Ninety Second Rest Periods For Strength? Are You Kidding Me?

Posted on 25 Aug 2009 04:06

By Eric Troy

Ok, you are at your favorite forum or you are talking to one of the trainers in the gym and you want to know about rest periods.

"How long should I rest between sets?" you ask.

Here is the typical first response you will get from the forum:

"What's your stats?"

Now you'd get that response from the forum whether you asked about rest periods or whether most people prefer chocolate chip over macaroons. "What's your stats" is bro-lingo 101 so we have to get that out of the way.

Then they will pretend like they are doing some quick and dirty calculations based on your body weight, bench press, squat, and deadlift. Afterwards, they might ask you what your goals are and what your training is like, which is likely the first thing the trainer would have asked you. Then they'll give you the same answer they give everybody else!

Something like:

"Ninety Seconds and your muscles have recovered all they are going to."

OK, so I'm exaggerating a little. But not that much. Out of one hundred possible responses I'll bet a good 70 percent will be ninety seconds to two minutes rest between sets across the board. And that is really ridiculous.

A more honest and/or accurate answer would be: "I don't know. It depends."

The fact is I have never talked to a person whose rest periods are too LONG. But I've seen countless trainees that use the same ninety second rest periods for their circa-maximal deadlifts (say singles and doubles) as for their 5x5 program as for their bicep pumping session. That's right. What's more, tell them that is stupid and they will fight you tooth and nail. Yet again, belief perseverance at work and I could write an entire post on how it is a confirmation bias etc…

The length of your rest periods has a huge influence on your response to an exercise session. In a large way, it is what makes the workout what it is. Rest periods influence the metabolic response, the cardiprespiratory response, the hormonal response, the fatigue response, the strength response…

Is that enough?

Maximal strength gains have consistently been shown to be greater with longer rest periods. Simply, the longer rest periods allow you to lift MORE at a certain high intensity while maintaining quality. You lift a heavy weight more times while minimizing fatigue to maximize quality and you get stronger faster.

Is there a limit to this, or, in other words, a point of diminishing returns? Of course! But depending on the individual, a good rest period can be so much longer than the average trainee has been taught you may feel you are "cheating". Periods up to ten minutes are sometimes used with very heavy single repetitions. That's right TEN MINUTES.

The first simple guideline of rest periods for resistance training is the heavier the load, in terms of intensity, and the larger the amount of muscle used, the longer the rest periods needed between sets. So even though your goal is strength, you will always use longer rest periods for deadlifts than you will for triceps extensions. Pretty simple but many trainees don't have guidelines for rest periods, they have one concrete rule: always rest ninety seconds or two minutes, depending on which bodybuilding magazine they read. Some of the more enlightened trainees always rest exactly three minute between sets.

I've even had people tell me they only rest a minute and sometimes they rest ninety second to two minutes if they "need it". Did you know, there has never been shown to be much difference between one minute and two minute rest periods? Nope.

Take a bunch of comparable trainees and put them on the same protocol. Give half one minute rest periods and the other half two minutes. The difference in their results is insignificant. This is because the amount of time it takes to affect a certain amount of recovery is not exact. It's variable and can depend on many other factors.

Put another way, take two groups of trainees and put one group on one minute rest periods and the other half on three minute rest periods and there will be a significant increase in reps performed for each set for the three minute group. Now, put one half on one minute rest and the other on two and the difference in reps performed will be insignificant.

Makes one wonder how they came up with the ninety second rule.

Most people's ideas about rest periods are way off base. Your rest periods depend on your goals and what you are doing. Only ever resting up to 90 minutes because of some rule….very very bad idea. If you only rest that long…intensity will be SACRIFICED. Volume will be sacrificed. Progress in general will be sacrificed.

That is a "bodybuilding" prescription and even then it is only one detail to be manipulated. Anybody who's only ever rested that long between sets…start resting as long as you need to get the job done and watch your progress skyrocket. But those type of short rest periods are based on hormone response and I think mostly acute growth hormone response rather than "recovery" although I'm sure a bunch of people have made the "complete recovery" claim to back up their one size fits all recommendations. The basic claim goes something like this: "In 90 seconds to two minutes your muscles have recovered all they are going to." Complete and utter ignorance.

Even if one focuses on the hormone response angle I have a big problem with focusing on acute chemical response rather than what really matters: CHRONIC RESPONSE and ADAPTATION.

You don't need any of that. Just stop following rules nobody can prove to you and let experience be your guide. Anybody that thinks they can lift some maximal weights only ever resting 90 seconds….ain't ever lifted maximal weights (relatively speaking). Let the intensity and volume be your guide.

Absolutely must have some rules based on that? Sometimes rest periods are correlated with intensity or rep maximums sort of like the chart below, and I think you can see the pattern:

Rest Period Rep Range
<1 min >13 RM
1-2 min 11-13 RM
2-3 min 8-10 RM
3-5 min 5-7 RM
>5 min <5 RM

Some people will say that certain individuals train themselves to use much shorter rest periods being "highly advanced" athletes and that they can increase their strength without increasing rest periods. It's trying to get water from a stone. Something has to give and you are not going to ever get full performance from a system that may require up to 5 minutes to fully rev up with a rest period of 1 or 2 minutes. ANYBODY would be able to lift more with more rest in that case.

In general for strength you want 3 to 5 minutes for optimal recovery. Reducing rest periods can be a goal in itself for some short term strength gains and enhanced recovery. This is especially useful for body weight movements where the intensity cannot be changed and you need to add reps before you can add weight or otherwise increase the difficulty. But this myth about short rest periods has got to go. It is nowhere near the truth.

Unless you are using a protocol that is calling for specific rest periods or manipulation thereof…rest as long as you need to get the job done.

Ninety seconds as a blanket rule is simply not enough for recovery when it comes to strength training. To say that it is always enough for "mass" would be missing the boat as well. Certainly, with so many people doing 5x5's, I hope they're not all just resting 90 seconds between sets. Good lord that ain't the way to get the most out of it. And in case you are wondering why I brought up 5x5's in a paragraph about mass, that is because I consider that sort of training to be a generalized mass/strength way of training.

Even if you are a guy that "doesn't care about strength" to say that one specific rest period is always what anyone needs for mass would be like saying one specific volume is all that is needed. There are too many factors involved to make a rule like that. You need what you need.

However, for bodybuilding goals shorter rest period of around one minute to two minutes are thought to increase acute hormonal responses such as growth hormone in the blood which may be significant for hypertrophy. Even so, this is not the "proof of the pudding" for hypertrophy.

The point of this rant, though, is not to discuss all the possible affects shorter or longer rest periods (aren't you glad) but to make the point that most strength trainees don't rest long enough at all.

So, it takes around 3 minutes, give or take, for replenishment of intramuscular adenosine triphospate and phosophocreatine levels (to the extent they can be recovered). This is the first important factor in optimal recovery for maximal strength training goals. There is only enough ATP stored in the body to fuel the first few seconds of exercise.

It is at this point we consider "metabolic recovery" to be nearly complete. Generally, metabolic recovery is a catchall for all the machinery other than neural components, which is the next important factor.

And neural recovery takes anywhere from three to ten minutes. I should note that the term "neural recovery" should not be taken as a precise term. What is actually going on in these later stages as the trainee recovers the ability to exert full or next to full force is not exactly known and it could be related to activity in the CNS or the neuromuscular level. I use it here to describe recovery that takes place beyond metabolic recovery and make no claims of it tuning out to be a precise and usable term.

Time State of Recovery
0-30 seconds ~50% metabolic recovery
30 seconds - 2 minutes ~90% metabolic recovery
2-3 minutes complete metabolic recovery (TTEP)
3-5 minutes near complete neural recovery
5-10 minutes complete neural recovery (TTEP)

Please note: None of the charts given in this post represent YOU as an individual. How much rest a person needs, as I hinted above, can be fluid for an individual at any given period in his or her training. And training age itself has everything to do with it. A novice trainee will recover faster from a set of 10 squats than a more advanced one.

A major problem with short rest periods is that they can be psychologically daunting. When you feel fatigued or pressure to keep your rest periods down to some predetermined period, anxiety is increased.

If you compare a barbell complex or a demanding circuit to heavy maximal strength training it is easy to see how significant this psychological duress can be. The metabolic demands of a fast paced circuit may translate into "dread". It is entirely appropriate to use rest periods of thiry seconds to a minute but you know it is going to kick your butt and you may wish you could just lift some heavy weights.

You dread it but you don't fear it. The weights are light. If you get too tired and you feel like form is sacrificed too much you can always cut it short. Rest a little longer..what have you.

But if you couple the daunting nature of short rest periods with much heavier weights, failure doesn't just mean not getting all your reps. Failure means FAILURE. Shortchanging yourself on rest affects your readiness to lift and that will affect your success at the lift. Not to mention the combination of fatigue, anxiety and worry can be a combination that causes bad mistakes and bad injuries.

The kind of heavy I am talking about is at least 85% of 1RM or heavier and intensities of greater than 90% are sought for near-maximal efforts. But even when our strength training is not so heavy, but are based on volume and linear progression, short rest periods can be even worse.

At least with a maximal weight you recognize the seriousness of the situation. After all, as I just mentiond, your short rest periods have added to your anxiety about the effort. So, yes, resting longer can give you a psychological and recovery boost but the fact is, you are less likely to get hurt doing maximal training than you are doing sub-maximal training. In general I mean.

Many so called called strength programs such as 5x5 programs which use set reps and sets and linear progression, when combined with these very short rest periods, are injuries waiting to happen. The overall intensity may be a bit lower but the repeated effort and the pressure to "get your reps" in cause a huge deterioration in form as the session goes on. Throw in improper recovery from short rest periods and it's not long before trainees see injuries during these programs.

If, under these circumstances, your goal is to use a short rest period then that becomes a goal in itself. You start with a longer rest period…as long as you need to maintain quality…and you gradually reduce that each workout.

But very few strength trainees have shorter rest periods as a goal; they have them as a rule.

Break it.

If you are new to strength training and are unsure how long you should rest between sets, I'll make it simple. Rest as long as you feel you need and then just a bit longer. Let results be your guide. If you are progressing and getting stronger then don't fix what ain't broken.

Assuming, that is, your only goal is to increase maximal strength. I do not care how long I rest between maximal deadlifts attempt as compared to how long I rested 10 years ago. Despite all the PC propaganda about the big lifts, I don't deadlift for my health! Not that it isn't a great lift for many aspects of "health", I just didn't work my butt off for years bringing up the lift because I wanted to tack another half a year onto my life or even to increase my functional years. I did it because I like to challenge myself and lift heavy things off the floor. So, my only goal is to increase the total amount of weight I can lift regardless of how long I need to rest before I do it again.

Despite that, many highly seasoned lifters act like, due to their advanced status and their advancing age, instead of needing an average of five to ten minutes between circa-maximal lifts they now need book a long, relaxing cruise between lifts where they spend a couple of weeks playing shuffle-board. To which I say, if one big lift completely disables you, you have bigger fish to fry than rest periods between sets. You don't need to compromise your strength training with shorter rest periods; you need to get in shape! This is why the powers invented conditioning and periodization.

Yes, you can have a great deal of maximal strength on a few lifts and still be out of shape. Why do you think all the old powerlifters are dragging sleds around and then saying their deadlifts are increasing? Because sled dragging 'works the hammies'…right…


This page created 25 Aug 2009 04:06
Last updated 22 Jul 2016 00:17

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