Sets and Reps – Long or Short Rest Periods?

March 25, 2008

People don’t think enough about the amount of rest needed in between sets. Different amounts of rest are needed for a strength workout vs. a mass building workout. The same goes for the amount of pause in between each rep. Doing non-stop reps affects your muscles in a much different way than pausing a second in between each rep. Let’s address how rest affects the outcome of your workouts.
Sexy Woman Sleeping
[She makes resting look sexy!]

The Principle of “Cumulative Fatigue”

Have you ever heard of cumulative fatigue? I’m surprised it isn’t addressed more often in the bodybuilding world, because it is crucial to gaining muscle quickly. I am not into gaining excessive muscle so I do my best to avoid this when working out. Basically cumulative fatigue is taking short rest periods in between sets, so that the muscle isn’t fully recovered before hitting the next set. Each set builds upon the previous set. If the rest periods are too long, then less fatigue occurs. If your goal is to build a muscle, then you need to fatigue it with a high volume of sets. Shorter rest periods maximize the fatigue and as a result it creates a great condition for muscle growth to occur.

High Tension NOT High Fatigue for Muscle Definition

Muscle definition is maximized when strength is gained without a corresponding increase in muscle size. Think about that for a second…what must occur if you get stronger without getting bigger? Well…the muscle has to contract harder. True lasting muscle tone is a result of an efficient nervous system…getting stronger without getting bigger. An example of this type of muscle tone is an Olympic gymnast. They need to have very efficient muscles, not large muscles.

Rest Longer in Between Sets to Generate Maximum Tension

Since you are not striving for maximum fatigue while training for tension, you can rest a bit longer in between sets. When lifting for maximum tension you want your nervous system fully charged up to deliver strong impulses to the target muscle. Feel free to rest up to 3 minutes in between sets to generate high tension in the muscle. Note: You probably don’t need to rest a full 3 minutes in between sets. The first few sets of an exercise, you may just want to rest a minute or two. Just let your nervous system rest a bit to charge up for the next set. I sometimes rest up to 3 minutes in between my last set or two on a day I’m lifting heavier than normal.

Cumulative Fatigue Occurs In With “Reps” as Well!

A bodybuilder typically does reps in a non-stop fashion. Each rep builds upon the previous rep and fatigues the muscle. The ideal set for building mass is when a muscle fails around the 6-12 rep range. Bodybuilders often will do forced reps to fatigue the muscle even further. Another reason bodybuilders like to do continuous reps is that it creates a “pump” in the muscle as well. The combination of creating a pump and fatiguing the muscle is ideal if building muscle mass is your goal.

Pausing In Between Reps for Maximum Tension

If you pause for a brief moment in between reps, you allow your nervous system to charge back up a bit. This slight moment of rest allows you to contract the muscle a bit harder for the next rep than if you did a continuous set without rest. You can almost think of a each rep as a separate entity when training for maximum tension…the reps really aren’t building upon each other like in a typical mass building set.

High Tension Training Feels Different Than Fatigue Training

When I first began doing high tension training, I left the weight room and barely felt like I got a good workout in. My muscles didn’t feel tired and they weren’t really pumped up. They actually felt energized to a certain extent. Also…I didn’t get sore the following day, or the day after that. This type of training feels nothing like what a typical lifting session feels like. The great thing is that you have a ton of energy to “kill it” with cardio. You will also get stronger at a surprising rate without getting bigger.

Brief High Tension Training & Intense Cardio…a Killer Combo

Since muscle fatigue isn’t part of the equation in high tension training, you don’t have to worry about a high volume of sets and reps. To be honest, you can work a muscle group well with a 6-10 total sets. Even with slightly longer rest periods, your workout should be pretty brief. This will give you more time and energy to really burn some calories doing intense cardio. This additional cardio is going to strip away body fat to reveal the dense and toned muscles created by high tension training. This creates a very impressive physique that is extremely defined without being bulky or “puffy” looking.

Note: Circuit Training and Turbulence Training have short rest periods, but use a different energy system than resistance training for mass in the 6-12 rep range. These types of training methods are basically a way of doing interval training with weights vs sprint intervals on a treadmill. They create the same boost in metabolism and HGH increase that a typical HIIT routine would on a piece of cardio equipment. These training methods are used to get lean, not build mass.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

admin July 3, 2008 at 3:33 am


If you are strength training I would avoid supersets. I don’t have Muscle Milk in front of me right now, but from what I remember…it is one of the better protein shakes. You do need some fat and carbs, so I wouldn’t sweat it. Many people use Muscle Milk with success.

If you are worried at all, then drink it 30-60 minutes after your workouts…that is when your body is starving for sugars.


Jeremiah July 6, 2008 at 4:05 am

Hey Rusty, I stumbled upon your website by accident about a week ago, googling information about how to increase muscle definition. I’m an ectomorph, and absolutely prefer a naturally lean look to a bulky muscular one. Considering that I have yet to disagree with any of your personal philosophies on this blog, I plan to follow your advice as well as I can. To this end, I want as much clarity and guidance as possible, so I don’t waste any time practicing ineffective methodologies.

Anyhow, here’s why I’m writing: Would it be much of a bother for you to post a few strength training routines that you’ve personally used? I’m trying to gather the pieces you’ve written in different posts, but it’d be nice to have one post to refer to. Or, even better, maybe you could post exercises you find effective for each major muscle group, highlighting not only why you like them, but also why you find certain exercises (e.g. squats and deadlifts) undesirable. I’ve been performing squats and deadlifts regularly, thinking they would improve my overall physique, but you’ve stated that you don’t use them. It’d be great to have a list of “recommended” and “advised-against” exercises and why they are in their respective categories.

Thanks for sharing info that actually makes sense!

nik July 12, 2008 at 5:14 pm

Ciao Rusty, I`m interested in high tension exercise routine, involving push ups(30max), chin ups(20max), squats(200max),abs(500max) and rope jumping. i`ve been doing cardio, driving bicycle(50min per session) and running for last ten years but had difficulty with building mass. I`ve tried doing it but don`t feel like it. what i`d like is to increase strength not mass by doing only these exercises. is it possible without inflicting 3 times per week cardio routine?thanks

eric July 31, 2008 at 1:25 am

hey rusty what do you think of isometric training? Bruce Lee practiced this and his body was amazing. Do you think it could totally replace a regular strength training routine (reps, sets, increased weight) if you want a lean body? Or should it just be another part of your workout?

salman November 9, 2008 at 1:08 pm

hi rusty,I had been reading ur blog from 2weeks.after which changed my workout routine,but sometimes I get confused like 2-3 excersize per body part 3-4 set n 2-3 min rest and u say to follow brief lifting .by this sets n reps my lifting part is about moreover 40min,n then
15 min high intensity
n 30 min low intensity .thus this way of cardio can be done evry day as u said not to do high intensity cardio evry day.I workout evry day [sunday]off but my workout become lengthy,so plz help
by the way I love ur blog.
thank u.

Cindy January 14, 2009 at 4:18 pm

I am so confused. I am trying to understand the concept of this :High Tension method and I just don’t get it…

I’ve got a HIIT program going for cardio and everything

I’m just so confused on what to do with weights/machines, there is so much conflicting info out there.

john January 16, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Great information. Well researched and documented.

My question is: I have limited time, so would I be better use this method with only free weights or machines?

Krissy January 18, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Hey Rusty,

I’m 5ft 8 and 122 lbs and have always been skinny. I was just wondering since I have very little muscle should i concentrate on building the muscle first and then focus on toning?

Pete March 11, 2010 at 5:28 am

Hey Rusty

I started to read your site a few days ago. REALLY good stuff I must say!
I’ve been working out for 2 years the “regular” way tried a lot of excersises but never got the lean ripped shape as I wanted.
I’ve started the high tension low reps kind of lifting along with HIIT this week. (I usually done the high reps kind of thing earlier)
Have a question about the lifting though. Sorry if it is a dumb question, just want to make sure I’m doing right what I do.
4 sets 5 reps per excersise and a fully of 4 different excersises for each muscle part are good enough? One muscle part per day 5-6 days per week.
I tried it out and i read that it’s good not to feel sore the next day, but after the lifting part I don’t even feel that I worked out. During the excersises I feel the tension but after I put down the weights it’s like I did nothing.
After I’m done with the HIIT part (or the crazy 8 body weight circuit) then I’m really exhausted but in my muscles I still don’t feel any kind of tension or that they are tired. Is that good so or I’m doing something wrong?

Thanks: Pete

Ruth August 26, 2010 at 4:01 pm

I hope you can help…this article seems to be the closest to addressing my issue.

I am 41, 5’5″, 125lbs, and always have been slender & fairly strong for my size. I was a swimmer growing up until I was 30. I have not had an exercise regime for the last 11 years.

I recently started exercising again as I noticed cellulite and overall ‘soft/floppiness’ of my body. I need to tighten up.

Here is the problem ~ I was happy with my size, and did NOT want to add any mass to my body. I do 2 days/week of 30 minute cardio (Mix 3 machine, HR 140-160) followed by full body light weight circuit (no sore muscle next day). I watch my diet, and even cut out some carbs & cheese I always ate. I don’t eat sugar, and use whole grains/foods.

In the 2.5 months I have gained 5-7 pounds! My thighs, hips and waist/belly have all gotten BIGGER (and seems fattier almost), not tightened up. This has dicouraged me to the point of quitting & going back to atrophy for the look I want.

I hope you have some input as to why my body is reacting this way, and what I could do differently.

Most forums I’ve found are aimed towards losing weight &/or bulking up, not much direction for thin people who want to stay small and get ‘tone’.

Thank you:)

Ruth August 26, 2010 at 4:10 pm

I’d love to know if you’ve discovered any good info on exercise regimes for people who start out thin:)

Kevin October 20, 2011 at 10:38 am

for building muscle you need continuous tension and full ROM. So on the squat, for example, you descend down. As soon as you are in the lowest position, forcefully move upward. Don’t lock out your knees,as this releases tension from the muscle. Flex for half a second hard like your posing for a photo and descend again for the next rep. If you watch all pro BB’s they never pause at the top or bottom of the rep. Like Rusty said, this is bad for strength but essential for building bigger muscles.

Stanley September 20, 2012 at 7:01 am

Hey rusty,

Thanks for a great read. Helped me a lot in deciding how to do my workout.

Buy Power Pump XL April 19, 2013 at 6:16 pm

And that’s the only reason we’re in the gym, right. While they are struggling to pack on
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