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Rest Longer = More Gains?

Are you leaving gains on the table by not resting long enough between sets? When it comes to rest periods it’s a mixed bag.

On one hand the powerlifters rest 5 minutes + between sets.

(FYI If this is you, and you don’t train at a powerlifting facility, you’re gonna piss some regular gym goers off spending that long in the squat rack)

On the other hand we’ve got the bodybuilders who are even worse. Not only are they hitting curls in the squat rack… (Which also pisses everyone off)

They’re resting 60 seconds max because “gotta keep the burn, bro!”

So who is right?

I’m going to give you the nuance…

But I’m also going to give you the TLDR.

This is the simple strategy I tell my clients:

Rest long enough, until you feel 7-9 out of 10 recovered for your next set.”

That’s going to look like 1-2 minutes for isolations and smaller muscle groups like bicep curls, and 3-5 minutes or more for compounds and bigger muscle groups like squats.

But for those who want a little more context…

Let’s go a little deeper.

Do short rest periods burn more fat?


We don’t use training to burn fat, remember?

We use nutrition to create our calorie deficit, and training to build muscle.

Do short rest periods build more muscle?


Let’s start from the beginning.

In the 1990’s many people thought the gains from lifting came from the spikes in hormones like testosterone and growth hormone we typically experience after training.

These people realised that doing compound lifts with high reps and short rests (gross, I know… actually that kind of sounds like CrossFit?) was best for spiking growth hormone.

Therefore it must have been best for making gains, right?

Not really.

In the 2000’s we kind of realised that the gains came from the training itself, and not the hormone spikes. There was correlation, but not causation.

So that’s one nail in the coffin for short rest periods.

Then in 2010 Brad Schofeld (who is one of the absolute legends of the evidence-based fitness space) published this paper which changed the landscape of our industry.

In the paper, he suggested 3 potential drivers of hypertrophy.

(1) Mechanical Tension:

The tension each muscle fibre experiences during a set. We get more tension by training closer to failure.

(2) Metabolic Stress:

The ‘burn’ feeling we get as metabolites build up in our muscle during a set; and

(3) Muscle damage:

The micro tears muscles experience when we train them.

Nowadays, the research is leaning more towards the idea that tension is the main driver of muscle growth, with the other two being less important.

After all, if “the burn” was amazing for muscle growth then we would expect to make calf gains from going on a hike - I bet you’ve felt that burn!

But hikers aren’t usually winning bodybuilding shows, are they?

If “damage” was amazing for growth, we would all just get into a car crash to make gains. That’s a whole lot of muscle damage!

But that’s not really how it works, right?

So these factors might still be important, but we probably shouldn’t chase them at the expense of tension.

What that means for rest periods is…

We probably shouldn’t cut our rest periods short to “feel the burn” or “keep the pump”.

Instead we want to rest until we’re close to fully recovered so we can put the maximum effort into the next set to get the most mechanical tension.

But remember we’re just looking for a 7-9 out of 10 recovered because if you’re chasing 10/10 recovered you might be resting until tomorrow.

Getting to that 7-9 out of 10 recovered is that nice sweet spot where:

- Your cardiorespiratory system (aka your lungs) are recovered,

- Your synergist or “helper” muscle groups are recovered,

- You’re psychologically recovered and ready to go, too.

All of this means the target muscle will be the limiting factor in the next set, so you can train it close to failure and get the best growth response.

So if we know this…

Why do some people in the gym seem to ‘get away with’ short rest periods?

I’ve seen guys that can do their 4 sets of 10 at the same weight with only 60 seconds rest in between.


And if this is you please don’t be offended.

People that train like this are not training…

They’re exercising.

If you can get all 4 sets of 10 with the same weight and resting only 60 seconds between sets…

You’re not training hard enough.

If you managed to get 10 reps on the last set, it means you could have probably got 15 or even 20 reps on the first set.

And we know that muscle growth only occurs when we train to within 5 reps of failure (according to the studies) or more likely 3 reps of failure (according to my experience)...

So those first couple of sets didn’t meet the threshold for growth, and they were kind of a waste of time.

They made you tired and you got a pump. But no growth.

So rather than taking it easy so that you can “get away with” short rest periods.

Just train hard, on every working set.

Then rest as long as you need, to be about a 7-9 out of 10 recovered.

To finish up…

Are there any reasons where short rests would be a good thing?

If you’ve pressed for time, then potentially.

If you cut your rest times, you are going to sacrifice some tension, but you’ll get a bit more metabolic stress.

Is that trade-off worth it? Probably not. But at least you’re getting something.

Some muscle groups absolutely recover faster than others.

You know that feeling when you’re doing calf raises and it feels like someone’s injecting battery acid straight into the back of your leg?

Then you finish your set and within literally 10 seconds that’s pretty much gone?!

That’s because calves are designed to clear lactate quickly. Evolutionarily we needed that so we could run away from predators.

What about that feeling after a brutal set of squats and you can barely stand afterwards, let alone do another set of squats?

So shorter rests for muscles which get to that 7-9 out of 10 recovered quicker is completely fine.

Another situation is when you’re using supersets.

An antagonistic superset means you perform one exercise, and then it’s antagonist or opposite.

So that would be a press and then a row, or a curl and then an extension.

In this case, because you’re moving on to training a different muscle group, you don’t necessarily need to wait as long in-between your sets.

Whilst you’re training your triceps, your biceps are getting some rest, and vice versa.

I hope this article helps!

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