Ever wonder why the local powerlifter at your gym spends what seems like hours hogging up the squat rack? Are they being rude to other members or is there a method to this madness?

In this article, you’ll learn all about how long you should be resting in between sets based on your goals. And while it may be frustrating, your neighborhood meathead might onto something!


Table of Contents

Using and Restoring Energy

Optimal Rest Time Between Sets

Rest Time for Hypertrophy

Rest Time for Strength

Rest Time for Power

Rest Time for Endurance

Rest Time for Weight Loss

If You Don't Have Much Time for the Gym

Main Points

  • With volume equated, longer rest times (2-5min) are generally better for improving strength, muscle growth, and power because they allow you to perform more quality sets with higher intensity over time

  • Shorter rest times should be used for endurance training and are acceptable towards the end of workouts when you perform less taxing accessories

  • If you need to use shorter rest times, be strategic so you don’t lose out on intensity or volume

  • Your ability to recover from sets will depend on your strength, exercise selection, and fitness levels

Using and Restoring Energy

Our bodies have three main energy systems that allow us to perform a wide range of activities. The main output of these systems is to produce ATP which is known as the energy-carrying molecule.

Creatine Phosphate (short duration intense exercise)

  • This system provides up to 30 seconds of energy
  • Your body has CP storage readily available to create ATP for use
  • Exercise Example: throwing a shot put

Anaerobic Glycolytic System (higher-intensity medium duration exercise)

  • Provides energy for exercises lasting from 30 to 90 seconds
  • Your body breaks down glucose to create ATP
  • Exercise Example: 400m sprint

Aerobic Energy System (long-duration exercise)

  • Provides energy for exercise that can range from two minutes to a few hours
  • Your body’s oxygen supply interacts with glucose to form ATP
  • Exercise Example: jogging

We wanted to briefly cover the energy systems first so you understand why our bodies need to rest in between bouts of exercise. Now let’s look at rest times!

Optimal Rest Time Between Sets

Rest time matters, but mostly in an indirect way. The main driver of strength, muscle growth, power, etc. lies in our ability to perform quality work over time.

To get stronger you need to lift heavier weights.

To get quicker you need to train explosively.

To get bigger you need to train close to failure while maintaining enough volume (sets x reps x weight).

All this requires the ability to recover so that every set can be executed with focus and intention. We don’t want junk volume. We don’t want to go through the motions and get participation points.

This is why longer rest times are generally better than shorter rest times (assuming volume is equated). It’s easier to bring effort to each set.

If you are noticing a huge drop-off in performance from your first set to subsequent sets, it’s time to either extend your rest time or improve your recovery rate.

Here are some factors that can impact your ability to recover in between sets:

Getting Stronger

Every movement has a metabolic cost. It requires energy to do stuff (go figure)! If you thought of energy as currency, a 400lb deadlift would be “more expensive” than a 200lb deadlift. It’s more taxing on your body and requires more oxygen and caloric expenditure.

So as you get stronger, expect to need more rest time in between sets.

Intensity of Exercise

The further away you are from reaching true failure, the shorter your rest time will need to be. 

Muscle Groups & Exercise Selection

Smaller muscle groups can recover quicker than larger muscle groups due to the lower metabolic demands required to perform isolation exercises.

Doing a bicep curl isn’t as demanding as a clean and jerk which uses multiple muscles, joints, and heavier loads.

Fitness Levels

Having adequate levels of aerobic conditioning will have a positive impact on your recovery ability. If you are huffing and puffing from doing 10 heavy squats, it’s time to hop on a bike so you can handle more volume.

Rest Time for Hypertrophy (Muscle Growth)

What’s optimal and what’s practical make giving specific rest time recommendations tough. It really does depend. However, if you did want a range to start from, try ninety seconds up to three-plus minutes for hypertrophy.

As mentioned above, you can get away with smaller rest times when performing movements with lighter weights. Rest at least 2 minutes for your compound sets and at least 90 for your accessories and finishers.

Rest Time for Strength

If you are doing strength training and are focused on heavier compound lifts then you should be resting at least two to five minutes.

Because strength gains are first driven by getting proficient at movements (ingraining neural patterns), it’s important that you are executing each and every set properly. Your body learns and adapts better when it’s fresh!

Once you become really good at the movement, then it’s time to pack on muscle if you want to continue to get stronger.

Rest Time for Power

A good general recommendation for power training would also be to rest 2 to 5 minutes between sets. This would be for exercises such as sprints, med ball slams, box jumps, etc. Basically anything where you are exerting max effort to improve athleticism. Train fast to be fast!

Rest Time for Endurance

The primary goal of endurance is to be able to do an activity for longer or more work in less time. This would require you to train under conditions where you do have less rest time compared to strength training.

You should rest between 30 to 90 seconds for endurance training and use lighter loads (30 to 50% of your max).

Rest Time for Weight Loss

Some people assume that because shorter rest times make you “feel the burn” that it would equate to more fat loss and hence be better for body composition goals. And while HIIT and circuits might allow you to perform more work in a shorter amount of time, exercise isn’t as big of a weight loss factor compared to food intake, BMR, NEAT, lifestyle, etc.

Our advice would be to use exercise for performance goals. Focus on getting stronger and building muscle and let your diet and lifestyle habits drive weight management.

In short, don’t worry about specific rest times for weight loss.

If You Don’t Have Much Time for the Gym

Most people don’t want to spend hours in the gym so if you need to use shorter rest times, be strategic!

  • Focus on compound movements that give you the most bang for your buck
  • Incorporate supersets with two movements that will have minimum impact on one another (i.e a push and a pull)
  • Use cluster or drop sets as finishers to get more volume in a shorter time
  • Work on conditioning: the better shape you’re in, the less you’ll need rest in between sets
  • Monitor your performance: if you’re making progress with shorter rest times, awesome! If you aren’t able to accomplish the necessary intensity or volume to see gains, than you’ll need to improve recovery or simply carve out more time for the gym

Help Uplift Others Support Teachers!

Uplift Others is an online fitness charity with a mission to help cover the cost of teachers’ classroom expenses. Please consider purchasing a workout program or making a donation today!

Brian Oddo CPT


About The Author

Brian Oddo is the founder of Uplift Others and a Certified Personal Trainer through ACE. He also holds specialized certifications in Sports Nutrition and Behavior Change. Brian has been training clients both in person and online for over six years.

As a former Division 1 basketball player, Brian enjoys weight training, plyometrics, and any sports to stay active.