My sister is a former track athlete. One day she asked for my help with her training program, specifically, why she wasn’t making progress in her squat. She’s been sticking to the program, doing her reps, but her weights keep going down. What gives?

“Why isn’t this working?” Can of worms:

  • how well are you sleeping?
  • how well are you eating?
  • are you stressed?
  • what does your warm-up look like?
  • how well are you recovering from the workouts?

We’re not robots

Training isn’t as simple as “input X get Y result.” I wish it were this simple.

The reality is that sleep, nutrition, training age (how long you’ve been doing it), recovery, stress (physical, mental, emotional), hydration status, hormonal balance, and mental arousal all play a role in our performance in the gym.

You’re not resting enough, bro

Her squat workout called for a heavy 4 sets of 6 reps. After asking every question under the sun, I finally figured out why her performance was terrible: she was only resting maybe 30s between sets.

When I asked “why are you resting so little between sets” she answered, “because I thought that was the point.

Whoever or whatever instilled in her head that she’s gotta go as fast as possible is a shit sandwich I’ll unwrap another time. That’s not how training is supposed to work.

Not how this works

Fuck up your rest periods, fuck up your performance

When it comes to strength training and “how long should you rest,” the textbooks take this approach:

For Muscle Strength: rest 2-5 minutes

For Muscle Hypertrophy: rest 60-120s

For Muscle Endurance: rest 30-60s

Or something like that. I’ll put it into more practical terms:

Rest <30s

Super short rest periods are great if the weight is relatively light, or if you don’t mind your performance between each set diminishing. But if you’re using some challenging weights, a 30s rest break isn’t enough to fully recover between sets.

Why it’s bad: if your performance plummets, you won’t be able to complete as much total work: instead of 3 sets of 12, you get 3 sets of 12, 9, and 5 because you’re fatigued. Fatigue may lead to injury.

Why it’s good: one of the mechanisms you need to build muscle is metabolic stress. Metabolic stress is particularly the anaerobic byproducts of muscular contractions, or “the burn” you feel. By shortening your rest periods, you’ll sacrifice performance, but skyrocket metabolic byproducts and “the burn,” leading to more muscle growth.

When to use: with lighter weights and/or with low-skill/low-risk exercises like bodyweight lunges, squats, and push-ups. Rep range: 15-30+

Rest 30-60s 

This range works if you want to maintain performance between sets (get 3 sets of 12 reps without cheating or having to go down in weight), but want to chase the “pump” or “burn.” Your current ability to recover will help determine your performance here: newbies will find a drop in performance while seasoned veterans will be able to recover and perform again with shorter breaks.

Why its good: if you’re using moderately heavy weights or the exercise requires skill, resting longer improves performance while decreasing injury risk.

When to use: with light to moderately heavy weights and with low-risk exercises like goblet squats, chin-ups, push-ups and dumbbell presses. Rep range: 10-20

Rest 60-90s 

This is the “sweet spot” rest period for muscle mass training. It allows enough recovery to optimize performance in each set while getting volume in (much needed for muscle mass gains) and stimulating metabolic damage. How much rest you need depends on your current abilities, training program, and personal time restraints.

Why that’s good: muscle is good, mkay?

When to use: moderately heavy weights with medium to low skill movements like squats, dumbbell presses, chin-ups, and rows. Rep Range: 8-15

Rest 90-120s 

Muscle gets bigger and stronger with heavier weights. As we add weight to the bar, it’s not only physically taxing but also draining for our central nervous system: the guy at the wheel telling our body to work.

Performance in the 5-8 rep range (or so) should be heavy and hard on your body. To optimize performance each set you need to be fully recovered from the previous set. During this time not only are your muscles relaxing and clearing metabolic byproducts but your central nervous system, which governs how fast and powerfully your muscles contract synchronously, is resetting and recovering.

Why that’s good: heavier weights cause muscle damage, another trigger for muscle growth.

When to use: with moderate-to-heavy weights and with exercises like barbell squats and deadlifts; barbell bench press; rows; weighted chin-ups. Rep Range: 5-10

Rest 120-180+s

Depending on how heavy (being a relative term) you’re training, you have to rest longer between sets.

Sorry, you can’t hack this one. Your muscles can only recover so quickly. If you’re taking them up to your 2-4 rep max and then trying to do it again after a 30s break then you’re asking for disaster.

Why this is good: resting for 2-5 minutes between heavy reps allow for a repeat performance at that intensity level. At this intensity, you’re not looking to go as fast as you can. By keeping your rest periods on the longer side, you’ll know that your muscles and central nervous system have had plenty of time to recover and perform at a high level again.

The last muscle-building mechanism (we’ve covered two already: metabolic stress and muscle damage) is mechanical tension. “Tension” is what you get when you train with relatively heavy loads (we’ll say 5 or fewer reps).

Why this is bad: it takes a lot of time. Again, there is no hack for this. Either choose only one or two exercises per workout or don’t chase heavy. You can’t have both. (Unless you can spend 2 hours in the gym every day. But I don’t know anyone- myself included – who can or even would do that, because, ya know, I have a life)

When to use: heavy (AF) weight with moderate to advanced exercises like barbell bench, squat, or deadlift; Olympic lifts like the clean, jerk, and snatch. Rep Range: 5 or fewer

Putting this into practice

In my training programs, I like to do a little this, little that

In other words, I train with heavy weights, some medium-ish weights, and some light weights. I find that it crosses all the Ts and dots all the Is

Here’s a sample Program:

A) Deadlift 5×3

Rest 3-4 minutes between sets

*Because you need to fully recover in order to pull heavy weight again

B1) Goblet Squat 3×8

B2) Chin-ups 3×8

Rest 30-60s between exercises

*Because these are non-competing exercises, and because they’re lower skill, but you want to perform well each set

C1) KB Swings 3×12

C2) Dumbbell Walking Lunge

Rest 30s between exercises and sets

*Because my performance can drop off without too much risk of injury and because I want to get as much volume in as possible in the shortest time frame

D1) Glute Bridge x 75 

Booty Gains FTW!!!!

As little rest as needed

*Because you’re chasing the “pump” and “burn” and diminishing performance leads to little risk of injury.

NOTE: notice how I put deadlifts FIRST and not last in this program. That’s because fatigue isn’t neatly packaged to each exercise. As you know, workouts make you tired. That fatigue accumulates, which is why it’s important to put your heavy, high-skill movements first in your workouts, and your easier, more low-skill movements at the end of your workouts.

By doing so your performance in your heavy stuffy won’t diminish, and your injury risk will go down.

Wrapping up

Botching your rest periods has serious consequences with regard to performance. If you don’t rest long enough, your performance will fall off and you’ll be wondering – like my sister was – why your workouts suck.

Rest too long and, well, you’re just wasting time.

The above are only recommendations and your current abilities, goals, and personal time restraints will often govern your exercise, set, and rest choices.

But keep these guidelines in mind when designing your program: rest longer if the weight you’re lifting is heavy or if there is some risk involved (barbell lifts); keep your rest moderate if you want to chase the pump or if your workouts need to be done faster; rest very little if the weight is light or if you’re doing low-risk exercises.

Andy Van Grinsven

About Andy Van Grinsven

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