Q&A: Rest Between Exercises

Question:

How long should I rest between exercises?

Answer:

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 loadAlso 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.

3x3 High Intensity Training Workout at Home

A 3×3 HIT workout at home: shrug bar deadlifts, chin ups, push ups

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:

  1. Squat
  2. Chin Up
  3. 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:

  1. Deadlift
  2. Dip
  3. 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.

Dumbbells:

  1. Squat
  2. Row
  3. 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:

  1. Knee Flexion
  2. Knee Extension
  3. Squat
  4. Chin Up
  5. Dip OR Push Up
  6. Inverted Row
  7. Shoulder Press Up OR Handstand Push Up (regular or “half”)
  8. Inverted Curl OR TSC Arm Curl
  9. Triceps Press Up OR TSC Triceps Extension
  10. 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.

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29 Responses to Q&A: Rest Between Exercises

  1. Will March 29, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

    I’m a big fan of the 3 x 3 approach. I do one per week. In addition, I do a second routine comprised of 1 set on 8-9 exercises. Those two workouts, combined with regular activity (walking with the dogs in the woods, hiking with my daughter, etc.) have proven to work quite well for me. The 3 x 3 may not be “ideal” but it has many fine attributes.

    • Johnny April 2, 2013 at 7:56 am #

      If everyone devoted themselves to the workout Will described at his opening comment and ate “real food”, our health care crisis would evaporate. Good job, Will!

  2. Pete Collins March 29, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    Hi Drew
    Great article again. For me I use a RenEx A & B routine cycled every 5-7 days on Kieser Machines. I move quickly about 15-20 secs set-focus, my trainer pins, & sets up for me and populates the record card.

    I find the overall metabolic effect works well, Doug describes the metabolic machinery process in his UE talk & hyperventilating to expel CO2 thus remove carboxyl acid raising blood ph to negate mechanical, oxygen debt or heat failure as opposed to muscular failure, I am discovering that just because doing leg press at the end of my routine means I probably move less load than I would at the start does not mean the quality of the contraction and intensity is any less quality. I used to focus on the record card weights and worry about each individual exercise performance being impeded by moving too quickly but now I think I finally get it, “the organism and its resources are stimulated as a whole unit and adapt as a whole unit”

    Thanks again for your writings.

    Pete

    • Drew Baye March 31, 2013 at 2:00 pm #

      Thanks Pete,

      Like many other aspects of exercise it helps to consider the workout as a whole when evaluating progress rather than just looking at individual exercises. Exercise order, rest intervals, and other factors all play a part.

  3. Craig March 29, 2013 at 11:11 pm #

    If you are only doing one strength training workout per week, then it wouldn’t seem that difficult to include a brief (20′) metabolic conditioning routine in between each strength workout. Doubling up may be more efficient, but splitting them up might allow better focus on the perfomance of the exercises.

    • Drew Baye March 31, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

      Craig,

      Proper strength training is metabolic conditioning. The problem is that most gyms are set up for and do not enforce policies conducive to proper strength training. The workarounds are not necessary because of any problem with high intensity training, but because of the problems with certain training environments.

  4. Jason Gauld March 30, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    Please do a post on squats with photo/video showing body weight style and barbell in correct form. I love squats and would love to improve mine. Any opinion on front squats?

    • Drew Baye March 31, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

      Jason,

      I have written about squats before and those posts should be searchable using the search box in the upper right corner of the page. I plan to do videos to post in the members forum starting in the next few weeks.

  5. Steven Turner March 31, 2013 at 12:03 am #

    Hi Drew,

    The 3 x 3 are great workouts for metabolic conditioning – saves the knees and back from running and other high impact activities in the name of metabolic conditioning. The 3 x 3 are some of my favourite workouts. As you mentioned they can be a bit of a problem in busy gyms but with a a little bit of forward planning most of the problems can be overcome. The 3 X 3 also achieve most of the goals that people want to achieve in minimal amount of time and can be extremely safe if done in the proper manner.

    When you say metabolic conditioning you are referring to the anaerobic and aerobic metabolic pathways and all the other chemical reactions that take place at the muscular level?

    Many other training methods can achieve metabolic conditioning but most are unsafe and highly ballistic in nature.

    • Drew Baye March 31, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

      Steven,

      Yes. Cardiovascular conditioning is improving delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the working muscles and wastes away from them, metabolic conditioning is improving the body’s ability to store and convert those to energy as needed, aerobically and anaerobically.

      There are a lot of ways to effectively improve cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning but proper strength training is by far the safest.

  6. Steven Turner March 31, 2013 at 11:26 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Thanks for the reply.

    From what I have read the cardio-vascular system can adequately supply the working muscles with the required amount of oxygen under extreme exertion. What needs to be trained during exercise is the body’s metabolic machinery – the improved ability to convert energy under extreme exertion. Improving the metabolic machinery would mean less demand on the cardiovascular system. Most fitness organisations recommend steady state activities that place “more demand on the cardiovascular system over long periods of time.

    • Drew Baye April 1, 2013 at 8:36 am #

      Steven,

      Yes. The more efficient your storage and use of the fuel and oxygen the less stress on the delivery system. This is why the better conditioned you are the harder you have to work to achieve the same level of HR elevation.

  7. Vanner April 1, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    Hey Drew,
    This is an interesting topic. I personally find only compound exercise involving the legs gets my heart rate up somewhat during a single set to failure in ~60 sec. I usually have trouble initially standing after squats, and couldn’t imagine doing another set without complete systemic fatigue and subsequent nausea. I find that the other compound exercises in the same workout that focus on the upper body do not seem to boost my HR much at all. An extended set or multiples shy of failure would boost my heart rate higher, and have me breathing harder (similar to pushing a car for a 1/4 mile); however, I’m not sure of the value this would provide.

    When I exercise I focus on in-road and not heart rate — do you think there is value in performing workouts to target briefly elevating heart rate? For example, do you think the average desk jockey needs to concern themselves with a focus on boosting metabolic conditioning beyond what is achieved in a typical 5-8 exercise workout?

    For my own interest, I’m going to strap a HR monitor on and see what it says the next time I exercise.

    • Drew Baye April 2, 2013 at 9:31 am #

      Vanner,

      It isn’t necessary to focus on HR elevation. If you work as hard as possible on a few big compound movements for all the major muscle groups and move as quickly as you can in between you will get all the metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning benefits possible from a brief, HIT workout.

      • Vanner April 19, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

        I think your right Drew. I did a quick measure of my HR after doing my Big 3: Chin, Military Press, Squat and found it at 170 bpm. It takes me about 6 minutes including setup to run through those exercises. The rest of the workout is more supplementary and does not impact my HR as much.

        BTW: did you know there is an iPhone app that can take your heart rate!

  8. Steven Turner April 2, 2013 at 10:27 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Your exactly right in regards to HR and metabolic conditioning.

    Vanner a few years back I used HR monitors on myself and many of my clients doing a variety of exercises with a high intensity of effort. In most cases HR elevated from low end 120-to high end 180bpm in different clients.
    What I found that people who had endurance training backgrounds or slow twitch fibres HR was at the lower end and people with fast twitch fibres HR elevated to the higher end. I don’t know what the significance was with difference in HR’s but I know that most people were somewhat shocked that HIT resistance training could elevate HR that high. Many people think that the traditional “cardio” training is the only way to elevate HR.

    Vanner let us know what you find.

  9. Brqd April 4, 2013 at 5:33 am #

    Hi Drew , big fan here, I’m a huge advocate of hit, both you and Mike Mentzer preach the truth! And I’d like to think I’m an example of the success of hit. With once a week training I’ve developed a well muscled strong defined body. For those who question its effectiveness visually need to view contest day photos of Mentzer himself , Marcus Reinhardt,and of course yourself, all users of hit with amazing rugged builds
    I play in a touch football league which involves a ton of sprinting. I only use hit training , yet come game day I’m in perfect condition and able to sprint patterns for the duration of the game. I do no pre running workouts as the hit workouts already have me at peak condition. I come out every year and tear it up on the field. One of the fastest guys on the team, which aint too bad for a 50 year old, hit is the only way to train, love it!

    • Drew Baye April 4, 2013 at 2:40 pm #

      Brqd,

      Thanks. When done properly high intensity training is the best way to improve general strength and conditioning for athletes in any sport.

  10. Brqd April 4, 2013 at 5:46 am #

    Hi Drew I guess I should have stated my point a little more clearly in my last reply that even though I do no cardio at all what so ever all winter, and just hit weight train once a week , come spring I’m always ready to go! I’ve always done it this way, as soon as the first game is there I’m running streak patterns and my wind is good!
    In other words hit always gets me in peak shape for an areobic event without doing any type of cardio at all! Not to mention the kindness on joints this training has! Its kept me in the game all these years!

  11. Trace Johnston April 4, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Thanks, Drew for you continuing contributions to a great cause. Here’s another excellent reason NOT to spend too much time doing steady-state workouts. “People tend to make the mistake of treating the human body like a machine. Whereas a machine will have an optimal operating environment, for survival purposes a human being must be able to perform across a wide range of energy demands. Nature is not static, nor is it linear. In nature the duration and intensity of movement is highly varied with a bias toward energy conservation. Steady-state aerobics violates these principles. A healthy human heart has a varied beat. When running for distance, your heart rate will fall into a narrow zone. The variations disappear. This is not healthy. The heatbeat is naturally somewhat chaotic – a lot of different controllers acting on it simultaneously; it has a lot of feedback loops and controllers affecting it. Fractal heartbeat is a sign of an adaptive,complex dynamics within the heart; makes it resistant to shock and to stress. If you jog excessively, you train the chaos out of your heartbeat – it becomes a metronome. The two forms of death from heart failure are, one, too little chaos in the heart, and two, too much randomness – not chaos but white noise.
    Want a healthy heart? Get off the treadmill. Focus on brief periods of (high)intensity and not duration. Embrace variety of energy demand and reject fixed movement steady-state exercises.” This was from a podcast interview with Russ Roberts in 2011. Also “Cardio Causes Heart Disease” by Dr.Kurt Harris.

    • Drew Baye April 4, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

      Trace,

      Dr. Harris is correct. In recent years more is being discovered about the harmful effects of excessive endurance training or what most people think of as “cardio”, yet most fitness organizations and publications continue to recommend it. A proper high intensity strength training program will provide all the cardiovascular and metabolic benefits possible from exercise more safely and more efficiently than all the other activities usually recommended for that purpose.

      • Craig April 5, 2013 at 10:04 am #

        As someone who had to give up ‘jogging’ quite a long time ago due to leg injuries, I was happy to learn that higher intensity interval work, from resistance training or other physical activity (e.g., sprints) can be quite effective at improving general cardiovascular condition.

        I also think it is important to avoid overreacting to stories like this. ‘Excessive Cardio’ is a pretty vague phrase. No doubt, people who do ultramarathons, or put in 50 or 100 miles a week (or more) running at an intense pace are subjecting themselves to physical stresses which may have adverse health consequences. But the guy who runs 2 miles, 3 times a week, at a slow jog is a much different matter.

        It seems that there is a growing body of evidence that being too sedentary, not walking and being on your feet enough on a daily basis is also an active health risk, one that may exist even for those who otherwise obtain regular doses of exercise. As far as I know, it hasn’t been proven that one HIT session per week gives you carte blanch to be a couch potato for the other 167 hours in a week.

        I know that will not be an issue for the readership here. But I’m sure we all know some people who would happily give up their daily walk because ‘chronic cardio’ is dangerous.

        • Drew Baye April 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

          Craig,

          While jogging a few hours a week isn’t likely to wreck people’s kidneys, hearts, brains, vascular system, give them cancer, etc. like higher volume endurance training programs, it is enough to cause musculoskeletal problems down the line while providing little physical benefit. People certainly shouldn’t sit all day, every day, but they need to distinguish between exercise and recreation or general physical activity and not think that merely being active replaces the need for a proper exercise program.

          • Trace Johnston April 8, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

            For Craig,

            What is “excessive cardio”? How about the Health and Human Service’s recommendation of “most if not all days of the week.” Or what about all those treadmill junkies doing 60 minutes a day at the same pace, same intensity? I would say it’s excessive – and risky. Yesterday a client reported that her 36 year old brother suddenly died of a heart attack. And guess what? – he faithfully performed his treadmill workout every day.
            It’s purely speculative, of course. But for those who enjoy such activities, I advise them to always vary the intensity to prevent them from training their heart rate too redundantly.

            • Drew Baye April 16, 2013 at 9:51 am #

              Like most things what is “excessive” depends on the individual, but it’s best not to push it. I think people should be physically active and do things they enjoy, but not repetitive, steady-state locomotor activities like jogging or spending hours a week on “cardio” machines.

  12. james spella April 5, 2013 at 2:21 am #

    my friend pete is a corrections officer. he has a bundle branch block, so the corrections dept. wanted him to be tested at the medical facility on campus. in this area, there are hoards of long distance runners, as annually, there is a race called the boilermaker, which attracts runners worldwide. crossfit has also become very popular. i convinced pete of the benefits of HIT some time ago, and he is now a strong proponent of HIT. he was tested on a treadmill. after the testing was concluded, that he was one of only 4 that reached the last level, level 5, in all the years that they have tested. he also sustained that level longer than anyone before him. they stopped the test only because they obtained all the data they needed. pete said he still had plenty of gas in the tank. pete trains once every 5-6 days using a big 5 and sometimes 3-4 exercises.

    • Drew Baye April 7, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

      James,

      I have heard similar stories from others in law enforcement after starting high intensity training programs, and even know someone in their late sixties who does HIT who is a consultant for SWAT and special forces who has no trouble keeping up when training with them. It would be great if more police departments and other law enforcement agencies officially recommended it.

  13. Diego March 5, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    Hi Drew,
    I am a special police unit that trains quite often, usually go for a run, do weights absurd circuits … and other follies, required for the work. In the evenings I like to do Muay Thai and weekends make a Heavy Duty training, the ideal routine. I tried the Big 5 Dr. McGuff, rotary Renex routines and I did an experiment. But whenever I return to the ideal routine Heavy Duty is better when I see it, my muscle quality greatly improves. Currently in my ideal routine Heavy Duty, modified the rate of repetitions, emphasizing the negative portion (10 seconds), 3 or 4 in the positive and 3 in the maximum contraction (if any), all to greater muscle growth . I also changed the way they measure the repeats, I measure TUL instead of repetitions. In the upper part of the body between 60-90 seconds TUL and legs, 80-150 seconds, abs and calves more.
    Now I still doubt the metabolic conditioning, I do a lot of cardio a week, I know this is wrong way to train but my job requires me to do that job and I can not say no. I do not know if my ideal routine Heavy Duty you minimize rest between sets or rest for when I feel recovered, to achieve a series with the highest intensity possible. Do you have any benefit for the muscle growth no rest between sets? Mike Mentzer Did he say anything about this? With all the aerobic work I do every week, I need to reduce to a minimum the breaks? If, for example, change the day of chest and back (+ Openings Press, Chin-up and deadlift) by Chin-up, openings + press, and deadlift, in that order to do the chin-up and deadlift followed , in such a demanding exercise like the deadlift, right would be affected by the previous two series and I would have to achieve a less intense muscle failure if I did rested? My primary goal is to gain muscle mass. Thank you.

    • Drew Baye March 18, 2014 at 6:51 pm #

      Diego,

      High intensity strength training is capable of producing improvements in cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning that are equal to or better than what can be accomplished with traditional “cardio”, but there is a minimum workout volume that is necessary to do this. If the workouts are extremely brief there will be less of an effect.

      If your job requires you to perform other conditioning activities then you wouldn’t need to also reduce the rest between exercises when strength training.

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