Recovery Between Sets: What’s The Best Strategy?

How long you rest between sets matters more than you think. In fact, it’s another training variable that can impact the results you get. If the rest period between sets is too short, your muscles won’t have recovered enough to maximize performance on the subsequent set, too long and you’ll burn fewer calories and reduce the intensity of your workout. So, how do you strike the perfect balance?

Rest Periods Are Another Training Variable

How long you rest between sets depends on your training goals, your level of conditioning, and the intensity of your workouts. If you’re using lighter weights, with the goal of increasing muscle endurance and burning lots of calories, keep your rest periods short, less than 30 seconds.

If you’re lifting heavy to develop strength, longer rest periods, as long as 3 to 5 minutes, will allow creatine phosphate/ATP stores to be restored enough to maximize your lift on the set that follows. For a hypertrophy workout, rest periods of between 30 and 60 seconds are typical. If you’re just starting out and haven’t developed a high level of conditioning, you may need longer rest periods between sets.

While there’s no doubt you need to rest between sets, especially if you’re lifting heavy, how you approach it can vary. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at this issue.

In this study, researchers looked at four types of recovery methods. Let’s looks at each type of recovery mode they used:

Active recovery – Lifting a light weight between sets using the same muscles you just worked. The idea is to keep oxygenated blood flowing to the muscles you just trained. In the study, participants did leg extensions without added resistance between sets.

Passive recovery – Allowing your muscles to relax completely between sets. In the study, the participants simply rested after doing each set.

Passive diverting – Keeping your nervous system active but in a way that differs from the exercise you just did. For example, in the study, they asked participants to squeeze a sponge ball during each two-minute recovery period after completing each set of leg extensions.

Active diverting – This employs a combination of active recovery and passive diverting. You work the muscle group you just trained lightly between sets AND do an unrelated exercise. In the study, the participants did leg extensions without weights and squeezed on a sponge ball.

As part of the study, researchers asked participants to do 50 leg extensions and recover for two minutes after each set using one of the four recovery methods. They used different recovery methods on different days. The researchers monitored the participants’ performance by measuring the loss of peak torque on the subsequent set.

Their findings? Peak torque was reduced most on the subsequent set when the participants did a passive recovery or rested between sets than when they used any of the other three recovery strategies. Although the difference wasn’t dramatic, about 3%, this study suggests keeping your nervous system active, by lightly working the muscles you just trained or lightly working another muscle group may allow you to perform slightly better on the next set compared to just resting.

Other Rest Period Tips

How long do YOU rest between sets? It’s important to know. Unless you keep tabs on how long you’re resting between sets, you may stand around too long and reduce the intensity of your workouts – not to mention waste time. A 5-minute rest period is appropriate for a strength workout but not for a muscle endurance workout when you’re using lighter weights and performing high reps.

Long rest periods are also counterproductive if you’re trying to maximize the number of calories you burn. The reason a long rest period works best for strength training is because it gives your muscles time to recover before the next set. As a result, you can lift more weight or do more reps than if you gave your muscles only a minute or 30 seconds to recover. The goal of strength training is to maximize the resistance you use and thereby force your muscles and nervous system to adapt so you become stronger.

Another advantage of shorter rest periods is they offer more cardiovascular benefits because you’re not giving your heart rate time to drop back to baseline.  Short rest periods also maximize release of growth hormone and testosterone, two hormones that help burn fat and build lean body mass.

As you can see, the time between sets depends on your training goals. Are you trying to build strength, muscle size, or increase muscle endurance? Adjust your rest period accordingly. One point to consider is that your muscles recover almost 100% of their function with 2 to 5 minutes of rest, about 75% with a minute of rest, and only half after a 30-second rest period.

Doing Cardio Between Sets

Another approach is to do a cardiovascular exercise like jumping jacks or high knees between sets. If you’re trying to increase calorie burn and improve your cardiovascular fitness, this strategy is effective, however, cardio is an energy zapper that can impact your performance on the subsequent set. If you’re doing a circuit/muscle endurance workout, that’s not a problem, however, it works against you if you’re lifting for strength or hypertrophy gains and need to maximize your lifts.

The Bottom Line

Rest periods are a training variable you can manipulate to achieve your goals. Active rest periods may offer advantages, depending on the type of training you’re doing. As the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study suggests lightly working the muscles you just trained or other muscles between sets, without using a significant load, keeps your nervous system “primed” for the next set without exhausting the muscles.

In cases where you’re working muscle endurance, very short rest periods or cardio sets between resistance exercises can be beneficial to increase the calorie burn. What you do want to avoid is standing around too much between sets to the point that you waste time or lose your focus.