How Long You Should Rest Between Sets

Illustration of barbell in bed with a pillow and fuzzy slippers

Illustration: Sam Woolley

A typical strength- or muscle-building workout happens in sets. You lift the weight a certain number of times (“reps”), then you put it down for a quick rest before going again. But how long should that rest be? The answer will depend on a few factors, including the purpose of the workout.

There are legitimate reasons for powerlifters to wait five minutes between sets of squats, or for calisthenics devotees to set a 30-second timer before jumping back up for another set of pullups. There’s also a good argument that, for many of us, rest times don’t matter that much. With all that in mind, here are the optimal rest times for different types of workouts.

Optimal rest times for strength workouts

If you want to get good at lifting heavy weights, you need to give yourself practice lifting heavy weights. Strength is a specific metric: If two people can do the same weight for 20 reps of bench press, but one person does heavy singles (sets of just one rep) while the other does not, guess who’s going to win if they decide to see who can bench the heaviest? Unsurprisingly, the person who has experience lifting heavier is going to be able to lift heavier.

So if you’re lifting to gain strength, you want to do everything you can to allow yourself to handle heavier weights. One of the biggest factors affecting the weight on the bar? Your rest time.

The longer you rest—within reason—the more fully recovered you’ll be for the next set. If you only allow yourself one minute, you’ll still be fatigued when you pick up the weight again. But if you wait longer—maybe two to three minutes for lighter or easier exercises, or five minutes or more for a heavy lift that uses your full body—you’ll be able to handle more weight.

How long to rest between sets for strength: three to five minutes for most exercises. You can go a bit shorter for lifts that use fewer or smaller muscles, like bicep curls. You may want to rest even longer for lifts that are heavy and that use most of your body, like a max effort deadlift.

Optimal rest times for muscle-building workouts

When it comes to muscle growth, also called hypertrophy, the answer isn’t as straightforward. Traditionally, trainers say that 90 seconds or less is a good rule of thumb. (The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends 0 to 60 seconds; the personal training textbooks from the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American Council on Exercise both recommend 30 to 90 seconds.)

But research has shown that short rest periods may not actually be better for muscle growth than longer ones. A 2016 study found that three-minute rest periods actually yielded more muscle growth than one-minute rests. The authors think this is because the men in their three-minute group (yep, the study was only done on men) were able to use heavier weights than the men in the one-minute group. Since the number of sets was the same in both groups, this means the three-minute group lifted more weight.

But the authors also note that there are real-world reasons you might choose longer or shorter rest times. Here are a few things to consider:

  • With shorter rest periods, you can do more sets in a given time (thus doing more work in total, which would favor more muscle growth).
  • With shorter rest periods, you’ll be starting each set partially fatigued, and thus training closer to failure. Training close to failure helps you recruit more motor units and increases “metabolic stress” in the muscle (that’s that burning feeling), which may help you grow muscle better.
  • With longer rest periods, you can lift heavier in the sets that you do, which favors both strength and muscle growth.
  • With longer rest periods, your workouts may take longer. If you don’t have a ton of time to spend at the gym, long rests for every exercise may not be practical.

Even though these factors may seem to conflict with each other, they can all be true at the same time. To make things more complicated, the researchers in this study also point out that results varied from person to person. There doesn’t seem to be a good one-size-fits-all answer here.

Ultimately, you may be best off using a mix of long and short rest times, which is how a lot of programs are designed, anyway. For example, you can use longer rest times for a few big compound lifts at the beginning of the workout (like squats or bench press) and shorter rest times for isolation exercises afterward (like curls or glute bridges).

How long to rest between sets for muscle growth workouts: About one minute (or 30 to 90 seconds) is the traditional recommendation, but it’s probably best to include at least a few exercises where you rest for two minutes or more.

How long to rest between sets of specific exercises

Okay, but what if you want to get stronger and grow muscle? What if you want to stop overthinking the specifics and do whatever rest period makes you look like a normal person at the gym who knows what they’re doing? Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • For pushups and pullups: If you do a small to medium number of reps (less than 12), treat them as a strength exercise and wait three to five minutes between sets. If you’re one of those people banging out 20 or 50 at a time, you probably want to take rests of about a minute so that fatigue can make your next set a bit shorter and you can finish your workout in this lifetime.
  • For barbell squats and deadlifts: These are compound lifts that use many muscles in your body. They’re pretty much always done (relatively) heavy, and it’s useful to build strength in these moves. Treat them as a strength exercise and wait three to five minutes.
  • For bench press, overhead press, chest press, and shoulder press: These involve smaller muscles and less weight than squats and deadlifts, but they still qualify as compound, strength-focused exercises. Two to three minutes will be enough, most of the time, but take up to five on heavy sets if you need to.
  • For rows and lat pulldowns: Same as the presses, for the same reasons. Two to three minutes may be enough, but up to five would still be reasonable.
  • For isolation exercises: if you’re trying to feel the burn or the pump, short rests will really help you here. Take 30 seconds between sets.

These are just guidelines, so feel free to experiment. If you want to work on your cardiovascular conditioning, take a little less rest between sets. If you’ve already done a big set of bench presses today, do the rest of your arm and chest accessories with shorter rest periods.

And yes, it can be awkward to be standing around in the squat rack, doing nothing or even scrolling on your phone while others are waiting. But remember: Everybody rests between sets! Or at least, they should.

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