The Science Behind 2- to 3-Minute Rests in Between Lifting Sets

Regine Fe Arat
Medically reviewed by Regine Fe Arat — Written by Regine Fe Arat

In weightlifting and strenuous exercise, the popular idea has typically been to work your muscles as much as possible for greater gains. This means not giving them too much time to rest mid-workout. 

Indeed, you will feel generally that your muscles are more fatigued when you limit the resting period between sets to less than a minute - which can mean that you're getting more effective work in. 

But is this really the ideal way to build strength and muscle mass? Some scientists appear to think not.

A 2016 study determined that allowing more time for your muscles to rest and recover between sets can actually make for the most effective workout. 

Researchers looked at the progress of 23 different male college students, aged 18 to 35. They were separated into two groups: one that rested one minute between sets, and another one that rested for three minutes. 

People in both groups performed three weekly full-body workouts: seven compound exercises for the back, legs, and chest, each comprised of three sets of eight to 12 reps. The two groups performed the same exact routine for a total of eight weeks, after which the researchers measured the progress of each individual.

In a nutshell, the results revealed greater gains for the group of people who rested for three minutes between sets. The people in this group proved to be able to do more reps, and gained more muscle mass in general, than their counterparts in the one-minute rest group.

So, there you have it: a legitimate scientific study backing up the importance of rest and recovery – even mid-workout, between sets. The logic of working out to a point of fatigue or exhausting still makes a certain sense. 

However, it appears that there's also something to the idea of giving yourself more time, so as to prolong your workout and, ultimately, work in more reps before reaching fatigue or failure.

One potential problem that can come from resting more between sets, however, is a loss of momentum. High-intensity interval training (or HIIT), for instance, is famous for involving 30- to 40-second resting periods in between momentum-fueled anaerobic exercises. 

Although as HIIT trainer Eric Salvador explains, "The more intense the workout the more rest you need so if I am telling you that you are going for a 400 meter sprint around the track, and it took you a minute, and 45 seconds, I'm going to need you to recover for the same amount of time it took you to run it.” 

This coincides with the above-mentioned study on the benefits of three-minute rest periods in between workout sets. And more to the point, it allows those who do HIIT just enough time to recover without losing momentum at all.

Still, taking those three-minute breaks, or whatever the specific case may be, can feel unnatural to those who are used to pushing themselves in workouts, HIIT or otherwise. This is actually one of the real benefits we're starting to see from tech-based workout programs. 

Often, they allow you to program your own workout to some degree; in some cases, they even set into place appropriate and effective rest patterns in between sets or exercises. In a way, these programs can essentially train you to take the right amount of time off as you exercise.

More directly, we might also be on the cusp of having virtual trainers who can guide us the same way. As of now, we think of virtual reality as relating primarily to gaming. It more or less debuted with new gaming experiences, and then progressed to console adaptations.

Now it's touching even niche corners of the gaming business, like mobile puzzles or online casino slots. Slots are increasingly available for free play and have gotten wildly popular, some have turned that popularity into an embrace of advanced animation and VR. This speaks not only to these slots' appeal, but to VR's overall versatility. From a fitness perspective, this versatility is important because it's now extending beyond gaming as well. 

So, as stated, it might not be long before virtual trainers are commonplace. Just as VR can adapt simple mobile or online games, it might produce the next versions of the aforementioned fitness apps, and as a result we might have trainers directly structuring even our home workouts, and allowing the proper rest.

Of course, even if that doesn't become a reality for you personally in the near future, you have other ways of implementing this scientifically-backed advice to take longer breaks between workouts and sets. 

You can always discuss the matter with a real-life, in-person trainer and develop an appropriately structured workout. Or you can simply work on your own discipline until you're able to set aside the required time for a more spaced-out workout, and you can stick to the rest periods diligently.

However you manage it, this is certainly an interesting concept to incorporate into your exercise routine. Some may still find it counterintuitive, but it's at least worth a shot. You may just be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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