Rest Periods: how much time between sets?

Rest periods: How much time between sets

Rest and strength training. This question comes up a lot in strength training, and I’ve 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 all depends on where you are in your training, your exact goals, 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 each person is unique and requires a different stimulus to reach their goals, so is the same with rest periods.

As a general rule of thumb, I suggest you allow adequate recovery on your main lifts and move faster during your assistance work. On the other hand, I don’t ever want you to 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 listen to what I have to say.

Rest experimentation: Where are you in training? (offseason or precontest)

Where you are in training, i.e., offseason or near a competition or peaking phase, should be the first thing you consider. Why? Because if you’re close to a meet or test day, I won’t change too much up. If your actions work for you, then don’t change them. Playing around and experiencing can be the undoing of some lifters, especially if they are already successful. But, if it’s time to experiment and what you are doing may not be ideal, then use the offseason to experiment with the pace of your lifting and how much time between your lifts.

Recovery time and main lift importance

Your main lift is where you must make every single rep as perfect as possible. These are the most dangerous (in regards to injury) and powerful (in regards to stimulus) compound movements – this is the meat and potato of your program, if you will. You CANNOT start to create bad habits (engrams) due to fatigue which will come back to haunt you when it’s time to push some weight. Again, this can apply to the offseason or precontest.

With your assistance (think the more minor things, i.e., DB work, rows, sled drags, core work), I have no problem and like the idea of moving fast through these to build endurance, get your heart rate up and challenge yourself differently at times. However, 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 no different than the cross-fitters you make fun of who do compound lifts for time.

Competing in powerlifting

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 on a long flight (15 or more), you’ll have 20 minutes 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. Do your research and try your best to determine how big of a meet you are doing to get a ballpark of how fast the meet will move.

Resting Reference points

Here are a few things that might be a reference point for your 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 look at the opposite for off-season work: higher volume, lower intensity, and fewer rest periods.

Assistance lifts 1-4min. Example: Chin/shrug/Sled drag/McGill big 3/Hammer curl/Band fly/press-down/DB work etc.

Very little rest: Your light day of training

Your 4th training day – The fluff and buff, which I advocate in 10/20/Life, is a lighter BB-type day that I suggest you move quickly and get a nice pump. Experiment with this as your 4th training day. This can build endurance, attack weak points, or even a recovery workout that helps you move some blood around. Again, the pace is fast, and the entire workout shouldn’t take longer than 20min-30min 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 attacking your core with the McGill big three every day.

You can book a Virtual consult with Brian here for those who would like help with coaching, programming, or coming back from a back injury. You can also read some of his client success testimonials HERE.

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Brian Carroll

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Brian is a retired world-class powerlifter with over two decades of world-class powerlifting. From 1999 to 2020, Brian Carroll was a competitive powerlifter, one of the most accomplished lifters in the sport's history. Brian started off competing in bench press competitions 'raw,' then, shortly into the journey, he gravitated toward equipped lifting as there were no "raw" categories then. You only had to choose from single-ply (USPF) and Multi-ply (APF/WPC). Brian went on to total 2730 at 275 and 2651 at 242 with more than ten times his body weight in three different classes (220, 242, 275), and both bench pressed and deadlifted over 800 pounds in two other weight classes. He's totaled 2600 over 20 times in 2 different weight classes in his career. With 60 squats of 1000lbs or more officially, this is the most in powerlifting history, regardless of weight class or federation, by anyone not named David Hoff. Brian realized many ups and downs during his 20+ years competing. After ten years of high-level powerlifting competition and an all-time World Record squat at 220 with 1030, in 2009, Brian was competing for a Police academy scholarship. On a hot and humid July morning, Brian, hurdling over a barricade at 275lbs, landed on, fell, and hurt his back. After years of back pain and failed therapy, Brian met with world-renowned back specialist Prof McGill in 2013, which changed his trajectory more than he could have imagined. In 2017, Brian Carroll and Prof McGill authored the best-selling book about Brian's triumphant comeback to powerlifting in Gift of Injury. Most recently (10.3.20) -Brian set the highest squat of all time (regardless of weight class) with 1306 lbs – being the first man to break the 1300lb squat barrier at a bodyweight of 303 lbs.
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