Scroll through the thousands of workouts online, and you’d be surprised at how often a rest break is either not discussed or the generic sixty-second rest break is used. What’s the big deal? Rest breaks are when your muscles recharge for the next lift, giving you a chance to push yourself to muscle failure. Too much of a rest break and your muscles cool down. Too short of a rest break and you fall short of your target repetitions.
How long you sit and recover is more complicated than a one-size-fits all format, especially when it comes to powerlifting. Above all, no two people will require the same rest time. Let’s take a look at the variables involved in determining your personalized rest break that you can use in your next workout.
1. EVOLVE FROM SHORT BREAKS TO LONGER BREAKS
If you have a relatively light workout or you want to gauge how you respond to different lengths of time, try starting the workout with short breaks and extending them as you progress.
Your warm-ups will have the shortest amount of resting time; preferably no more than 60 seconds. As the weights get heavier and as the intensity increases, you’re going to find that this might not be enough of a rest break. Increase the time to 90 seconds.
Assuming you’re using progressive overload, once you pass the previous week’s weight record, you may need even more of a break. Only after you’ve matched or surpassed your personal best should you rest for 120 seconds or more. Do this for a few workouts with varying intensities and volume. Monitor when you feel ready to tackle the next set compared to when you feel burned out.
2. MUSCLE FAILURE REQUIRES MORE REST
If you’re striving for muscle failure with each set, more rest is a given. Let’s get something straight: muscle failure does not mean comfortably reaching ten repetitions. Muscle failure is when you are not physically able to perform another repetition and you need the help of a spotter or guard rail to return the weight.
For powerlifters, going after those personal bests is usually going to result in muscle failure (as it should). Depending on how heavy the lift was will determine the length of your break. In general…
3. THE BIGGER THE LIFT, THE LONGER THE BREAK
Continuing with the point above, someone who is benching 75% of their one-repetition maximum compared to someone who is benching 100% of their 1RM is not going to need as much of a break. As a general rule of thumb, the more weight you’re throwing around during a set, the longer of a break your body will require.
Calling back to the technique above, we recommend notating how much rest felt right after a big lift. Experiment with different times. Over a couple weeks, you’ll find the sweet spot.
4. ERR ON THE SIDE OF CAUTION
No one enjoys having a barbell slamming on their face. Cutting your rest break short can result in mistakes including slips and strains.
If you’re on the fence with whether you should rest a bit longer, we recommend erring on the side of caution and doing so. It’s better to be certain and rest a bit more, than to be uncertain and increase your risk for injury.
If you’re lifting near 100% of your 1RM during every set, be sure you’re suited up and prepared with a weight belt, knee sleeves, and lifting straps. These pieces of powerlifting gear can improve results while decreasing the risk of injury.
5. CHECK IN WITH YOURSELF
This is something of common sense, but the best way to tell if you need more rest is to do a self check-in. Monitor the following to get a good idea of what you need:
HOW FAST IS YOUR HEART RATE?
You don’t need an exact beats per minute – although you can easily figure that out by putting two fingers on your wrist – but if your heart is still pounding through your chest, consider resting a bit longer.
HOW LABORED IS YOUR BREATHING?
How quickly are you breathing? Are you able to hold a normal conversation? Do you have to take big breaths every few words? If breathing is as much of a chore as the exercise that you finished, take a walk around the gym until you are breathing normally.
HOW DOES YOUR HEAD FEEL?
We’ve all seen those powerlifting fail videos where a guy or girl tries to deadlift, fails, throws down the weight, then drops like a fly because the lack of oxygen to the brain. If you’re feeling dizzy or your legs feel like they might give out, sit down and rest until you feel normal again.
SO… IS THERE A MAGIC NUMBER FOR REST TIME?
Unfortunately, no; however if we had to provide one number to use as a reference, we’d say three minutes. Why this long?
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the strength and performance between two groups after a prescribed rest break. Group A rested for one minute following sets while Group B rested for three minutes. The result? Group A – the three-minute rest break group – showed better results in both strength and muscle growth. (1)
So, when in doubt, go with three minutes… but only if you’ve considered all of the other points above.
WHAT IS YOUR IDEAL REST TIME BETWEEN SETS?
Do you limit yourself to the classic sixty-second break? Or do you find the longer the break, the better you perform? Tell us about it on our Facebook!
- Schoenfeld BJ, Pope ZK, Benik FM, Hester GM, Sellers J, Nooner JL, Schnaiter JA, Bond-Williams KE, Carter AS, Ross CL, Just BL, Henselmans M, Krieger JW. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1805-12. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001272.