Body Composition Training 101: Inter-set Rest

Inter-set Rest — the amount of time you rest in between sets

Recommendations — 30 – 120 seconds

Did you think I would leave any training variable to chance? We get down to every little detail in regards to physique development, including interest rest. Applying sound principles to every step of the process is called proper program design. That’s the way to use scientific knowledge to our full advantage. That’s the way to come up with the most efficient training strategies for body composition enhancement. That’s the way to build THE optimal plan for your goals.


According the National Strength and Conditioning Association:

The length of the rest period between sets and exercises is highly dependent on the goal of training, the relative load lifted, and the athlete’s training status (if the athlete is not in good physical condition, rest periods initially may need to be longer than typically assigned).

Their rest period length assignments based on individual training goals are as follows:

  • Strength: 2-5 minutes
  • Power: 2-5 minutes
  • Hypertrophy: 30-90 seconds
  • Muscular endurance: <30 seconds

In addition:

The use of appropriate exercise intensities and rest intervals allows for the “selection” of specific energy systems during training and results in more efficient and productive regimens for specific athletic events with various metabolic demands.

Their work-to-rest period ratios based on exercise (set) time and primary physiological systems stressed are as follows:

  • Phoshagen (5-10 second sets) = 1:12 to 1:20 work:rest ratio
  • Fast glycolysis (15-30 second sets) = 1:3 to 1:5
  • Fast glycolysis and oxidative (1-3 minutes) = 1:3 to 1:4
  • Oxidative (>3 minutes) = 1:1 to 1:3

*Fast glycolysis is the primary systems we are using in strength training programs designed specifically for physique development.

*So a typical 30 second hypertrophy set would necessitate a 90-to-150 second rest period.

You can see that even with the time you rest between sets, training for performance (either endurance or strength) is different than training for appearance. That’s why your training program, and ALL of its individual parameters, needs to be tailored to fit your specific goals.


There are a lot of training programs based on the principle of go-go-go, with no rest between sets or exercises. Examples would include circuit training, cross training, boot camp style workouts, hot dog eating contests, and the Miyaki Brothers at an all-you-can-eat sushi joint.

As you can see, however, this style of training is more appropriate for building muscular endurance than it is for building actual muscle (hypertrophy) — the most important part (training-wise) of the physique transformation process. With circuit training you’ll be going through a lot of sets and exercises, but you won’t be maximizing muscular development. It’s like going to work, doing a lot of busy-work, but getting nothing done.

Many trainees mistakenly believe that rapid training improves training efficiency. Efficiency, however, involves two factors — doing the best job AND doing it in the least amount of time possible. Rushing through workouts covers “the least amount of time possible part”, but it’s not doing the best job in terms of cosmetic enhancement.

It’s time to dispel a widespread training myth. Despite what you’ve heard, circuit-style training does not help you burn more body fat. This is misguided thinking. Well, because of fuel dynamics, maybe it helps you burn a small fraction more during your actual training. But remember, visual fat loss is not about how many calories you burn while training. It’s about all of the calories you burn in the recovery and repair process in between training sessions. In other words, its not about how many calories you burn in the one hour training session, its about how many calories you burn in the other 23 hours of the day.

How do you increase that number? The best way is to build metabolic-boosting muscle. And how do you accomplish that? By implementing a strength training program that is designed around established hypertrophy principles. Your weight training workouts should never be about “burning fat”. They should always be about building muscle. Lean muscle will IN TURN coax your body into burning more body fat over time.

I guess part of the problem is that we are an attention deficit disorder generation. People need to be moving all of the time, and just want to rush through their training programs. These days they’re so wired up on 32oz coffees or Red Bull’s wings they can’t sit still for a second, let alone thirty-to-ninety.


On the other end of the extreme you have the people who do a set, and then walk around cruising the scene for ten minutes before they do their next set. They are talking with friends, telling everyone about their life, making plans for the weekend, etc. Or, they are staring at the chic’s or dude’s asses, whatever you prefer, trying to make a move, and are more interested in turning the gym into a nightclub scene than they are actually working out.

And the vain meatheads and diva’s, listen up. If I can stare at the mirror and fall in love with myself in less than 90 seconds, anyone can. Besides, you can go right back to the mirror for another 90 seconds after your next set, but you have to get the job done too. You have to stay focused on the task at hand.

In all seriousness, there are ATHLETES who do benefit from longer rest periods — power and strength athletes. Longer rest between sets can be beneficial for two reasons: (1) The nervous system takes longer to recover than the individual muscle fibers (2) Complete resynthesis of ATP stores, the compound that fuels muscular activity, seems to occur within 3-5 minutes. Full recovery equals more strength and better lifting totals, which is the name of the game in these sports.

But remember, training for strength and sport performance is different than training for development and physique appearance.


As you now know, we have a lot of training parameters we must follow to get the best body composition transformation results. We have lower limits of training volume, lower limits of training load to produce an adaptive response, and upper limits of training duration. The only way to accomplish all of these goals simultaneously is with moderate interest rests.

Rest periods that are too short limit training load. The body needs a certain amount of time to clear lactic acid (a by-product of anaerobic metabolism) from the blood and resynthesize ATP, the compound that fuels muscular contractions. If you try to jump back in too soon, your performance will suffer, and you will not be able to achieve the same amount of muscular overload in successive sets. Lactic acid will inhibit muscular contraction. A sprinter would not be able to perform a 100-yard dash at maximum capacity, and turn around and do it again at the same intensity level without some sort of rest.

Ultra-short rests limit training load, makes your weight training more aerobic in nature, and predominantly uses slow-twitch/endurance muscle fibers to complete the near-continuous tasks. This limits fast-twitch fiber recruitment and overload, which is the key to physique development. You become more fatigue-resistant and build muscular endurance, but you won’t drastically change your physical appearance. Training for growth needs to be more intermittent/interval-based. This allows the system to recover so you can maximize tension and overload with successive sets.

Rest periods that are too long force you to either (a) reduce the amount of training volume per muscle group or (b) exceed training duration recommendations. Neither of these scenarios is optimal for physique development. We need a certain amount of volume to maximize muscle growth, but also need to limit training duration to prevent overproduction of cortisol and muscle oxidation (muscle wasting). This involves finding the sweet spot for interest rest.

Remember for pure strength development, we should rest longer between sets because the nervous system takes longer to recover than the muscular system. But as physique athletes we are not trying to maximize strength, we are trying to maximize development. We can jump back in a little sooner to further overload the muscular system without waiting for full recovery of the nervous system. We are training our body for development, not our ego for maximum lifts. And many believe that training for growth involves some degree of incomplete recovery, oxygen debt, and accumulation of fatigue.

If you’ve made it this far in the series, you probably are beginning to understand that hormones play a critical role in the physique development process. Much of our program design is geared towards maximizing anabolic/fat burning hormone output and minimizing catabolic/fat storing hormone output. Well, moderate rest periods, right around one-minute, provide the biggest increases in acute testosterone and growth hormone output. This is a large reason why these rest periods are associated with maximizing the hypertrophy response.

In short, don’t rush through your sets and circuit train, rest, but don’t rest too long.