Ask Stew: Should You Rest During Workout Sets?

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A participant in the Maltz Challenge rests after finishing a workout.
A participant in the Maltz Challenge rests after completing the workout at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., March 9, 2018. The CrossFit-style competition features a 400-meter run and challenges in pull-ups, dips, push-ups, sit-ups and more. (Staff Sgt. J.D. Strong II/U.S. Air Force photo)

People often ask me, “How much rest do I need between sets?” Typically, if you are coming from the body-building, powerlifting and even speed/agility training background, the rest periods are greater in order to be at near 100% for the next tough strength or speed set. However, transitioning into a timed running endurance or muscle stamina training goal program, the rest sets are typically best accomplished through what is called “active rest.”

Here are a few questions that are combined from several commonly asked questions concerning a variety of types of training protocols:

Is three minutes enough rest between rounds of your running and leg PT,  or am I overdoing the rest period?

Well, it depends. But no, you do not need that much rest if you are in good shape.  But if you are starting out with running a timed run pace at 6-7 minutes per mile, you may find you need that much rest. 

Usually, for running goal paced interval sets, the rest between is spent either doing other exercises like squats, lunges or core work while you catch your breath or taking about 50% of the time it took you to run your distance and limit your rest to that amount of time. 

As in the above linked running and leg PT article, that workout has running to do and leg exercises each set. Rest your lungs while doing leg PT, then get moving again with the next set. Add time to consume water or do a leg stretch if needed each set.

How much rest is required between sets or levels of the PT pyramid?

No, you do not need to rest during the PT pyramid. In fact, treat each set of the pyramid as a circuit. These exercises can be arranged so you do not work the same muscle groups in a row. For instance, if the PT pyramid has you doing pull-ups x 1, push-ups x 2, abs exercises x 3 and dips x 2, like the PT pyramid above, you actually rest the pull-up muscles while you work the pushing muscles and core exercises. You “rest” the pushing muscles by doing the pulling and core exercises.

This is a true active rest. Eventually, your body will grow accustomed to the challenge, and you will be able to do a 1-10-1 PT pyramid without rest, other than a short stretch and occasional sips of water between levels of the pyramid.

How much rest is done during the circuit workout?

If you arrange the circuit similarly to the above style (working upper body, then lower body or push/pull muscle groups) you will find the rest needed is minimal, other than the transition from one exercise to the next. It is up to you how you arrange your circuits, but having a system of push, pull, core, legs and short cardio is a good way to get a full-body workout with an “active rest.”

But if you need a rest, take it. Get your heart rate back down, and when you feel it is possible, start moving again before you are recovered completely with your breathing or muscle fatigue. You can catch your breath and rest or stretch opposing muscle groups if the exercises are arranged in such a manner.

The goals to training are unlimited. Many people seek heavy one-rep maximum lifts, many are searching for bigger muscles, and many seek better PT scores and run times. Your goal affects the rest periods. However, if you are trying to get into better overall shape, increase your work capacity or speed, and do higher reps on PT tests, training so the rest periods shrink each week is logical.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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