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How Much Rest Is Too Much?

Posted Jan 08 2009 3:02pm


f you spend any time in a gym near the free weights, you’ll notice, mostly guys, standing around. They lift some weight and then wander around for three or four minutes. Have you ever wondered why?

There’s a common thought in the world of body building that to get the most out of an exercise, you must train at very high loads to exhaustion and then rest three to five minutes between each exercise. If you rest less than that, the muscle cannot function at its best during the next exercise and you won’t see improvements in the way you look.

Well, first of all, never train for form. Always train for fitness and function and allow form to appear. Athletes don't train to look good. They train to play well and end up looking the way they do as a fringe benefit. And, you don't need to rest for three to five minutes to produce functional changes in your body.

There is some research, though, that supports the idea of resting more than three minutes between sets but if you perform three sets of five drills and rest at least three minutes between each set, that’s forty-five minutes of rest! So, when you add ten minutes of warming up on the front end of your session and ten minutes of cooling down on the back end plus the time it takes to perform the drill, you’re in the gym close to ninety minutes! Most of us just don’t have that much time to spend in a gym.

Here’s a little known but scientifically real shortcut. Rest no more than one minute between sets. This will dramatically increase hormonal response in your body, mobilize fat, and ramp up your metabolism for twenty-four hours*.

The most common way to think of exercising and sets is to perform one exercise, which is one set, rest, repeat the same exercise, rest, etc. Instead, I prefer ‘supersets” – no rest between the exercises.

For example, let’s say you have five exercises – A, B, C, D, E. Completing one set of each exercise is one round. Rest one minute between rounds. Complete three to four rounds. This gives you three to four sets of each drill. Now, your total time of rest, for three rounds, is fifteen minutes instead of forty-five (one minute between each round). Your total time in the gym is closer to forty-five minutes than seventy-five to ninety.

But, this is a much more demanding type of training and you may need a bit of rest between drills as well as a training buddy or coach from time to time to push you when you feel like quitting. That’s ok. A little rest, five to ten seconds between drills, will still deliver substantial physiologic benefits well beyond the traditional, longer rest periods. And, you won’t have to use as much load which reduces your risk of injury.

Traditional gyms make this difficult to do sometimes because of their tools and design. One of the gyms I use has all the "cardio" tools on the upper floor and the free weights downstairs. This makes it tough to keep my rest periods short if I want to use speed intervals as part of a round and makes it impossible when the gym is busy (like this time of year). I tried running up the stairs but just about took a young woman out when I turned the corner.

Use rounds of sets. Rest one minute between rounds.
Burn more fat. Build more muscle.


* Goto, K., M. Nagasawa, et al. (2004). "Muscular adaptations to combinations of high- and low-intensity resistance exercises." J Strength Cond Res 18(4): 730-7.

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