Exercise, Hypertrophy

December 21, 2016

How long should you rest when training with lighter loads?

A popular theory among fitness professionals is that taking short rest periods between sets maximizes muscular growth. The theory is primarily based on the hormone hypothesis, whereby limiting inter-set rest promotes greater elevations in post-exercise growth hormone, IFG-1 and testosterone, and thus enhances the anabolic response to resistance training. One little problem: Emerging evidence indicates that acute increases in anabolic hormones have little if any effect on muscular adaptations, as detailed in my comprehensive review of the topic

In an effort to directly test the theory, our group published a study last year titled, Longer inter-set rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. In brief, the study not only refuted the claim of a hypertrophic benefit to short rest periods, but in fact showed that resting 3 minutes between sets actually produced superior growth compared to resting 1 minute. Importantly, the study was carried out using a moderate rep range (8-12 reps/set) with all sets performed to muscular failure. The question therefore arises whether results would be applicable when training with lighter weights. No study had ever investigated the topic.

Until now…

In collaboration with colleagues in Japan, we sought to investigate the effects of low-load resistance training with different rest intervals on muscular adaptations. The study titled, Acute and Long-term Responses to Different Rest Intervals in Low-load Resistance Training, was just published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine.

Here’s the lowdown.

What We Did
Subjects were 21 young collegiate athletes who had not performed resistance training for at least 2 years prior to the study. The subjects were randomly divided into two groups: A short rest group (SHORT) that rested 30 seconds between sets and a long rest group (LONG) that rested 2.5 minutes between groups. The load was set at 40% of the subjects’ 1RM in the back squat and bench press using a tempo of 1-0-2 (1 second on the concentric, 2 seconds on the eccentric). Four sets were performed for each exercise, with all sets taken to muscular failure. Training was carried out twice a week for 8 weeks.

What We Tested
Measures of muscle hypertrophy and strength were assessed pre- and post-study. Muscle cross sectional area (CSA) of the triceps and thigh was measured by MRI. A 1RM bench press and squat was employed to measure changes in maximal strength.

What We Found
With respect to hypertrophy, the SHORT group increased muscle CSA by 9.8% while LONG showed an increase of 10.6%. Thigh CSA increased by 5.7% in SHORT versus 8.3% in LONG. No statistically significant differences were noted between any measure of muscle growth.

From a strength standpoint, 1RM in the bench press increased by 9.9% in SHORT and 6.5% in LONG while increases in the squat were virtually identical between groups (5.2% versus 5.4) As with the hypertrophy results, no statistically significant between-group differences were observed in the strength measures.

How Can You Apply These Findings
There are a number of interesting takeaways from the study. First and foremost, this is yet another study showing that training with light weights can promote marked gains in muscle mass in a relatively short time period. There is now a large body of supporting research on the topic using varied methodologies across a variety of populations. The evidence is too compelling for even the most ardent critic to dismiss.

Intriguingly, we found that rest interval length had no statistically significant effects on muscular adaptations. On the surface, these results conflict with our previous research showing that 3 minutes rest produced superior increases in strength and hypertrophy compared to resting 1 minute when training in a moderate rep range (~10RM). Our findings here seem to indicate that rest interval length isn’t an important consideration when training with lighter loads.

A closer look at the data, however, suggests a more nuanced take-home message.

It’s important to realize that the term “statistical significance” refers to the probability of an event happening by chance. Our study had a fairly small sample size, which reduces the ability to detect significance. Hence, we have to look beyond whether results were “significant” and consider other statistical measures. To that end, while hypertrophy of the arms was fairly equal between conditions, gains in thigh muscle CSA clearly favored resting longer between sets. A statistic called the effect size, which is a gauge of the meaningfulness of the results, bears out these differences were indeed consequential. The effect size for the LONG group was 0.93 (considered a large effect) while that of the SHORT group was just 0.58 (considered a moderate effect). The chart above illustrates the absolute differences between thigh growth and rest intervals.

When attempting to reconcile the differences between upper and lower body hypertrophy, it may well come down to total training volume. Short rest blunted increases in training volume in both upper and lower training, but the disparity was much more pronounced in the squat than in the bench. This is logical as the leg/glute muscles have much greater muscle mass than those of the upper trunk/arms, and thus the associated fatigue during high-rep training is greater in multi-joint lower body training, particularly a demanding exercise like the squat. Given the known dose-response relationship between hypertrophy and volume (as clearly displayed in our recent meta-analysis on the topic), the substantial decrease in number of reps performed with short rest periods could conceivably explain the lesser muscle growth seen in the thighs.

In addition to the long-term effects, we also measured hormonal elevations from each condition post-exercise. Both SHORT and LONG showed significant acute spikes in growth hormone and IGF-1, but the increases were similar between groups. Since hormonal increases are related to levels of metabolic stress, it can be inferred that metabolic stress was similar between conditions as well. Although short rest periods have generally been shown to enhance metabolic stress, these findings are specific to moderate rep training. Training with very high reps elicits large increases in lactic acid regardless of how long you rest between sets. Thus, rest interval length seemingly has less relevance in promoting metabolite buildup. Whether metabolic stress influenced results in this study is undetermined as we didn’t seek to assess mechanisms of adaptations. That’s an intriguing topic for future research.

The Bottom Line

*  Training with light weights can pack on some serious muscle.

*  Short rest between sets has a detrimental effect on lower body hypertrophy when squatting while there does not seem to be much if any negative impact on growth from the bench press when training with light weights. Thus, shorter rest periods for light-load upper body work are a viable option to cut down on training time without sacrificing gains.

*  Since single joint exercise does not elicit comparable fatigue to multi-joint movements, it is conceivable that short rest would be similarly viable for single-joint lower body exercises such as the leg extension. This remains speculative, however, as the topic wasn’t directly investigated in our study.


  1. Great website.


    Comment by enrique — December 22, 2016 @ 11:49 am

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  3. Interesting article, Great case for high reps light weight training. I like to mix it up with 5-7 reps heavy session, then 10-12 reps next session. Then a light weight session with 20-50 reps.

    Comment by james bix — December 28, 2016 @ 9:11 am

  4. I’m glad someone finally did this study. I would like to see it with more experienced trainees as I think that initial window of gains is almost a given where as it is not so with a more experienced person. I do think this effect explains why top level crossfit athletes are as muscular as natural bodybuilders. I’ve written an article discussing the FFMI differences between top natural bodybuilders and top crossfitters and they are basically the same. Most crossfit workouts are very similiar to the short rest interval so this mechanism might explain their previously unexplained hypertrophy. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this. http://www.tierthreetactical.com/natural-muscular-limits-crossfit-athlete/

    Comment by Jake — January 12, 2017 @ 2:49 pm

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