3 Methods for Using Rest Times Strategically, and When They Don’t Matter

Rest times are an incredibly powerful tool when used with intention!

We all rest between sets, but few people do so strategically, with their individual goal in mind. This article will help you choose the right amount of time to rest based on your goal, be it strength, mass, endurance, and more.

Rest time is a workout variable that often gets overlooked from the macro scope of programming — resting the right way can be incredibly useful when employed correctly, and in my opinion, rest time deserves as much or equal attention that we give to volume and intensity.  

From a coaching perspective, giving yourself designated rest times is great because they can serve as predictors for outcomes at certain intensities, help facilitate certain adaptations, and can help structure a workout’s total amount of time to be completed. They also help athletes maintain honesty and objectivity within one’s program and daily workouts — the program no longer just tells you how many sets and reps to complete and at what weight, it specifies a timeframe in which they must be completed.

In this article, we’re going to focus on three key benefits that rest times have for both coaches and athletes. Additionally, we’ll briefly go over some rest time thoughts and rules when using them in your programs. 

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Rest Times

Rest Time Benefits

Rest times come with multiple benefits, but these benefits are only relevant based on the context in which the rest times are being used. Changing rest times without a plan is like spinning wheels in the mud. Sure, you can change rest times around, but if you have no goal attached to them, then you might be leaving gains on the table. 

It’s important to always ask yourself, “why am I using rest times?” before physically plugging them in to your workouts. Once you’ve decided your why, then use and structure for rest times can become more much clear and pronounced. My advice: create a hierarchy of training needs and goals that you have on a block-to-block basis, then build a program with rest times baked in to accommodate for them. 

A few benefits that come with deliberately planned rest times include, 

  1. Less Time Spent In Gym: Let’s say your main goal is to cut down on the time you spend in the gym. Rest times can be a great tool for cutting down workout times and being accurate in doing so.
  2. A Better Understanding of Your Capacity: When matched with intensities and volume, rest times can also be a great tool for keeping you honest in your program. You can use them as another level of autoregulation. For example, if you can’t complete the prescribed intensities and volumes given with your rest times, then it might be worth scaling back one or the other. 
  3. Specific Training Protocols: Specific training methods generally require attention to rest times. For example, if you’re using a Post-Activation Potentiation training, then your rest times will play a heavy role in the carryover for certain methodologies’ benefits. 

Deadlift Frequency

Do You Really Need Rest Times?

Rest times can be incredibly useful when employed with intention, however, they’re not a must for success in the gym. In fact, if your goal is giving your all every set, then rest times can actually be counterproductive at times. 

For example, if your goal is obtaining maximal contraction for a set and you’re not allowing yourself enough rest to complete a full set with your desired intensity, then you could be leaving gains on the table. The same logic goes for workouts where obtaining a desired intensity at a rep range is the goal. So let’s say you have a double programmed at 92%, but you cut your rest time short and miss a rep due to not giving yourself enough time to reenergize. In these scenarios, rest times can be counterproductive. 

Powerlifting Muscle Fiber Study
Photo by sportpoint / Shutterstock

Basically, for workouts where you’re trying to go “all out” to obtain a desired adaptation — whether it be for hypertrophy, strength, or power — rest times can actually hinder progress if you’re not allowing your body enough time to recuperate.

This article is intended to help athletes and coaches with time restrictions use rest times. Unfortunately, not everyone has unlimited time in the gym to rest in-between sets, so when time is of the essence, having a plan in place can be an incredible tool for ensuring consistency with programming. 

3 Ways to Use Rest Times Strategically 

Before diving into rest time strategies, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all rule for using rest times. 

If you’re programming for yourself, then plug and play with different rest times and see what’s feasible for you at certain intensities. As an example, I know if I’m squatting at 85% of my 1-RM or above, I need at least 3-4 minutes of rest to perform my best, and if I’m hitting heavier deadlifts at this intensity, then I need at least 5-minutes of rest. I’ve only learned this by using multiple rest times at varied intensities over multiple training blocks. It’s okay to adjust as you go!

Below are three ways you can use rest times strategically in workout programs. Note, rest times should always be scaled to one’s abilities and should be based off of mesocycle/training block goals

1. To Gauge Your Available Work Capacity

When it comes to working through both compounds and accessories, rest times can be a great tool for keeping you honest at various intensities. For example, if you’re working through a squat set and the goal is to take between 2-3 minutes of rest in between sets and you’re not able to complete the sets and reps at the prescribed intensity within that rest time range, then that’s a good indicator that you’re overshooting for the day based on your time allotment.

This rest time concept can be applied to forms of autoregulation like RPE and can add depth to how you’re regulating your training. Autoregulation entails using daily personal feedback to dictate daily training percentages. Essentially, no two days in the gym ever feel the same, so using a mixture of auregulatory methods and rest time ranges can be useful for keeping you on track without overextending. This concept applies best for lifters who write and follow their own programs, and not necessarily dedicated strength athletes that require more rest time in between sets. 

front squat

Let’s say you train based on your rate of perceived exertion (RPE). If this is the case, then you can scale your rest times based on the prescribed RPE for that day (for example, higher RPE — like a 9 out of 10 — could mean you’ll need longer rest periods), and so forth. The same concept can be applied for training with percentages (based on your 1-RM) and reps-in-reserve.

To provide an example, let’s say you’re failing to complete the prescribed percentage or overshooting RPE within the rest times you’ve given yourself. That could be an indicator that you might be overreaching with your available energy allotments within the dedicated rest time ranges you’ve given yourself.  

Rest Times and RPE or RIR Example

RPE / RIR Rest Times
RPE 9+ / 1> RIR 3-5 minutes 
RPE 8 / 1-2 RIR 2-4 minutes  
RPE 7 / 2-3 RIR 1-3 minutes  
RPE 7< / 3+ RIR 45-sec – 2-minutes 

The important takeaway here is to use rest times consistently each training block and relate them to your preferred method of gauging exercise intensity. If you want to employ rest times more heavily, then the last thing you want is to manipulate intensities and volumes without scaling the rest accordingly. Basically, if you choose to use rest times to help manage how you progress through your program, then you should aim to use them consistently across the board, and not just for a training block here and there. 

2. To Provide Direction for Training Adaptations

Outside of scaling intensity, volume, frequency, and other training variables to facilitate adaptations, rest times can also be a great tool to find out how much you’re improving from your training. They can be used on an acute basis — that’s every workout — and are easy to modify, even for beginners. 

When using rest times for training adaptation, you must first decide what your goals are on the first place. Once you’ve established your adaptation goals, then other variables like volume and intensity will need to change in relation to the desired rest times of your choosing.

Bicep Training

Below are a few examples of how certain training goals can manipulate rest times, training intensity, and volume (assuming you’re not missing sets and reps due to volume and intensity not being scaled)

  • Body Composition: Shorter rest times, moderate intensities, and moderate/higher training volume. 
  • Endurance: Shorter rest times, lighter intensities, and higher training volume. 
  • Strength: Moderate rest times, moderate/higher intensities, and moderate training volume. 
  • Power: Longer rest times, higher intensities, and lower training volume. 

The above may seem like common sense, however, it’s important to note that words like “higher”, “moderate”, and “lower” when used with rest times will all reflect the context of the rest time prescribed.

Rest Times and Training Adaptation Examples

Training Adaptation Rest Times
Power 3-5 minutes
Strength (85-95% 1-RM) 2-5 minutes
Strength (70-85% 1-RM) 2-3 minutes
Endurance  30 seconds – 75 seconds
Body Composition  30 seconds – 2 minutes
How to Use Rest Times
Photo by Paul Prescott / Shutterstock

3. To Create Programs With Time Limits

This method won’t always apply to dedicated strength athletes that need ample time to work through their sets. However, if you’re a recreational lifter or on a time crunch, then using strategic rest times for workouts is a great tool for scaling a workout’s length.

Generally, you can guesstimate how long a set will take, especially if reps are trained with tempos, so adding in rest times gives you a pretty accurate reading for how long a workout will last. Have exactly an hour in the gym? Rest times are a great way to gauge the total amount of time it will take you to get through a workout. Below is an example of how to structure workout rest times when on a time crunch. 

Movement Type and Intensity Rest Times
Compound Movement / Moderate Intensity 2-3 minutes
Compound Movement / Light Intensity 1-3 minutes
Accessory Movement / Moderate Intensity  1-2 minutes
Accessory Movement / Light Intensity  30-seconds – 75-seconds

The above are general guidelines for using rest times when configuring movements in a workout with a time crunch. Personally, I like to create a list of rules that match rest times with types of movements and intensities. This helps keep things consistent and it helps with simplifying the process. 

Rest Time Programming Guidelines

1. Ranges Are Generally Better

Implementing rest times into your program? Try using rest time ranges for compounds and bigger accessory movements. This gives you some leeway for times when you’re feeling well rested and for times when you’re feeling a bit sluggish.

Basically, rest times are a great way to autoregulate training based on daily energy levels. You can rest for the longer end of the rest time if you need it, but you can also push through on the shorter end if you’re feeling ready to go. This keeps you moving and progressing, and gives you some wiggle room when workouts have a time crunch some days. 

Bigger Traps Exercises

2. Build an Exercise Hierarchy 

Something that helps my training and program structure is creating a hierarchy of rests times based on exercises and their energy needs. Basically, compound and accessories will have higher rest times and utilize more ranges, while isolation exercises and circuits will shorter and more precise rest times. 

This is not a groundbreaking concept, but it’s a useful strategy to help you organize programs when it comes to exercise selection and time limitations. 

Wrapping Up

Rest times are awesome because they can provide you with both an added level of objectivity for your training and the ability to scale workouts based on time allotments. They’re easy to modify and can help you progress towards multiple training goals and adaptations.