Something that often confuses beginner weight lifters is how long they should be resting between sets. Most people fall into the trap of thinking that less is more, and wind up jumping from set to set with very minimal rest. What is also sadly common is the idea that you have to superset every exercise or complete circuits in order to constantly torch calories. The latest craze – perhaps thanks to Crossfit- seems to be inserting cardio-based exercises such as burpees, high knees and kettlebell swings after every exercise.
The problem with this approach is that it never allows your body adequate time to completely recover. When you don’t rest properly, you can’t provide 100 per cent effort to each lift. This then makes it more difficult to get stronger, build more muscle and, more importantly, take care of your health.
That said, there is a time and a place for supersets, but I will discuss that below. First, let’s consider how long your rest periods should be by considering your goal.
Goal: Increased strength
Rest period: 2-5 minutes. If your top priority is to get stronger, you must save your energy for your main lifts. Don’t be afraid to actually stop and rest. Only when you feel completely recovered and energised should you attempt your next set. Your workouts may take slightly longer as you spend more resting, but the benefits will reveal themselves in your new PRs. When I tell people that some of my event sessions last three hours, it sounds impressive but what they don’t realise is that 90 per cent of that involves me sitting on my arse.
I’m sure you are thinking you don’t have time to sit in the gym for hours, and that’s completely understandable. A normal strength session will take no longer than 60-90 minutes, provided you are not trying to squeeze in too many exercises or too much volume. I use my resting time to stretch, foam roll and plan workouts. You can also be super productive and read, study or work if you are that worried about sitting around – just make sure you set a timer so you don’t get carried away!
The one good thing about training for strength is that you will be in the gym less days per week, so you will make the time back.
Goal: Muscle growth
Rest period: 1-2 minutes. When you are trying to build muscle you will still need a decent rest period, but not quite as long as if you were training for strength. The goal is to keep the muscle’s time under tension high, so it is stimulated to grow (when it is fed appropriately, of course!). Muscles will only be stimulated when they shift heavy loads. If you do not allow enough time for recovery, you will not be able to lift as heavy and will therefore limit your muscle growth potential.
Goal: Fat loss
Rest period: 30-60 seconds. When you are trying to lose fat, it is best to keep the heart rate elevated for as long as possible. This is when techniques such as supersets, drop sets, sets to failure, high repetition sets and adding finishers to the end of your workout come in handy. Spending 90 per cent of your time in the gym doing nothing like me then becomes a waste. Conversely, you want to be spending about 60-70 per cent of your workout time actually working. However, you do still need to give your body a chance to recover between bouts of exertion.
Please note that you should spend a week or two actually timing yourself. One minute in our heads is often very different to one minute in reality. Certain people will find themselves rushing back into sets too quickly, while others will waste too much time faffing around between sets without realising it. Your phone will have a stopwatch – use it!
When is the right time for circuits and supersets?
Very occasionally, I perform supersets in my own training. This is usually for one of two reasons: 1) I’m running short on time and have to choose between supersetting or cutting my workout short, or 2) I know that performing the second exercise will have no negative impact on the first exercise, and vice versa. I would never, ever recommend supersetting any compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, presses or rows) as you need complete recovery to perform these exercises safely. However, when you are doing higher rep sets of accessory exercises, supersets are sometimes appropriate. Whenever I do arm isolation or core exercises, I tend to superset them otherwise I get bored.
If you are trying to build muscle, I generally recommend avoiding supersets most of the time too. Do you think your muscle has a better chance of growing if it is given a complete rest between every exercise, or if it is constantly hammered from every angle? Your body can only grow while it is resting, hence why we cycle our training splits and take complete rest days to encourage growth.
Circuit training is generally something I only recommend for fat loss; however, I still wouldn’t recommend it for every exercise. As I mentioned above, do not superset the major lifts and make sure you allow your body some time to rest at the end of each superset. It is still very important to lift heavy to change your body composition, which you just cannot do if you are huffing and puffing your way through every workout.
If a client’s top priority is fat loss, I may give them seven exercises in total per workout. Three of these would be straight sets (i.e. with a full rest in between each set) while the other four might be made up of two supersets. Here is an example of a fat-burning leg workout. In this workout, you would complete exercises 1-3 as normal, but after exercise 4A immediately move on to exercise 4B, and then rest before starting again with 4A. Ditto for 5A and 5B.
For any exercise that involves a superset, nine times out of 10 I would make sure the two exercises are from opposing muscle groups. For example, I may superset chin-ups (which work the back and biceps) with push-ups (which hit the chest and triceps) but I would never superset chin-ups with rows or push-ups with flyes, unless I was aiming for complete exhaustion.
How long do you rest between sets? Do you ever perform supersets?