100kg for five sets of 5, the female gym-goer is going to need less rest than the male gym-goer in-between sets. For the sake of putting a number on it, let’s say the female gym-goer will rest for 2 minutes while the male gym-goer rest 3 minutes. Females generally have less muscle mass than men, so they don’t need to rest as long.

Back to the question of how long is long enough. Optimal rest period duration will differ depending on a few things: The individuals training level-beginners don’t need to rest as long because they aren’t lifting nearly as heavy as an intermediate or advance gym goer. Exercise selection also determines the duration of the rest period- females can smash out a lot more reps and sets for lower body exercises than men, generally.

Generally, compound exercises (exercises that use more than one muscle) tend to need longer rest periods when done as compared to isolation exercises (exercises using only one muscle). Exercise like the squat, deadlift or bench press will require longer rest than a bicep curl or leg extension.

My recommendations

My recommendation is as follows:

- Rest as long as you need in-between each set. Let your heart rate get back to a normal range and re-focus your mind and body on the next set.

- Some exercises will just feel easy, and you’ll feel like you can go straight after you’ve finished your previous set. For these exercises, I will recommend at least a 1-minute rest period.

- How do you keep track of your rest periods? Use your phone or a watch. Is this mandatory? Not really, but if you want to make sure the rest periods are adequate, you need to keep track of it somehow. A method I used if I forget my watch and phone is to slowly count to 10 or 20, depending on the exercise and how I feel. Although not accurate, that will give me some sort of guide.

- The following point has nothing to do with the topic of this article. Still, I’ll write it anyway- Treat your weights sessions/resistance training/strength training session, whatever you can to call it as you trying to get stronger and build muscle, using proper technique every rep. Let your diet make the fat loss for you.

I hope those guidelines help! Train hard!

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