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REST: The Importance of Rest During Training and How to Know If You’re Getting Enough of It

How many times have you, in the course of your training either told yourself or been told by a training partner to “push through it” (“it” being fatigue’), “bang out one more rep”, “don’t quit” or my favorite – “pain is weakness leaving the body”.  

If there is one statement that has lined the financial pockets of physical therapists, chiropractors  and orthopedic surgeons, it is the latter. 

In a world where we are conditioned to largely believe that more work is better, to genuflect in front of the altar of work capacity ie the toilet as you puke, and daily “AMARAP”style workouts, there is one tiny little training variable that seems to be forgotten.  You see, to get the GAINZ, you have to get the REST. This is true not only work out to work out, but within the actual training session as well. 

If I were going to write a simple book about this in the old children’s book style of the Berenstain Bears it might be titled “Berenstain Bears Go To The Gym: How to Get the Most Out of Your Time Investment Without Getting Hurt And Maximize Training Results Based Upon Your Training Goals’‘.  Which I realize wouldn’t sell well and I’d have to do something about the length of the title, but I think you get the point.  It is during our rest periods in a workout and the length of time between workouts that we recover and facilitate recovery.  

Training is nothing more than placing a stress on the body and recovering from that stress. It’s that simple, yet the subject matter can be an inch wide and a mile deep.  To help you figure this out and optimize your training based upon your training goals, let’s use some simple identifiers.

The following is a helpful graph (Harre, 1982) that uses common markers of various fatigue levels


Low Intensity Stimuli
Optimal Stimuli
Stimuli Up to One’s Limits
Stimuli at or Slightly in Excess of One’s Limits






Skin color Slightly flushed flushed Very flushed Paleness for several days
Sweating Light to medium Heavy sweat in upper body Heavy sweat in lower body May sweat some
Quality of technical movements (lifting form) Controlled movements Loss of precision, inconsistency, some faults Poor coordination, technical uncertainty, many faults Motor inconsistency, lack of power, precision/accuracy impaired
Concentration Normal, maximal attention Low ability to acquire technical elements, reduced span of attention Poor concentration span, nervousness, inconsistency Mindlessness, unable to correct movements 24-28hrs, unable to concentrate on intellectual activities
Training and health status Performs all training tasks Muscular weakness, lack of power, low working capacity Muscle and joint soreness, headache, stomach upset, vomiting/feelings of nausea, feelings of malaise Sleeping difficulties, muscles soreness and physical discomfort, high resting heart rate for up to 24hrs + 
Willingness to train Eager to train Desire for longer rest and recovery phase, but still willing  Desire to stop training, need for complete rest Abhorrence to train the next day, carelessness, negative attitude to training requirements


Granted, this graph is very general, but it will get you close. 

I use this graph occasionally when I am working with some of my higher level athletes or personal training clients that are heavy exercisers.  It will let you know when you are beginning to push things a bit too far and when to scale back a bit on either the volume (amount of work you are doing), intensity (generally identified by the amount of the loads you are lifting or the speed at which you are executing a movement) or the density of your work (how much work you are doing over a specific unit of time).

The amount of rest that is taken between workouts or between sets of a work out varies with your training goals. 

Let’s take a look:

  • You are training for strength – good for you!  There is sooo much research coming out on the value of strength training for health and longevity, but that’s for another blog post.  In general, when training for strength you would want to rest between 3 – 5 minutes between sets.  This amount of time is used based on the energy system your body uses for this kind of effort.  Training for brute strength requires lifting a heavy weight for 1 – 5(6) reps.  Efforts of this nature rely on the Adenosine Triphosphate – Phosphocreatine system abbreviated to ATP-PC.  This energy source is very powerful, but in short supply.  It will deliver the majority of energy to the working muscle for at max 15 seconds.  It takes the body about 3 minutes to fully replenish this system.  


Here’s a fun fact – If you do an exercise that from a movement perspective is largely the opposite of the exercise you initially engaged in, the muscle will actually recover faster than if you just stood around for 3 minutes waiting to recover.  In effect you can pair movements together and get a bigger bang for your buck. An example of this would be pairing loaded push ups with deadlifts.  The time spent away from one exercise while doing another is a form of rest for the former exercise. If you are not resting enough between sets, a simple way to monitor the amount of rest you need is to see how the set goes – either you make the lift or you don’t.  If you feel like you are not going to make it before you try, chances are you won’t.  


  • If you are training for muscular size – aka hypertrophy, the body uses energy from the ATP-PC system and the glycolytic system.  The glycolytic system gets its fuel from the carbohydrates in your diet.  Hypertrophy training uses a rep range of 6-12 reps at moderately heavy loads.  Typically, to completely restore this system a ratio of work to rest of 1:6 is used.  In a weight training scenario this is about 2 minutes of rest max.  One of the objectives of hypertrophy training is to produce and accumulate lactic acid.  The net effect of this is that the body will respond to a buildup of lactic acid by releasing anabolic (building) hormones to help with tissue repair – i.e. you get bigger muscles this way.  To ensure that happens a 1 – 2 minute rest between sets of work is recommended.  


  • Training for endurance requires that you lift moderate to light weights in the 15-20 rep range.  The best rest periods for this type of training is typically on a 1:1 or 1:2 work to rest ratio.  A set of exercise in the 15-20 rep range will probably take you about :45 seconds to 1 minute.  Hence your recovery period should be in the :45 seconds to 2 minute zone.  Here, you will be utilizing both the glycolytic energy system and the aerobic energy system, especially as the training progresses from one set to the next and one exercise to the next as is done in circuit training. 


Now that you have a better understanding on how to recover between sets during a workout, how do you know if you are getting enough rest between workouts? 


 Here are 7 simple things that you can monitor:   

Stuff to pay attention to, factors to consider etc…

Sleep and sleep quality.

Are you resting well at night after a workout?  One of the signs your body will whisper to you is via poor sleep quality.  You may be getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep, but is it restful?  Do you find yourself waking in the morning and not feeling recovered? Pressing reset at night just before bed is a great way to down regulate the stress of the day and get the mind and body positioned inside of the parasympathetic space to facilitate a good night’s rest.  Make sure the room is dark, cool and free of pets that move around at night. No caffeine at least 10 hours before bed time. Don’t eat at least 3 hours prior to sleeping.  Put work away 2 hours before bed and relax your mind.  Unplug from the screen at least one hour prior to sleep – better still, invest in a good pair of blue light blocking glasses if you have to be in front of a TV or screen after dark.  None of these things require anything other than a choice.  You can do it.

Your age matters

Older athletes and trainee’s recover slower than their younger counterparts.  At a younger age we have more biological reserves than we do as we get older.  Testosterone levels drop in men at a rate of 1% per year after age 30. Protein, necessary for tissue repair, is not as well synthesized as we get older.
As such there may be a need to revisit the protein recommendations for older adults that train into their 40’s and beyond.  Somatotropin or more commonly – Human Growth Hormone also declines with age and as such we typically see increases in visceral body fat, a drop in lean body mass and a drop in aerobic capacity. As a result of this, recovery for older populations can take longer, especially if the appropriate countermeasures are not undertaken. 


The degree of training or how “in shape” you are matters.

People with a longer training history and therefore more experience dealing with training stress typically don’t require the same amount of time to recover from the same workout as someone who is inexperienced or just starting out.  If you have ever gone to a kettlebell training class for the first time or a HITT training program you know exactly what I mean.  The people who have been going for months just seem to be able to hammer all class long while the newbie, despite being great in the spin class, just can’t keep up.  Fitness is very specific to the type of activity you engage in.  Understand that when you are trying something for the first time, it’ll take your body a while to adjust to the new training stress.  Take an extra day or two of rest.

Poor strength performance over a 7-10 day period. 

The nervous cells optimal working or peak capacity is estimated to be one week to 10 days.  A continued lack of “normal performance” could indicate neural fatigue due to incomplete recovery.


Increased resting heart rate or blood pressure.

This often indicates sympathetic nervous system over arousal. As strength training is a form of stress, the sympathetic nervous system will be active, especially during intensive training.  If countermeasures are not taken on a regular basis it is not uncommon to see these markers in an elevated state. 


Heart Rate Variability (HRV).  

Heart rate variability refers to the time variation or interval between heart beats.  When the body is in a restful, parasympathetic state, there is a variability between heart beats.  It accelerates on inhalation and slows down during exhalation.  When the body is in a state of sympathetic arousal, there is very little variability during breathing and indicates that the organism is stressed.  The less variability, the worse it is.  This is easily monitored with a simple heart rate monitor and apps that are easily available to use with your smartphone. 


Reduced or loss of appetite. 

Adrenaline and noradrenaline are catecholamines that are secreted by the body during stress.  Adrenaline is secreted as a part of the HPA axis as a part of the human stress response. Noradrenaline is secreted in response to cardiovascular stressors and is active during rest and exercise.   Since these are both active during sympathetic arousal, they can interfere with non essential elements required for the survival of the organism.  Being hungry is not considered essential when under a certain level of stress (at least to the CNS) and as a result, the secretion of ghrelin – the hunger signaling hormone is suppressed.


Rest and recovery are a big focus during many of our programs but especially is important for programs like our Build Your Body program which is a more hypertrophy based program.

We begin another round of Build Your Body next week and would love to have you join our coaching group where we will not only help you make gains and feel good, but also learn more about your body and how to actually see progress by improving your rest and more efficiently recovering.  Click here for more information.

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