As a strength and conditioning professional, I’ve written and scanned thousands of programs. A number of these are exceptionally well written, while others are not. The best ones account for volume load and intensity, properly select and order their exercises, and even include detailed notes on each movement’s proper execution. Some of these programs may go as far as providing an RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale for the athlete to fill out pre and post-workout to better track their training fatigue. These details are essential, and any coach worth their salt will use these as the pillars of their programming. That being said, a variable I see coaches and trainees alike commonly neglecting is rest intervals. No program is complete without adequately prescribed rest intervals for several reasons.
What Are Proper Rest Intervals?
In terms of strength training, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) provides us with a general guideline for how long we should rest between sets of a given exercise. They recommend:
- 2-5 minutes for strength (think heavy 1-5 rep range)
- 2-5 minutes for power (1 single effort or multiple efforts 3-5 rep’s explosive)
- 30 seconds -1.5 minutes for Hypertrophy (8-12 rep range)
- 30 seconds or less for muscular endurance (15+ reps)
While these may seem somewhat arbitrary, they reflect our unique physiology and ensure that we have time to recover between bouts for repeated performance adequately. That being said, the number one issue I see trainees have is cutting their rest intervals short between strength and power sets. 2-5 minutes may seem like a long time to wait between a set, and if their heart is not pumping out of their chest or are not drenched in sweat, they feel like they aren’t getting a solid workout. What ultimately ends up happening though, is that they cut the rest short, rush back into their next set, and can not execute the prescribed number of reps or are forced to drop the load. This is very detrimental, as they are no longer training for strength or power and instead of turning their workout into a conditioning bout. There is plenty of time to get sweaty and tired, but strength and power training present unique challenges (i.e., mental focus, intensity, coordination, etc.) thus, it should be treated with respect.
When we do a heavy 3-rep set of squats, we are mainly relying on two things. First, our neuromuscular system is the driving force of what recruits the necessary muscle fibers to produce significant levels of force through synchronization and increased rate coding levels. While that may seem a bit wordy, understand that it is extremely taxing on the nervous system to execute these movements. It requires a significant amount of time to recuperate.
Second, the fuel we use for these movements comes from our phosphagen (ATP-PC) system. This is a minimal energy source and allows us to perform a high-intensity explosive bout of training, but takes time to recover as well, hence the recommended 2-5 minutes. Our capability to perform such high-intensity exercise is diminished after repeated efforts, even with adequate recovery periods. Just imagine then how detrimental inadequate rest periods are in place.
There is a time and place to use short rest intervals and train while in a fatigued state. However, training under massive multi-joint compound movements is not it. Speed and power work requires the highest level of technical proficiency and explosion possible. Thus the last thing we ever want to do is diminish them by adding too much fatigue.
Situations that do require shortened rest periods are repeated sprint ability or maximal aerobic sprint training that I’ve written about in other articles. In those cases, training through fatigue allows one to increase their maximum oxygen usage and uptake. I hope you gain from this article that not all exercise should be treated the same; every energy system and every movement we decide to train must coincide with the proper training variables.