Posted 3 weeks ago

How much rest should you take in between loading sets?

This is a really common question, one that I get asked daily by clients. This is because when myself and the team write programs for our clients, in the denoted “rest period” tab I always state that you should rest as required between sets. You might be wondering why I may prescribe this, so let me explain.

Most people might be under the impression you only need about two minutes between working sets before we’re ready to go again. If we were to look into the different energy systems within the body and how quickly they can recover, they would be right.

However, if all you need between sets is two minutes, I’d argue that this is because you’re training sub-maximally. By that I mean that you are training, but nowhere near to the point where you cannot complete another rep, and you are thus and not achieving muscular failure.

The training methodology the VW Physique team uses is the progressive overload model. Here, the goal is to get stronger on a week-by-week basis, pushing your body to its absolute limits to complete an extra rep on a set, or add 1.25kg to the bar. We do not preach leaving reps in reserve, which means that if you do actually take a set to muscular failure, you’re going to need more than two minutes to recover from it.

As we are lifting weights, we are consciously trying to recruit as many individual muscle fibres as we can in the targeted muscle during a specific lift. Our intent is to get all those fibres to exert as much force as they can to move the weight we have on the bar/machine.

When we do this with maximal loading, we generate a large amount of metabolic waste such as lactic acid, which causes muscular fatigue and depletes the muscle of energy. This waste response is far more aggressive when we train with maximal loading, as opposed to if we train with sub-maximal loads.

That lactic acid we’ve accumulated then just needs time and oxygen to be removed from the muscle, to allow us to perform the movement again to our highest possible intensity level. That recovery time will also allow the muscle to top its energy stores back up, as these have been depleted. Therefore, you can start to see why generically recommending two minutes of rest between sets may not be applicable when you’re training to near-failure on every set.

Instead, my recommendation is to not time your rest at all and instead just simply go by feel. That might be two minutes, it might be five. If you’ve just given it the beanz on the hack squat, it might be closer to the latter.

Despite my advice above, there might be some occasions – towards the end of your workout – where you do limit your rest time. Specifically, this will be when you’re doing blood volume work: fairly high reps, not a lot of rest, and a lot of pain. These types of sets will create an adaptive response (muscle growth), but not nearly as much as the heavy work you’ve done prior. Hence why you’ll only see 1-2 of these sets per workout (any more would compromise your session or take over the heavy loading work!).

In summary, training at maximal loads and trying to progress your lifts every week will create a large amount of muscular fatigue, metabolic waste, and deplete energy stores during your workout. This will require time to recover from, to allow you to be at a point where you can perform your next set at your highest possible intensity level. My suggestion is to throw away the stopwatch and judge your readiness for the next set by feel.

You may only have two sets per exercise, and if you want to continue to add muscle mass, you must progress these sets weekly. Don’t let a shortened rest period stop you from doing so.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons