Here’s How Long You Should Rest Between Workout Sets


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A typical strength- or muscle-building workout happens in sets. You lift the weight a certain number of times (“reps”), then you put it down for a quick rest before going again. But how long should that rest be? The answer will depend on a few factors, including the purpose of the workout.

There are legitimate reasons for powerlifters to wait five minutes between sets of squats, or for calisthenics devotees to set a 30-second timer before jumping back up for another set of pullups. There’s also a good argument that, for many of us, rest times don’t matter that much.

Why rest times matter

The longer you rest between sets, the more recovered you’ll feel. But the shorter your rests, the more work you’ll be able to do in a given gym session.

Choosing the most appropriate rest time for each exercise will get you the best gains in the gym. But the optimal rest time will depend on what kind of exercise you’re doing and what your goals are. So let’s go over some pros and cons of long and short rest times.

When to use long rest times

Longer rests (say, three minutes or more) are best for strength workouts where the goal is to improve both your strength and your skill at lifting heavy weights. After all, you need practice at lifting heavy if you want to be able to lift heavy. After you put a heavy barbell down, you’ll need several minutes for your body to be ready to do another big lift.

In the three to five minutes you might rest between sets of (say) barbell squats, the ATP in your muscles regenerates. You get some blood flow to bring oxygen and nutrients into your muscle cells, and flush away metabolic byproducts. Resting for several minutes gives you the best chance of coming back to the next set at full strength.

The longer you rest—within reason—the more fully recovered you’ll be for the next set. If you only allow yourself one minute, you’ll still be fatigued when you pick up the weight again. But if you wait longer, you’ll be able to handle more weight.

The downsides of long rest times

The main disadvantage of long rest times is time management. Your workouts will be longer if you rest five minutes between exercises instead of one or two. You may also find yourself getting distracted between sets. You scroll social media for a bit, and somehow it’s been eight minutes since you last touched a weight. Setting a rest timer can help with this.

Some people get antsy during long rests, and will pass the time by doing pushups or jumping jacks. That kind of defeats the purpose of long rests. Save the supersets for your accessory work afterwards, not the main lift where you’re trying to go heavy.

How long is a “long” rest time?

For an exercise where you’re using large muscle groups (like a squat or deadlift), five minutes is typical once you’re up to your working weights for the day. Warmup sets don’t need as much time.

For exercises where you’re working on strength but it’s a lighter lift or uses smaller muscles (like overhead press), three minutes is usually plenty.

When to use short rest times

When it comes to muscle growth, also called hypertrophy, shorter rests can make more sense. To be clear, strength and muscle growth are related, but not the same thing. If you aren’t interested in lifting the heaviest weight possible, just in making your muscles bigger or your body more “toned,” you would want to pay attention to the best rest times for hypertrophy. These will be shorter than for pure strength.

Traditionally, trainers say that 90 seconds or less is a good rule of thumb. (The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends 0 to 60 seconds; the personal training textbooks from the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American Council on Exercise both recommend 30 to 90 seconds.)

But research has shown that short rest periods may not actually be better for muscle growth than longer ones. A 2016 study found that three-minute rest periods actually yielded more muscle growth than one-minute rests. The authors think this is because the men in their three-minute group (yep, the study was only done on men) were able to use heavier weights than the men in the one-minute group. Since the number of sets was the same in both groups, this means the three-minute group lifted more weight.

A more recent meta-analysis (not yet fully peer reviewed and published) also comes down on the side of longer rests. According to the studies they included in the analysis, the authors found that 30 to 60 seconds is likely too short. Resting one to two minutes between sets is best for muscle growth, they say. More than two minutes doesn’t really help.

The downsides of short rest times

The shorter your rests, the lighter weights you’ll work with. This is fine if you’re trying to make do with light dumbbells, but it means you’re not getting practice with heavier weights. Most of us want to be jacked and strong, so short rest times mean you’re biasing yourself to the muscle size side of the equation.

Very short rest times (less than a minute) may also interfere with your ability to make the biggest gains, as the studies above noted. You may be able to make up for this by doing more sets of the exercise. If you enjoy the go-go-go feeling of short rests, that may be totally fine with you. Add an extra set or two and you know you’re using your time well. For the rest of us, though, slowing down and taking a full minute between sets will be better than rushing it.

How long is a “short” rest time?

One to two minutes is likely the sweet spot, according to recent studies. That’s on the higher end of the recommended 30 to 90 seconds. It’s fine to do some of your rests shorter and some longer, but if you’d like me to tell you what to punch in on your timer, go with 90 seconds.

How to get the benefits of both long and short rest times

Ultimately, you may be best off using a mix of long and short rest times, which is how a lot of programs are designed. Use longer rest times for a few big compound lifts at the beginning of the workout (like squats or bench press) and shorter rest times for circuits, accessories, or isolation exercises afterward (like curls or glute bridges).

Supersets are a great way to split the difference. If you work different muscle groups in two different exercises, you can do one exercise while the other muscles rest. This isn’t your best option if you truly want all your energy and focus to go toward one lift (like if you’re working up to a PR on your bench press) but it’s a great way to do hypertrophy work. For example, try this:

  • Do a set of pullups

  • Rest 30 seconds

  • Do a set of pushups

  • Rest 30 seconds

    In this example, if it takes you 30 seconds to do the set of pushups, you’ve rested 90 total seconds in between your first set of pullups and your second set of pullups.

How long to rest between sets of specific exercises

Okay, but what if you want to get stronger and grow muscle? What if you want to stop overthinking the specifics and do whatever rest period makes you look like a normal person at the gym who knows what they’re doing? Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • For pushups and pullups: If you do a small to medium number of reps (less than 12), treat them as a strength exercise and wait three to five minutes between sets. If you’re one of those people banging out 20 or 50 at a time, you probably want to take rests of about a minute so that fatigue can make your next set a bit shorter and you can finish your workout in this lifetime.

  • For barbell squats and deadlifts: These are compound lifts that use many muscles in your body. They’re pretty much always done (relatively) heavy, and it’s useful to build strength in these moves. Treat them as a strength exercise and wait three to five minutes.

  • For bench press, overhead press, chest press, and shoulder press: These involve smaller muscles and less weight than squats and deadlifts, but they still qualify as compound, strength-focused exercises. Two to three minutes will be enough, most of the time, but take up to five on heavy sets if you need to.

  • For rows and lat pulldowns: Same as the presses, for the same reasons. Two to three minutes may be enough, but up to five would still be reasonable.

  • For isolation exercises: if you’re trying to feel the burn or the pump, short rests will really help you here. Take 30 seconds between sets.

These are just guidelines, so feel free to experiment. If you want to work on your cardiovascular conditioning, take a little less rest between sets. If you’ve already done a big set of bench presses today, do the rest of your arm and chest accessories with shorter rest periods.

All your questions about rest times, answered

Let’s do a lightning round, since I know rest times are a huge subject of discussion among people who are getting the hang of the gym routine. But first, a plea for you to not overthink this: if you simply rest until you feel ready to go again, you’ll probably do ok.

Is three minutes rest between sets too much?

No. If you’re trying to move a heavy weight, you probably want to rest a minimum of three minutes. If you’re training for muscle size (and don’t care as much about strength), you could shorten your rests a bit. Still, it’s not bad to rest too long, just slightly inefficient.

Can you rest an hour between sets?

At that point I wouldn’t call it a rest time, just a different workout. When you come back to the gym after that hour, you’ll need to warm up all over again. I would say if it’s been more than 10 or 15 minutes between sets, or if you feel like you’re physically cooling down, it’s worth doing some kind of exercise just to keep your body ready. This could be pushups while you’re waiting for a bench to free up, for example.

How long should I rest if I’m new to the gym?

As a noob, you’re probably not lifting very heavy (yet). That means you don’t have a lot to rest from. Say you’re doing squats: your body is still learning how to squat at all. You aren’t taking 300 pounds for a ride and needing to rest several minutes to recover.

For that reason, newer people may not need to rest as much. Two minutes between squat sets? Sure, that’s fine if you feel ready. The pitfall here is that if you get used to taking short rests, you could end up working with weights that are too light for you. After your first few weeks at the gym, make sure to do some of your heavier lifts with longer rest times (at least three minutes) and see if you feel fresher.

What happens if I don’t rest between sets?

If you can do multiple sets of an exercise without resting in between, you’re not using an appropriate weight. There’s supposed to be a difference between three sets of 10, and one set of 30. If your workout says to do 3×10, you’re supposed to feel tired enough after that 10th rep that you need to rest at least a minute or two before going again.

And yes, it can be awkward to be standing around in the squat rack, doing nothing or even scrolling on your phone while others are waiting. But remember: Everybody rests between sets! Or at least, they should.


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