How to Manage Rest Time Between Sets

Have you ever noticed that a lot of people at the gym spend their time between sets taking selfies, texting, and checking e-mails? Why does this always seem like the best time to refresh your Instagram feed, even though you know nothing's changed since you last checked it... 20 seconds ago? And more importantly, is this actually the best way to get the most out of your breaks? There are indeed better ways to manage your rest time between sets, so Instagram will have to wait.

No matter where you're training, no matter what you're doing, it's essential to use your rest time between sets wisely. It may be mere minutes, but managing them efficiently and productively will, perhaps shockingly, do wonders for your training.

To start, let's get a few of the essentials out of the way.

athlete training with barbell

How to Manage Your Rest Time Between Sets

1. First, You Need to Track Your Workout

You can't determine how to best make use of your rest time if you're not mindful of the activity you're doing in the first place. Note the exercise, record how much weight you moved, the repetitions, number of sets, and other remarks you want to include.

You should also take note of how you feel. This will help you better understand how much rest you need, and why. Can you not inhale air fast enough? Are your muscles burning with the fire of a thousand suns? 

These things matter. 

For instance, if you're lifting moderately heavy weights, you might need more rest, compared to doing lighter weights for higher reps or strict cardio. We'll come back to this later.

If you're sprinting, you'll need enough of a rest to let your heart rate come down — but you don't want it to come down all the way.

And speaking of your heart rate...

2. Monitor Your Heart Rate

If you know what your beats per minute are (something your Atlas watch can tell you), you'll have a better understanding of your effort level and cardiovascular conditioning, and thus, approximately how much rest you'll need. 

Athletes sometimes mistakenly think they should take enough rest time between sets for their heart rate to go back to its baseline so that they can feel "normal" again and start the next set fresh, but this simply isn't the case. 

You don't want to be fresh!

In actuality, shorter rest breaks might be best, especially for muscle growth. This helps you maintain increased metabolic stress, which is that burning feeling you get in your muscles.

athlete working with dumbbell

3. Try Engaging in Some Light Active Recovery

It might seem counterproductive to do anything during your rest periods, but active recovery might just be the key to improvement. 

Studies suggest that active recovery between sets can help you progress faster than passive recovery (which means you do absolutely nothing). Keep it simple. Do something that mimics the exercise, but do a much easier version. 

For example, in between heavy squats, try doing a set of bodyweight squats.

Active recovery helps keep the muscles warm and pliable. And even though you're doing a lighter version of the real deal, you should treat it as an opportunity to rehearse your form. You're never too good to work on your muscle memory. These seemingly easy reps now are what build a better athlete later on. 

We know it's tempting to take a seat in between sets and rest your legs. While this might feel the best, it's (probably) not the best thing for your performance. Also, once seated, people tend to rest way longer than they should, which brings us to our next question: How long should you rest? 

How to Time Out Your Rest Breaks

To be clear, there's no one-size-fits-all approach here. Different coaches and experts will give you different numbers — or different opinions on rest breaks entirely (more on that later). Our goal here is to come up with a basic idea of how long your rest breaks should be. 

It largely depends on the kind of training you're doing. Let's go through a few examples. 

Strength Training

Examples: Squatting, deadlifts, strict presses

If you're moving heavy loads and/or doing compound lifts, you're depleting that energy fuel source fairly quickly. This is one of the few times a slightly longer rest period will work in your favor. Not too long — you don't have time to run to the grocery store. 

Stick with something between two and three minutes. 

Endurance Training

cycling outside

Examples: Running, cycling

The name says it all. If you want to improve your endurance, you aren't going to do it sitting on your bum. When training something like running or cycling, ideally, you don't rest at all. That's how you train yourself to have a better engine. 

However, if you do need rest (which is still okay!), keep it as short as possible — no longer than a minute. 

Remember, it's normal for your lungs to be heaving with this kind of training. No cyclist ever stepped off a bike after a long race not out of breath. 

Hypertrophy Training

Examples: Walking lunges, dumbbell presses, bicep curls, goblet squats

Trying to increase your muscle size? Hypertrophy training is what you need. You're going to be so shredded. 

This kind of training is all about reps — for instance, three to five sets of, say, eight to 12 reps. You're looking for that muscle pump, that "jacked" look. With this training, you're not lifting enough weight to hit failure. 

However, you're still demanding enough from your body that you indeed need some rest, but you don't want so much that your muscle pump goes away. Many times, a minute will be enough, but you can bump that to 90 seconds if you're doing something extra grueling.

What's Your Goal?

Something else to consider when you're determining how long to rest is what your goal is with your training.

If you're wanting to get stronger and grow more muscle, then you need to be lifting moderately heavy to heavy weights, which means you need to allow your body to recuperate a little bit. 

If you're trying to shed fat and lean out, you're going to need less rest. For instance, burpees are an excellent, explosive move to keep your heart rate up and help blast calories. You don't want to be resting three minutes in between burpee sets. This will work against your goals. You want to move a lot and move quickly. This isn't about lifting a heavy load. 

man using battle ropes

A Big "But"

Earlier on, we told you that there's no one-size-fits-all answer here, and we meant it. We also said people have different feelings and opinions about how you can best spend your rest time between sets. So, we feel it's only responsible and accurate to mention another side to the story.

There is indeed research that says complete and total rest between sets is the best way to go. For instance, scientists from the University of Utah found that the participants of their study — who engaged in an intense CrossFit workout — were able to perform 7% harder in subsequence sets when they spent their rest periods laying or sitting down, compared to participants who slowly walked around.

Frustrating, we know.

So, what's the takeaway? It's this: At the end of the day, when it comes to your training, you're always going to need to test different things and see what gives you the best results. The journey of fitness inherently includes a lot of trial and error.

Spend a few weeks focusing only on active recovery in between sets, and then spend another few weeks trying passive recovery. You need to give each one enough time to work, so don't rush it. 

A Final Note

If you've gotten this far, you might be asking yourself a very understandable question: If resting can be that detrimental to performance, why rest at all? 

Why not simply wait a few seconds and then get right back to it? 

Make no mistake about it — you absolutely do need rest. In a nutshell, when you rest, your body is able to recover some of its adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is your main source of fuel when you train. Without rest, this supply becomes too depleted. 

This is especially important if you're lifting. Trying to move heavy loads for 60 minutes nonstop is counterproductive and can even be dangerous. Rest is good. 

Again, it comes down to what kind of rest is best for you, and that's something you'll need to play around with over time.