Sets and Reps – Long or Short Rest Periods?

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.
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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.


50 thoughts on “Sets and Reps – Long or Short Rest Periods?”

  1. And that’s the only reason we’re in the gym, right. While they are struggling to pack on
    any muscle at all, you. Figuring out how much protein you should be eating can
    be tricky.

  2. 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.

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

  4. 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:)

  5. 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

  6. 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?

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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