Q: How much rest should I take between sets? I get a lot of different answers when I ask this question at my gym?

A: The answer on rest between sets is pretty straightforward. It is largely determined by your training goals. Short duration, say about 30 seconds between sets, is characteristic of circuit-type training. Because rest intervals are brief, heart rate remains high, recovery is incomplete, and the intensity (weight used) must be reduced. Circuits are a time-efficient means of gaining some resistance training benefits, but increased pure strength is not one of them.

If you want to focus on strength gain, the intensity must be higher, so you must rest longer between sets. Depending on the exercise and the intensity used, rest intervals are around 3 minutes.

Endurance-oriented athletes don’t like taking long breaks. Many (most?) also think using heavy weights will cause them to bulk up, so they use light weights and rest very little. My most frequently asked question from customers purchasing Strength Training for Cyclists was about how much rest was appropriate.

Syndicated columnist, Paul Donohue, MD (“Ask Dr. Donohue”) dispenses solid health, wellness, and fitness information in newspapers nationwide. As executive director of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, I noted Dr. Donohue’s good working knowledge of strength and conditioning basics. In fact, we found he was a member of the NSCA and received the organization’s publications. We could never find or get a direct response from him, however.

He handled similar questions on rest in the Daytona Beach News Journal, Saturday, July 12, 2008 and June 13, 2009. Here is his most recent response:


"Many questions about muscle function and muscle exercise cannot be answered with certainty. Much of the information comes from trials involving a small number of participants. Recommendations are constantly changing.

The rest period between sets of lifting weights is important for two reasons. One, it takes time to restore the energy molecules (ATP and phosphocreatine) that permit forceful muscle contractions. Two, lactic acid, the byproduct of muscle exertion, has to be taken away from by the circulating blood. Lactic acid contributes to muscle fatigue.

Lactic acid is removed fairly quickly. It takes five minutes of rest between sets of weightlifting to restore 99.9% of the muscles’ energy molecules. Two and a half minutes restores 95%. In one minute of rest, only 75% is renewed.

That information suggests a two-to three- minutes rest between sets of heavy lifting is a reasonable amount of time. Most of the lactic acid is gone and most of the energy molecules have been reconstituted. Rest periods for lighter loads can be briefer.

You have to consider where you’re exercising. If you’re in a crowded gym with many people wanting to use the equipment, it is better for your personal safety to cut the rest time so others can be accommodated."

Paul Donohue, MD


Q: What’s the scoop on benefits and drawbacks of high reps vs. low reps, high load vs. low load when weight training?

A: There are no black and white answers, but plenty of shades of grey. Generally speaking, if you use low intensity (light resistance) and can perform more than 15 reps, you are working muscular endurance. Again, generally speaking, if you use heavier intensities and can only execute six or fewer reps, this protocol is considered the best for strength gains. It’s that area in-between, say eight-12 reps, where it is normally expected that one will have the greatest gains in muscular hypertrophy, or growth.

True enough, weightlifters and powerlifters, the most advanced strength/power athletes, tend to train with fewer than five reps. And bodybuilders, those seeking the most muscular growth, tend to work moderate reps in the eight-12 range. But, that’s not to say that the average person, likely to train in this moderate range, is likely to gain much muscular bulk. Too many other factors are involved.

It does suggest that those who train with light weights and higher repetitions are pretty far removed from the training that we think produces increased strength.

It’s been my experience that most females and a large percentage of endurance athletes (both genders) think that lifting heavier weights results in gains in muscular bulk (something they do not want). It’s an age-old myth, one not likely to change any time soon. The one known result of lifting heavier weights (assuming one has properly prepared for this challenge) is that strength levels tend to increase. Whether or not one gains significant muscular hypertrophy is probably more determined by genetics, diet, and training priorities.

Endurance athletes, for some odd reason, like to treat the weightroom as another endurance sport, keeping the heart rate high and not resting adequately between sets. As a result, they train cardio-respiratory fitness, the same as when they train for their event, but do not gain strength. In my opinion, most people should not seek cardio-respiratory benefits in the weightroom; this is a place to get stronger and gain power.

For most of us, training across the entire repetition continuum probably makes the most sense. There’s no reason to attempt heavy efforts if you’ve not established the proper muscular and nervous system integration needed for high-intensity work. So, the first year of training may include no high load, low volume training. Conversely, weightlifters and powerlifters do start off (sometimes a bit prematurely) with high intensity work when they should establish a more solid base through moderate training.

All repetition schemes have benefits and drawbacks. Creating and utilizing a sound periodized training program after an initial year of general training in moderate loads and volumes make the most sense for the typical lifter.


Q: How can I learn how to do Olympic-style lifting?

A: Learning competitive weightlifting (snatch, clean-and-jerk) can be a challenge. Back in the “Dark Ages,” when I was first bitten by the weightlifting bug, I had the same question. Fortunately, I was in an area where I could get to a weightlifting competition to watch how the lifts are really performed.

USA Weightlifting, the governing body for the sport of weightlifting in the U.S., can get you plugged in with your local weightlifting committee. Here you’ll be able to find local meets, training camps, coaching courses, etc. Finding your way around the USA Weightlifting web site can be a challenge, but if nothing else works, call them up and ask for a local resource.

If you’re like me when I was at 14 years of age and you aren’t near an established weightlifting club or coach, you certainly can learn everything you need from my Explosive Lifting for Sports book and DVD. I regularly hear from folks who are surprised to finally find this much detail on Olympic-style lifting available through this web site and other resources.

An easy solution to learning is also to check into online coaching, available from a number of coaches across the country. Presuming you have access to weights and a camcorder, it’s no more difficult that uploading your lifts to something like my Dartfish.TV channel (www.dartfish.tv/newtonsports) where a quick exchange of training and technique ideas is easily handled.

Weightlifting is a very small sport in the United States. As a result, it can sometimes be a challenge to get expert help. But, more and more high school and university strength coaches suggest explosive lifting for their athletes, so the word is spreading. Just be careful, as with anything else in life, there can be some questionable sources of information. Don’t get started on the wrong foot.