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Rest time between sets

The Space Between the Sets: Optimizing Rest Time

You bulk muscle during sets of reps. But, what about the space between the sets? How do you use your rest time? How should you use your rest time in a way that supports the more active parts of your workout? We’ll explore this and more.

Understanding Sets and Reps

Let’s start with the basics. If you’re familiar with your terminology, feel free to skip ahead a little bit. If you’re new here, stick around. 

The standard procedure is to split your week into days with each day targeting a different area of the body. Each day consists of workouts done in sets and reps.

“Rep” is short for “repetition.” A repetition is one complete workout – from rest, to peak, hold, and return to rest. “Sets” are groups of repetitions of the same workout that you perform before moving onto the next workout or hitting the showers. So, if you do 30 total reps, the idea is to do five sets of six reps (or some similar division) with brief pauses in between.

But, why do we have rest times? How do we fill the space between the sets? Let’s find out.

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The Space Between the Sets

If you don’t use the sets-and-reps system, try it. Chances are, you’ll realize that you can do twenty to fifty percent more complete reps using the same weight. Or, maintain the same number of reps at the next weight up.

Take the example of dumbbell curls. Suppose you can do “one set of ten” at your current weight. By breaking that up and incorporating rest times, you might find that you can do three sets of five. Or, two sets of five at the next weight.

But, why is this the case? There are actually a number of reasons that brief rest times between sets can improve your workout.

Why Rest Times Work

During an intense workout, a waste chemical called lactic acid can build up in your muscles, potentially contributing to muscle soreness later on. This is a natural part of exercise, and your blood will eventually carry that lactate away. However, incorporating rest times into your workout and even softly moving or massaging the muscles that you’re working between sets can help.

There’s more to rest times than just moving waste material around. The energy metabolism within muscles can be categorized as “aerobic” or “using oxygen” – and “anaerobic” or “without oxygen.” Weight lifting is typically anaerobic, which contributes to the buildup of lactate. However, taking a few breaths in between reps can help to replenish that oxygen.

The way that your body switches between forms of metabolic activity is, to some degree, a thing that you can control with time (Abernathy et al., p. 205). This is part of the reasoning behind exercise plans like High Intensity Interval Training. Fine-tuning the length of your rest time and how they fit with the intensity of the rest of your is beyond this piece, but is something to ponder.

Finally, when you get wrapped up in a workout, you can forget that no matter how targeted your exercise is, exercising is a full-body activity. We’ll talk in the next section about how you can use rest times to check in with your body – including the muscles that you’re working out as well as other “body systems” that you may not be reflecting on enough.

What to do with rest times
A friendly engagement between workout partners during rest time between sets

Making the Most of Rest Times

So, you’re interested in exploring rest time and the space between the sets. But, what do you do with all that time? If you aren’t using the set-and-rep model already, it is probably because it can feel like a waste of time if you aren’t using that time productively. So, what do you do with it all?

Alternate Sides

If you’re worried about time economy, you can rest your muscles without adding time to your workout by playing hot-potato with the weights. Let’s return to the dumbbell curl example. 

Most resources will have you curl both arms at once (Caciolo, p. 5.). But, as long as you have a dumbbell in each hand, consider alternating your sets from one arm to the other. The left arm does a set and then rests while the right arm does a set. You still incorporate rest time, but there’s no time during which your body isn’t moving. Efficient, isn’t it?

Of course, this only works for exercises in which sides of the body can move separately. If you’re doing barbell curls (ibid.) instead of dumbbell curls, this trick doesn’t really work. If you really like the sounds of it, there are a lot of traditionally two-sided exercises that split evenly. Not all exercises do, but there’s more that you can do with your rest times.

Stay Hydrated

You are staying hydrated, right? You should be drinking plenty of water, or at least a water-based drink. 

If you aren’t afraid of carbs, fruit juices can even be a solid choice that provide plenty of vitamins and minerals, though natural sugars come along for the ride. “Sports drinks” bring along electrolytes – more than even the average gym-goer actually needs – but can also come with added sweeteners. Similar can be said for protein and other supplement blends.

There’s a lot to be said for light-to-moderate caffeine intake before a workout, but remember that caffeine contributes to water loss, so drinking things like energy drinks or even coffees and teas can work against you.

Whatever you’re drinking, a squirt between sets isn’t a bad habit to get into.

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Check In With Your Body

“Checking in with your body” is a term that we’re borrowing from yoga. Be mindful for a moment of your body as a holistic unit. 

What is your heart rate like? How does your heart feel?

What is your breath rate like? How do your lungs feel?

How do the muscles that you’re working out feel? How do the joints involved feel?

How does the rest of your body feel? 

Is too much weight or improper form causing discomfort in places that shouldn’t feel this workout?

Do you need to take a break, drop weight to finish your workout, or even quit early?

This isn’t just a diagnostic check; a lot of people use biometrics like heartbeat and breath rate to gauge whether their workout is as intense as they want it to be, for example, if they’re trying to lose weight

If you have a fitness tracker that puts your biometrics at a glance, you might not even need to pause your workout to check your stats. While these devices can tell you what your body is doing, there’s no substitute for taking the time to check in with how your body is feeling.

Make Corrections / Improvements

Back there, we called checking in with your body during rest times a diagnostic exercise. It’s a time to make sure that everything feels okay and that you aren’t sacrificing good form and safe posture to increase your reps or weights.

If you notice yourself doing any of these things, take time to correct them. Drop weight if you have to, but it might just be a matter of consciously trying to correct your form in your next set. This is particularly instructional if you work out in front of a mirror, which you should – particularly if you don’t have a spotter or coach who can let you know when something doesn’t look right.

Even if you don’t find room for correction, you should always be able to find room for improvements. At the very least, take this time to catch your breath and align your breath with your workout. Inhale as the muscle contracts and exhale as the muscle relaxes. Some believe that this is better for your muscles but at the very least it helps you stay focused on form.

stretching with your rest time

Stretch / Move Around

Your rest time can be just for resting and catching your breath. But if you’re really pushing yourself, you can use it for a mini cooldown, or incorporate some light stretching

Stretching helps to relax and loosen the muscles so that you can push them a little further while maintaining your form. Light movement also helps to keep the blood flowing, moving in fresh oxygen and nutrients while moving out waste products, as we’ve discussed already.

There’s a lot to be said for sticking to a challenging exercise, but remember, this is for situations in which you feel that dull, generalized burn that comes from a good workout. If doing the exercise hurts you or you notice a sharp, localized pain, don’t push through it – it could be a serious injury.

How Long Should Your Rest Time Be?

How long your rest times should be between sets is a literal science to itself. As mentioned above, fine-tuning how intense your exercise is and how long your rests are can be used to do things like rewire your metabolism. We highly recommend that you explore this on your own, at least, until HTBM puts together an article that dives deeper into this heavy topic.

For now, your rest times should be determined by a few main practical concerns like how much time you have, what the setting is, and how you use the times between the sets.

If you have all the time in the world, longer, more meditative rest times can be really enjoyable – but they do stretch out the length of your workout. If you’re at the gym and people are waiting for machines or benches, you might not be able to stretch out long, leisurely mid-workout stretches.

And, we’ve all had times when we squeezed a workout into a hectic day. These can be hastened and stressful or you can drop your weight and increase your speed, essentially turning your usual muscle building workout into a cardio workout that still puts your muscles through their paces. If you save enough time, keep those rest times between your quicker sets.

All other things being equal, the length of your rest time should depend on how you use that time. If you just use it to check in with your breath, it may only need to be a few seconds long. If you do a full yoga vinyasa between sets (and we’re not suggesting that you don’t), the space between sets could be stretched out to several minutes.

Go Your Own Way

If you read this article and still want to stick to your single set of twenty or whatever you do, that’s fine – the gym cops won’t come to enforce the set-and-rep system. But, there are advantages to using the set-and-rep system, and to creatively and productively incorporating rest times in between your sets.

Further Reading

Abernathy, Bruce; Kippers, Vaughan; Hanrahan, Stephanie J.; Pandy, Marcus G.; McManus, Alison M. Laurel Mackinnon. “Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement” (3rd ed.). Human Kinetics. Champaign Il., U.S.A. 2013.
Caciolo, C (ed.) “Men’s Health: Total Body Workbook.” Rodale. Emmaus, PA, U.S.A. 2007.

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