There is one variable that is commonly misapplied in the gym. Powerlifters aren’t as guilty of this mistake (and personal trainers are among the most guilty of the bunch), but a better understanding of this key variable will facilitate gains and give one a better, and often more enjoyable, workout. What variable I am speaking of? Rest time, and when I say rest I don’t mean days off, I mean the rest time in between your work sets.
If you are training to increase strength the concept is actually pretty simple. You want to approach each working set as fresh as possible. This improves performance which in turn causes the most increase in strength. Let’s look at 2 examples; a lifter could perform both of the following workouts, which one is best for increasing maximal strength?
Option A: Bench 300×3, 290×3, 280×3, 270×3, 260×3 with 90 secs of rest in between sets
Option B: Bench 300×3, 300×3, 300×3, 300×3, 310×3 with 4 min of rest in between sets
Both workouts can have benefits but hopefully you realized that Option B is the best for strength. We have 4 sets with 300 and one with 310, the volume is 4530 lbs with an average weight per rep of 302 lbs a rep. Option A has a volume of 4200 lbs with an average weight per rep of 280 lbs. Even if the lifter didn’t go heavier on the last set in option B it would still be the clear winner, and you may well find that due to motor pattern improvements (coupled with long rest time) you may find yourself fresh and strong after several heavy work sets as long as you are not training to failure.
When you are training for strength you will most likely be relying heavily on your Phosphagen Energy System, sometimes called the ATP/CP system. This will power activities that are high intensity and last 30 seconds or less. The fuel for this system, which is what needs to replenish itself after the set, is ATP and CP (hence the name). Let’s see what the science says about these chemicals:
It takes about 3-5 minutes for ATP to near fully recharge
It takes about 5-8 minutes for CP to near fully recharge
It takes about 5-15 minutes for the nervous system to near fully recharge
This is where the recommendation of resting 2-5 minutes when training for strength comes from, to let those systems power up so they are ready to perform at a high level again. Rest time also means just that, it means passively resting, it doesn’t mean jumping rope or super-setting exercises or anything else. Don’t get me wrong, all of those tools do have their uses, but if the goal is max strength (particularly if one is peaking for a competition) you need to give yourself and your athletes time to rest and recharge so they can perform their best. It is worth mentioning that this guideline also applies if the goal is to build maximum power, speed, agility, skill, or single set endurance.
Short rest times and other intensity techniques do have benefits, some of which include building muscle size, improving lactate threshold, creating EPOC, and building mental toughness and pain tolerance. In addition sometimes it is desirable to perform a key lift when fatigued (for example performing squats at the end of the workout – Sheiko is a big proponent of this) to build additional practice time and to reinforce correct form even when tired. CrossFitters need to be able to express proper form under conditions of fatigue. To be clear, I am not knocking short rest periods, but I do urge that the user understand their purpose and implement them with a reason.
The big negative of long rest times is simply that the workout often takes a while. You need to spend some time warming up for big weight and if you do 5 sets of 5 with 5 minutes of rest that is 20+ minutes you will spend on just one exercise. You can’t cram an effective, long term strength program into 20 minutes of exercise unless you are willing to do that multiple times a day. You can however, shave off any extraneous time by following these guidelines:
Longer rest is only appropriate for the main working sets, implement shorter rest (1-3 min) for the warm-up sets.
Rest as long as necessary so that you know you will get the set. If you know you will smash the next set with just 2 minutes of rest, then just take that. But if you aren’t sure you will get that next set with 2 minutes of rest, but you know you will get it with 4 minutes of rest, then take those extra two minutes to boost your performance.
Generally the longer rest times are applied to your key/core exercises (read: what you do with a barbell). Your other assistance exercises (read: what you do with machines/dumbbells) can be trained with shorter rests (1-2 min), supersets, etc. That way you can still achieve the benefits described above from the short rest training (increased size, muscular endurance, EPOC, etc) without compromising the gains from compound strength exercises.
If you are pressed for time, skip the fluff. Often effective strength workouts just have 2-5 exercises in total per day. Focus your energy and intensity on those key lifts, you’ll likely get more out of 5 sets of 5 on heavy squats that takes 30 minutes than you will from leg press, lunges, leg extension and leg curl all put together when performed with light to moderate weight and short rest periods.
In the end, you can’t argue with results. Ask yourself are you wasting time in the gym or is your time spent ultimately productive? If you are spending lots of time in the gym and you aren’t adding plates to the bar, unfortunately it is likely the former. But if you are resting when your body needs it, even if it doesn’t seem like you are doing as much total work as someone else, if the weight on the bar is moving up, you are very likely doing something right. Don’t be afraid to rest an extra few minutes before your big sets and you might find that your max and your overall enjoyment of the session increases significantly.