We’d all like to be stronger, better, faster, but it’s an on-running scientific quest to find the optimal way of doing so, especially when it comes to the somewhat thorny issue of how long you should rest between sets. There are many aspects to consider, and the optimal rest between sets will depend on your fitness goal.
Since we have been preparing Australian Defence Force applicants to pass their PFA, we have helped them to achieve a variety of goals behind the desire to get recruited. These include improved strength, endurance and for optimal performance a lower body fat percentage is important too. A weight loss goal also includes gaining lean muscle mass, so you could say that even bodybuilding goals will be part of your journey.
Sets, Reps, Recovery
Sets are an integral part of any resistance exercise regime, breaking up the work done by the targeted muscle group into distinct, high-intensity periods, followed by rest. Current wisdom is to train hard during the weight phase of the set, and then rest afterward. But how long should your rest between these sets will be? Let's look at what science suggest.
Current research offers some clear guidance on how long you should rest between sets, and why. In general, the answer is related to what you’re trying to achieve. If your goal is to build stamina, then how long you rest will differ from someone whose goal it is to improve strength or power.
We will take a look at three distinct goals and how they affect your rest period.
Power And Strength
Training for power is all about training muscles in a way that allows them to release the maximum amount of energy in the shortest period of time. Power athletes are often called upon to perform quick movements, like clean and jerk a barbell above their heads or sprint 100 meters towards the finish line.
Strength athletes, such as strongmen and some gymnasts rely on the ability of their muscles to contract at a certain intensity so that they can perform a particular task that requires a lot of force.
Both of these types of athletes rely on the body’s ATP-PC system (which stands for adenosine triphosphate-phosphocreatine system), an ancient cellular energy process that originates way back in the history of biological evolution. The ATP-PC process can generate a vast amount of energy quickly, without having to rely on oxygen, but it can only do so for a very short period of time.
So what does any of this have to do with rest? Well, it turns out that it takes the average person about three minutes to replenish their ATP-PC system, and so attempting to perform ATP-reliant exercises after, say two minutes of rest, is probably not a good idea.
Power athletes who want to get the most out of their training tend to do around 1-6 reps, lasting from a few seconds up to fifteen, and then recover for the remaining 3 to 5 minutes before attempting another set. By resting in this way, these athletes can get the most out of the exercise phase of each set.
Translating this information into your training regime, your ATP-PC system will be used on your heavy lifting or sprint days. When you are working towards a 1RM or a new PB in your sprint time, your rest period between sets should be above 3 minutes to allow enough time for your body to recover before you put it under high intensity demands again. This won't only support your goals to lift as heavy or sprint as fast as you can, but will also aid injury prevention.
Muscle hypertrophy in layman's terms is the result of resistance training to muscle fatigue so your body is "forced" to adapt to the increased load by increasing the number of cells in your muscles so they grow bigger.
The more muscles you have, the more energy your body uses daily to maintain that muscle mass. Incorporating the right nutrition habits and following an individualised training plan for your goals will bring you the desired fat loss results that will aid improved athletic performance as well as give you nice lean muscles. While the latter is less of a focus in what we do at The Barracks Gym, but it's a pleasant side effect when our clients achieve their performance goals.
Working towards muscle hypertrophy will change the focus of your training and there is no better world to learn from on this topic than from bodybuilding.
Typically bodybuilders will aim for between 6 and 12 reps (although some famous bodybuilders like Ronnie Coleman would frequently go above and below this range) in their sets. Because they care most about size, their primary concern is to make sure that they create the metabolic environment inside their body that will promote the growth of new muscle tissue. Bodybuilders, therefore, choose to rest for the length of time between sets that maximises the anabolic (or muscle-building response).
It turns out, according to research, that this optimal muscle-building response time is between 1 to 2 minutes. Shorter rest intervals release higher levels of anabolic hormones into the body helping, in theory, to build new muscle faster.
When you are in the hypertrophy phase of your training plan, you will perform exercises for 8-12 reps, for about 3-4 sets and rest in between for 60-120 seconds. Typically the more reps, the less rest you take. It's also important to mention here, that using the right resistance is key. The weight should be challenging: light enough to be able to perform all reps with correct exercise form, but heavy enough so you wouldn't be able to do an extra rep without assistance. You will feel a burning sensation in the worked muscles and feel the fatigue on the last repetition.
Muscle endurance is normally the first step for a total newbie in any sport to improve before taking on higher intensity challenges. The reason for that is without enduring muscles the risk of injury significantly increases during high intensity training sessions.
Endurance means that you are able to perform the activity for an extended period of time without getting tired. Think of marathon runners, cyclists or even military style training where performing hundreds of push-ups is normal. If you'd like to be able to cope with the demands of forces training and tasks, you will need to include some endurance training in your plan.
Running will be great for cardiovascular endurance, specific resistance training is important for muscle endurance.
Endurance focused resistance training is centred around performing high repetitions with lighter load. Typically, you would do sets in the 15 to 20 or even higher range and only rest for 30-45 seconds at most. Circuit training can be a great example of this and often the rest period can performed as active rest, so your body doesn't stop moving until you finished your workout.
Have you got questions on how to plan your workouts for optimal results? Feel free to get in touch and a member of The Barracks Gym team will be happy to advise.
Michael and Carly both have walked the path you are about to take and are commited to help you get started with your training for a successful enlistment with free tips and articles.