To build muscle as fast as humanly possible, you need to give yourself enough rest between sets. If your inter-set rest intervals are too short, your performance during subsequent sets will suffer, which in turn is going to put the brakes on muscle growth.
However, the downside of resting for 2-3 minutes between sets is that you end up spending more time sitting around than you do actually lifting weights.
For example, let’s say you do 18 total sets in a training session. Between each set, you rest for a couple of minutes.
That’s over half an hour of dead time, a decent chunk of which is probably being spent scrolling through your socials or checking the price of Bitcoin.
To be clear, doing nothing between sets is a perfectly acceptable way to spend your time.
In many cases, sitting quietly on a bench and staring blankly into space while you catch your breath is one of the best ways to prepare yourself, both physically and mentally, for the next set.
However, there are some things you can do between sets that have the potential to improve rather than impair your performance. At the very least, you’ll be in and out of the gym in a lot less time.
One option is to use supersets, where you perform two exercises back to back for opposing muscle groups, with a relatively short amount of rest between each exercise.
What does that mean exactly?
Normally when you’re lifting weights, you do a set… rest for a couple of minutes or so… do the next set… rest for a couple of minutes… do the next set…. rest… and so on.
But with supersets, also known as paired sets, you do an exercise for an opposing muscle group.
For example, you’d do a set for your chest, rest for long enough to catch your breath, do a set for your back, rest for long enough to catch your breath, do another set for your chest again, and so on.
Pairing exercises for your chest and back is an example of an agonist-antagonist superset.
As well as saving time, antagonistic paired sets do have the potential to enhance your performance in the gym.
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In fact, the men were able to crank out, on average, three additional reps on the leg extension machine when they did leg curls immediately, 30 seconds or 60 seconds earlier.
If you do plan to use agonist-antagonist supersets, you do need to be careful about the exercises you’re using.
Exercises like the leg extension and leg curl work fine, because you’re isolating the quadriceps and hamstrings.
However, exercises like the squat and Romanian deadlift wouldn’t be good candidates for an agonist-antagonist superset, mainly because there’s an overlap in the muscles being worked.
That is, both exercises involve the spinal erectors and glutes.
Fatigue from one exercise is going to bleed into the other, which is likely to impair rather than improve your performance.
You can also train smaller muscle groups while you’re resting between sets for larger muscle groups, which is a great way to accumulate extra volume for the shoulders, arms or calves.
For example, let’s say you’re following a 4-day upper/lower split, and you want to give your biceps and triceps some extra attention.
You’d train your upper body as normal twice a week. Then, on both lower body days, you’d add some isolation work for your arms.
Here’s what it looks like:
- Monday: Upper Body
- Tuesday: Lower Body + Biceps/Triceps
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Upper Body
- Friday: Lower Body + Biceps/Triceps
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
During your lower body workout, you might do a set of heavy leg presses, squats or deadlifts, before resting for a minute or so.
Then, you pick up a light dumbbell and crank out a set for your biceps or triceps.
Rinse and repeat until you’ve done 6-8 sets for your biceps and 6-8 sets for your triceps.
This allows you to do some extra specialization work for your arms without spending longer in the gym.
Stretch the Muscles You’re Training
As well as training a non-competing muscle group, another way to make the most of your inter-set rest intervals is to stretch the muscle you’re training.
In fact, there is research to show that doing 30 seconds of stretching between sets leads to a faster rate of growth than just sitting around doing nothing .
Subjects who stretched the muscles they were working between each set (that is, they stretched their chest between sets of the bench press, their lats between sets of seated rows, their quads between sets of squats, their hamstrings between sets of leg curls and so on), saw greater gains in muscle thickness than their counterparts in the passive rest group.
The main stimulus for muscle growth is mechanical tension, and this tension can be produced by actively contracting your muscles or passive resistance to stretch.
Research shows that stretching can trigger muscle protein synthesis, albeit to a smaller degree than muscular contractions .
It’s worth pointing out that this study involved untrained subjects, who were doing a relatively small number of hard sets each week.
Given that there’s an upper limit on the amount of stimulation your muscles can respond to in any given workout, stretching between sets isn’t necessarily going to deliver the same results if you’re doing a higher volume of training.
Nor is someone with several years of serious lifting behind them likely to see the same kind of results.
However, even a small benefit is better than nothing, especially when the cost is so little in terms of time or effort.
Stretch Opposing Muscle Groups
As well as stretching the muscle or muscle groups you’re working, you also have the option of stretching opposing muscle groups.
For example, let’s say you do the leg extension, followed by the leg curl. Between sets of the leg curl (which works your hamstrings), you’d stretch out your quads.
There’s some interesting research to show that this sequence of stretching and lifting — known as antagonist passive static stretching — can improve performance during the set that’s done after you stretch.
In one study, a group of trained men performed two different workouts .
In workout one, they did three sets on the seated row machine, resting for two minutes between each set. In workout two, they did exactly the same thing, but stretched their pecs for 40 seconds while resting between sets.
During each set, muscle activity in the lats and biceps was greater when the men stretched compared to resting passively. There was also a significant increase in the number of reps the men were able to perform when they stretched between sets.
We’re not talking about a massive difference — it was just an extra rep or two here or there.
But again, it’s a worthwhile benefit for a relatively small investment of time and energy.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it OK to sit between sets?
Sitting between sets is fine. In fact, one study shows that passive rest (sitting on a flat bench) was more effective than active rest (walking on a treadmill) in terms of improving recovery and enhancing performance during subsequent sets.
What happens if I don’t rest enough between sets?
If you don’t rest for long enough between sets, fatigue is going to build up. This limits the amount of weight you can lift and the number of reps you’re able to do in subsequent sets.
In other words, without enough rest from one set to the other, you won’t be able to do as many reps. And this reduction in the amount of work you’re able to do has the knock on effect of reducing the stimulus for growth.
Should I go to failure in every set?
There’s no rule that says you need to go to failure on any set. Most research shows that reaching failure is not a requirement for building bigger, stronger muscles.
That is, it doesn’t matter if you hit muscle failure, or cut a set short knowing that you could have cranked out another rep or two. Your muscles will still grow at much the same rate.
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