Rest: The Why and How

By: Praneeth Ellanti

I was originally motivated to learn about rest between sets to help maximize my gains, but what began as small research project became much more extensive once I began looking for articles. What I found blew my mind. Everyone knows that rest between sets is important, however, not many know why. Using my knowledge from classes and what I learned from reading about rest on blog posts from established S&C coaches, I formulated my findings here so that you could learn a  bit about how to properly rest to maximize your gains. 

Essentially, rest between sets is important for 2 reasons:

  • Metabolic recovery -> for energy generating pathways
  • Neural recovery -> for optimal technique/motor patterns

Metabolic recovery:

Depending on your rep scheme, lifting can really exhaust you. In order to maximize the recovery between rest periods, you need to learn a bit more about the biochemistry behind energy production. There are three main pathways that generate energy: phosphocreatine system (PCr), glycolysis, and oxidative phosphorylation. Without getting too detailed into biochem, this is what you need to know.

Energy Pathways

Simplified picture of the energy pathways. For more info, pick up a textbook!

 This picture sums up everything you need to know. It is important to know that all 3 metabolic pathways are working at once; you’re never just using 1. Sidenote:  creatine supplements are taken in order to boost the PCr pathway (Click here for more on creatine).

After that quick biochem lesson, time to get back to lifting and maximizing gains. If your metabolic pathways are exhausted, you will have less energy and cannot lift to your potential. This is why you can’t repeatedly lift your 3 rep max with just 30 second breaks (more on this later). Depending on your goals, your rest period should complement the pathway that is contributing more to the lift. For example, if you are doing 3-5 reps, your PCr pathway is going to be the main contributor for energy.  To completely recover your PCr pathway, it takes anywhere from 1 to 6 minutes. This is kind of vague, but other factors such as goals, program purpose, and exerise purpose will play into setting the right rest time.

Next time you head to the gym, grab a watch to make sure you’re taking the correct rest between sets.

Glycolysis requires oxygen to “recover” so as long as you are breathing, you are good to go (~2 min).

Oxidative phosphorylation is slow, but it is essentially limitless in terms of producing energy. Once the oxidative phosphorylation party gets started it never ends (if it does you’re dead).

Neural recovery:

When you lift your muscles do  work, but it is your motor neurons that are telling your muscles to do the work. The type and load of the exercise will determine the number and the type of motor units that are used. This will determine if the central nervous system (CNS) involvement is high or low.

In this T-nation article, the author describes the differences between isolation movements and compound movements and the CNS fatigue associated with them. Bascially, what he is says is that compound movements will fatigue your CNS more and also faster n comparison to isolation movements.

Your muscles aren’t the only thing that needs recovery during a workout.

Putting it all together:

If you are doing compound movements, you’re relying on the PCr and glycolysis pathways, and your CNS will fatigue quicker. Therefore, to get a complete recovery you should aim for a rest period that recovers both neural and metabolic systems. This  allows  better motor patterns to develop, which is needed for optimal lifts.

Take home message:

A general guideline to those who have no clue to how much rest to take:

  • High reps (15-20) = approximately 3 minutes of rest
  • Moderate reps (8-12) =  30 to 60 seconds of rest if isolation, depending on the size of muscle
  • Moderate reps (8-12) = 1-2 minutes of rest, if compound
  • Low reps (3-5) = 2-3 minutes of rest, if isolation, depending on muscle
  • Low reps (3-5) = 3-4 minutes of rest, if compound

If you feel confident enough, you can design your own rest cycle based on your goals. Be sure to take into account the purpose of training and how it should help reach your goals.


Rest between sets is highly dependent on what your goals are and what your program is trying to achieve. I’ve written this blog post in order to inform people who are unaware of what’s happening between sets and take anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes of rest. Hopefully, though, you learned something and will think about it next time you are pumping iron.


Do you pay attention to how much rest you take? Will you start keeping track of your rest? Comment below and remember to “like” us on facebook!

Praneeth E warriors club

My name is Praneeth Ellanti (Candidate for B.Sc. in Kinesiology) and I am completely fascinated by movement performance. I believe that mobility and strength is the key to moving, feeling and performing better! People can usually find me by the squat rack or prowler – the two things I believe everyone should do.



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