Q&A: Rest Between Exercises
How long should I rest between exercises?
It depends on your goals and your current level of conditioning.
If you’re just starting out I recommend resting just long enough after an exercise to not feel winded when starting the next. Depending on your condition you may not feel winded at all, especially since your focus during the first few weeks should be on learning and practicing proper form rather than training intensely. However, as you become more skilled, learn to train more intensely, and gradually use more resistance you will start to experience a greater metabolic and cardiovascular demand, especially during compound exercises involving large muscle groups.
At this point, if you are only concerned with increasing muscular strength and size it probably makes little difference whether you rest a few minutes between exercises or rush from one to the next. I’ve worked out and trained clients both ways with good results.
If you want to maximally improve overall functional ability including cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning you should attempt to progressively reduce the time you rest between exercises until you are able to move from one to the next with only a few seconds in between. Research on sprint interval training shows is possible to improve cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning with work intervals similar to typical high intensity training set durations and longer rest intervals (around four minutes), however the shorter the rest interval the more effective the stimulus should be for improvement.
This might seem counterproductive for strength and size increases because the more rapid systemic fatigue with shorter rest intervals reduces the resistance you can use for subsequent exercises, however keep in mind those have more to do with relative effort than absolute load. Also consider that as your metabolic conditioning improves systemic fatigue becomes less of a limiting factor. If you are still concerned about load you can mitigate the effects of local muscular fatigue somewhat by alternating exercises for different muscle groups. With very short rest periods I recommend alternating compound pulling movements with other exercises to minimize the effect on your grip.
Unfortunately, unless you have a home gym with enough equipment to set everything up in advance,work out in a private training studio, or only go to the gym during off-peak hours it isn’t always possible to move quickly between exercises. Fortunately, there are a few ways around this.
If you have a training partner they can set up your next exercise so you can start it right after the one you’re doing, as long as you don’t need them there to spot you. If the equipment you need for the next exercise in your workout is in use they can determine which other exercise to do next based on available equipment and set that up, so you don’t have to take the time to look around and decide and can stay focused on your workout. If you use a barbell or plateloaded machine they can also go back and put the plates away when you’re done.
If you don’t have a training partner and can’t get to the gym during slower hours but want to emphasize metabolic conditioning you can minimize rest between exercises by performing two or three circuits of a three or four exercises that can be performed on or around one piece of equipment or a few that can be positioned right next to each other. A popular high intensity training version of this is the 3×3 (“three by three”) workout which consists of three circuits of three compound exercises performed non-stop.
If the equipment at your gym is laid out for full-body circuits this is easier, but many gyms organize equipment into groups based on the muscles worked because of the popularity of split routines. If this is the case the best option is often to set up in front of a chin up and dip station or a power rack with a chinning bar and a barbell or dumbbells. While occupying the same few pieces of equipment for fifteen minutes might be considered poor gym etiquette, it wouldn’t be necessary if gyms provided adequate equipment and enforced policies preventing people from tying up other equipment preventing people from training efficiently.
The following are examples of three 3×3 workouts with different equipment set ups:
Power rack with chin up bar and barbell:
- Chin Up
- Push Up
Position the hooks so the bar is out of the way for chin ups, and stop short of failure on the first two sets of squats so you can re-rack it on the hooks. Do the push ups inside the squat rack so people will know you are still using it.
Chin up and dip station and barbell, dumbbells or shrug bar:
- Chin Up
Set the bar or dumbbells directly in front of the chin up and dip station so you can quickly move from one to the next and so people can’t cut in on the station while you’re deadlifting. If you perform the deadlift with dumbbells do so facing the chin up/dip station. If you use a barbell face away so you do not have to step over it going to the dips.
With another barbell or set of dumbbells you could substitute rows for the pulling exercise and/or overhead presses for the pushing exercise.
- Push Up
Depending on your level of strength you can do the squats with only bodyweight or dumbbells. Most people underestimate them, but when performed correctly bodyweight squats are extremely challenging. If you think you need a large amount of weight to squat effectively you don’t know how.
Consider these routines are typically done with moderate repetition speeds and ranges and the individual sets often last around 60 to 90 seconds. A similar effect can also be achieved performing only one circuit of a few exercises using much slower reps and a a higher time under load, although above some TUL I suspect the effectiveness for strength and size increases might be compromised. This is less ideal than performing a workout with separate exercises which more effectively target different muscle groups.
Realize the 3×3 is not ideal. It compromises the effectiveness of the workout for individual muscle groups by limiting the number of exercises for the sake of minimizing rest time to emphasize metabolic conditioning. If you decide to do these I suggest alternating them with regular workouts performing only one set of different exercises covering all the major muscle groups.
If you don’t want to compromise either go to the gym during off-peak hours when you can set up your equipment ahead of time or wait less for equipment, or set up a home gym with enough equipment that you can move between exercises with minimal adjustments or plate changes. One way to minimize the equipment required and maximize space is to get extra sets of collars for each barbell and load a single barbell for multiple exercises. For example, if you are going to use the same bar for rows and curls, load the weight you will use for curls first, put on the collars, then load the additional weight required for rows. When it’s time to do curls you only have to remove the weight from the rows and you’re set to go.
If you’re really pressed for space my UXS bodyweight multi-exercise station was designed with these kinds of workouts in mind, and since it requires no adjustment other than to open or close the roller pad arm on the new design for chin ups you can move between any of over two dozen exercises in seconds. An example of a full-body routine that could be performed entirely on the new UXS is:
- Knee Flexion
- Knee Extension
- Chin Up
- Dip OR Push Up
- Inverted Row
- Shoulder Press Up OR Handstand Push Up (regular or “half”)
- Inverted Curl OR TSC Arm Curl
- Triceps Press Up OR TSC Triceps Extension
- Heel Raise
Lastly, for more advanced trainees capable of working at a very high level of intensity it is common to experience dizziness, light-headedness, and nausea when moving quickly between exercises. If you begin to experience any of these wait until they subside before moving on to your next exercise. While some view puking or passing out as a badge of honor and proof of their commitment to going all-out during their workouts it is not necessary and puts you at unnecessary risk. Also, while they might be impressed with your effort, most gym and studio owners do not appreciate people who puke every time they work out.