10/20/Life: Rest Periods and Strength Training

By: Brian Carroll

“What should rest periods be with 10/20/Life?”

This question comes up a lot in strength training, and I’ve especially noticed it since I released my book 10/20/Life. I have a few different opinions on this that I’ll share, because there isn’t a single answer. It really all depends on where you are in your training, what your exact goals are at the time and how in shape you are at that specific time. In other words, there is NO exact blanket statement that you have to live by. Just as how each person is unique and requires a different stimulus in order to reach their goals, so too is it with rest periods

Take your time, but not too much time

As a general rule of thumb, I would suggest that you allow yourself adequate recovery on your main lifts, and move faster during your assistance work. I don’t ever want you miss big lifts due to being too out of breath from the set before, and not recovered. I understand that this is still a somewhat vague answer, but just listen to what I have to say.

Your main lift is where you must make every single rep as perfect as possible, and these are the most dangerous (in regards to injury) and powerful (in regards to stimulus) compound movements – this is your meat and potato of your program if you will. You CANNOT start to create bad habits due to fatigue which will come back to haunt you when its time to push some weight. This can apply to the offseason or precontest. With your assistance work (think the smaller things i.e. DB work, rows, sled drags, core work) I have no problem and actually like the idea to move fast through these to build endurance, get your heart rate up and to challenge yourself differently at times. With your skill movements Squat, bench, Dead, OHP etc, I never suggest moving too fast unless the loads are SUPER light and your form or technique is something that resembles a finely tuned machine. Otherwise, you are not any different than the crossfitters you make fun of who do compound lifts for time.

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The EXACT number of seconds you should rest is…

Don’t listen to this bullsh*t about how you need to have X-amount of endurance and be able to move at XX-pace. Generic recommendations sucks. Everything depends and varies according to circumstance. Everyone is different. If you are a strength athlete, and that is your focus, and being as strong as possible is number one. I know people that can’t walk a half mile, but could take 20 attempts on meet day, and hit just about all of them. However, this is not an excuse to be an out of shape piece of crap that can’t even get through a moderately paced session.

Here are a few things that might be a reference point for your own strength-training program as far as rest is concerned and what I’ve advocated for clients and friends over the years.

Main type lift (applies to compound assistance work too): 2-10min. Example: Squat/Bench/Dead/Barbell-row/Block/Rack-pull/Board press/Heavy GM etc. Again, the closer you draw toward a meet, the volume comes down, the intensity goes UP and longer rest periods are needed. You’ll be looking at the opposite for offseason work. Higher volume, lower intensity and less rest periods.
Assistance lifts: 1-4min. Example: Chin/shrug/Sled drag/McGill big 3/Hammer curl/Band fly/press-down/DB work etc.

Your Fourth Day:

The fluff and buff, which I advocate in 10/20/Life is a lighter BB type day that I suggest you move at a fast pace and get a nice pump. Experiment with this as your 4th training day. This can be used to build up endurance, attack weak points, or even just a recovery workout that helps you move some blood around. The pace is fast, and the full workout shouldn’t take longer than 20min or so. I also highly suggest that you do some form of cardio for general health i.e. walking 4-5x per week, pulling the sled after every session and or attacking your core with the McGill big 3 every day.

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Rest Periods and Offseason Preparation

Offseason would be the time to experiment with everything in general and test yourself at different paces to see what works best for you. In the offseason aka your building phase, I suggest you develop a balanced combination of a strength base, endurance, and overall health. Achieving this balance is what will set you up for long-term success, and this approach has stood the test of time. Preparation supersedes raw ability, so take your offseason seriously. This is when you attack weak points, get better overall and create longevity.

I like the idea of moving faster in the offseason, and improving your overall physical fitness, getting through your workouts faster and having time for other things. Don’t treat the offseason like competition. Train hard, but spend the time with family, friends, work, and all the other things that might get neglected come contest time. This is pretty much a win/win. Less time in the gym, more time to do other stuff that you tend to push aside when in competition mode. Offseason mentality is get in, be quick, and get it done. This is where you will get better at the shit you suck at, not when you’re 3-5 weeks out from your comp, and you discover that you ‘missed’ something. Too late. I cannot say how important an offseason is for any athlete, strength or other. It’s the time where you get better. Both mentally and physically.

Precontest, time to get serious

There comes a point (everyone is different) where more rest on the big lifts, i.e. squat/bench/dead, is NOT going to help you and could hurt you. There are exceptions to this of course. Garry Frank, the first man to total 2500, 2600, 2700 and 2800 respectively was known to have MARATHON training sessions that started in the evening and lasted until the wee hours of the morning. His rest periods were extremely long, and he wouldn’t approach the bar until he felt he had recovered 100%.

This worked well for Big Garry and his crew, no question. But many will not respond well to such long rest periods and it could be counterproductive. On the other hand – moving too fast can and will hurt your strength if you are going very heavy and not recovered from the set prior. Find some middle ground that doesn’t keep you in the gym all day, but at the same time doesn’t make your training sessions suffer. Typically, the heavier the weight and the higher the RPE, the more time you will need. And RPE of 8 or 9 will take more time to recover from then 6 or 7.

Just like the offseason, don’t rush through your sessions just to say you are going to get in better shape. Sure, pick up the pace, get your fingers out of your training partner’s crotch (literally if you wear equipment such as briefs, you get to know them well) and get under the bar and move some weight. Save the faster, more intensely paced work for the end of the day with the more froufrou movements, spoken about above, which will not potentially end your career because you moved too fast through them. I would rather see you do EXTRA sets in precontest with heavy weight, than to see you rush through a heavy session in the name of condition or endurance.

If the endgame is to compete in powerlifting, strongman or the like, see how much time you get at an average meet between lifts and go from there. A lot of the time, it depends on the pace of the meet, how many lifters are signed up, and how many flights total (a flight is the group of people in or around your class). If you’re in a long flight (15 or more) you’ll have a good 20minutes between lifts. If in a shorter flight (10 lifters or less) be ready to lift every 10min or so. A lot of the time for the shorter flights the meet director will slow the pace down, and take a break to slow things down.


The Deal with Competition

If you like moving fast in training, then move fast. If you like moving slower, BSing in the gym and taking your time then do that too. BUT – if your endgame is to compete – just know that you are at the MERCY OF THE MEET FLOW. Be ready for both, so adjust your training accordingly. I think it’s a great idea to have some days where you have faster paced sessions (not crossfit fast) and some sessions where the pace is slower, much like a competition. It all comes down to personal preference and most importantly your NEEDS. ALSO: keep this in mind, too: A super heavyweight is not going to keep pace with a 132er in most cases, so let’s not make it complicated, especially when heat/environment, work-loads and volume come into play. Speaking of heat and environment – Team Samson, who I’ve trained with since 2003, just got air conditioning and insulation last year. Keep in mind, we train in a metal shed and live in North Florida. We have been exposed to the elements for over a decade, so meet day was usually a breeze having air conditioning and the like. This was part of our “conditioning” if you will.

In Closing:

There are so many ways to go about this – what I advocate here is just what I’ve used in my career and what I’ve seen work for countless other friends and clients. At the end of the day, find out what works for you and make it your own. Share with others what works for you, and lets learn from each other. After all, this is all a process and we all have goals we want to accomplish. I’m just trying to throw a couple of tools out for you to add to your collection that may help you along with way.


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Brian Carroll

Brian is a world-class powerlifter with over two decades of elite and pro-level powerlifting under his belt. Coming back from a devastating back injury in 2012 that broke multiple bones and that most experts said he would never recover from, he has returned to the pinnacle of world-class lifting (while 100% pain and symptom-free) and is now dedicated to helping others avoid the same mistakes that he made in the past through private and group coaching in Jacksonville, FL. Brian’s impressive recovery has given him the opportunity to teach and deliver talks to physical therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, professional strength & conditioning coaches and experts from all facets of sport, on how to avoid injury, while building anti-fragile strength and resilience in athletes.
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