Training for strength requires long rest times. Your muscles need 3 to 5 minutes to recover after you lift near your max to prevent fatigue from impairing your strength on the next set. There’s no way around it.
But long rest times aren’t much fun. You end up sitting around more than you’re actually working out. Before you know it, you’re a half hour into a training session and you haven’t even moved on from your first lift.
It’s boring and difficult to stay mentally engaged. You might try to kill time by browsing on your phone or chatting with someone at the gym. You’re focused enough to train with your full effort.
Fortunately, there are a few things you can do to make long rest times more productive than sitting on a bench and staring into space after sets of lifting heavy weights.
Write Down Your Workout
You should track your workout between sets, especially if you have several minutes of rest. Simply write down the exercise, sets, reps, weight used and any other notes about the lift.
This is the easiest and most basic way to guarantee progressive overload, which is the key to increasing strength, size and power. If you know exactly what you did in your previous workouts, you will know how to continue to challenge your muscles. Plus, you can easily see improvement over time.
Yet many young lifters ignore this critical step. They rely on their memory, which isn’t always reliable. The result? Poor progress from a training program that should yield excellent results. Don’t make this rookie mistake.
Spot Your Workout Partner
This is a no-brainer if you’re training with a partner. You have an important duty to provide a good spot—and encouragement—when your partner is performing a lift that requires supervision, such as the Bench Press or Squat.
By the time you adjust the weights for your partner and allow him or her to set up and lift, you’ll be through the majority of your rest time and it will be your turn to lift.
In a group setting with several people doing the same exercise, strength coach Rick Scarpulla gives each athlete a duty. For example, imagine a group of four athletes doing Squats on the same squat rack. One athlete lifts, one provides the primary spot and the other two are responsible for adjusting the plates and spotting the bar from the side. On the next set, they simply rotate positions.
Stretch a Muscle Group You’re Not Working
Rest periods are the perfect time to improve mobility and flexibility. The key is to choose a stretch or mobility drill that targets a joint or muscle that you’re not working on in your strength exercise.
For example, if you’re doing the Bench Press, hold a Deep Squat for a minute during your rest period. Or if you’re squatting, do a Dynamic Pec Stretch for 5 reps each side to loosen up your upper body.
This format allows for some targeted mobility work during your interset rest while still giving your working muscles enough time to recover. That said, don’t try to cram in too much. Consider this a bonus. It’s not a complete mobility routine. That can actually increase fatigue if you’re not careful—although interset stretching can be used as a highly effective and somewhat brutal way to increase size gains.
Review Your Form
If you’re working with a strength coach, he or she will often take the time between sets to provide form pointers based on their observations from the previous set. Over time, these small changes can dramatically improve your form.
But many of you don’t work with a strength coach. And that’s OK. You can and should still take the time to review your form between sets.
The best way to do this is to videotape yourself. Have a partner film you with a smartphone, or prop the phone against a wall so you can see your lift. After you finish your set, review your form and take mental notes of what you need to improve. Review it again after your next set to see if you made an improvement.
Don’t spend too much time reviewing your form. Watch the clip a few times and put your phone down. Don’t check text messages or social media. Those are unnecessary distractions from your training.
Do a Superset
If you’re doing max strength work that requires 3 to 5 minutes of rest, a traditional superset isn’t ideal. You’re better off focusing exclusively on your exercise than trying to work an opposing muscle group.
That said, there are other ways that you can combine into a superset that won’t affect your primary lift. Here are a few options:
Upper-Body/Lower-Body. If you’re doing a primary upper-body lift like the Bench Press, superset it with a bodyweight lower-body exercises like Squats. If you’re doing a primary lower-body lift like the Squat, superset it with a bodyweight upper-body exercises like Push-Ups. The goal is to add a small amount without causing too much additional fatigue. Stick with about 10 reps, even if it feels easy.
Core. Add some core work, such as Ab Rollouts, between sets to increase core activation and tension on your next set—a strategy often employed by strength coach Joel Seedman.
Activation. For pulling exercises such as the Deadlift, John Rusin recommends a Straight-Arm Pulldown to activate your lats to improve your form on subsequent sets.
Adding one of the above to your rest intervals will help you get more done in your workouts and make painfully long recovery times more tolerable. But you have to remember that when lifting for max strength, less is more. You still need to let your muscles recover so you can lift the same or more weight on your next set.