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Rest for Strength

Unlike numbers of sets and reps, the length of their rest intervals is rarely controlled by weight trainees. While a beginner can make progress on just about any type of program, not paying attention to that important training variable could account for the fact that so many trainees don’t gain.

Q: My main goal  is to get really strong. I’m confused about how long to rest between sets. What’s your opinion on that?

A: Unlike numbers of sets and reps, the length of their rest intervals is rarely controlled by weight trainees. While a beginner can make progress on just about any type of program, not paying attention to that important training variable could account for the fact that so many trainees don’t gain.

The length of your rest between sets affects several factors that are important in the adaptations brought on by your training. The rest interval:

1) Regulates the partial, or nearly complete, restoration of the short-term-energy substrates necessary for maximal performance.

2) Allows for the clearance of the metabolic waste accumulated in muscle tissue following intense muscular work.

3) Allows the central nervous system to recover.

4) Slows down the elevated metabolic and heart rates.

5) Affects which hormones are secreted as a result of the workout and to what magnitude. Those hormones will affect strength, fat loss and muscle gains.

Sports scientists recommend rest intervals of three to four minutes (and up to five minutes) for training with maximal loads—one- to five-rep maximums at 85 to 100 percent of max. That approach prevents early fatigue and enables you to make repeated efforts at high intensity.

A guiding principle when developing strength is that the rest interval should be long enough to permit the nervous system to recover almost completely but not so long that you lose what’s called the post-tetanic potentiation effect. That’s the phenomenon by which your contraction strength potential is increased for five to 10 minutes after a heavy set because of greater neural activation. I made that concept popular in the English-language literature after translating Dietmar Schmidtbleicher’s work from German in the early ’80s.

The peak effect—that is, greater potentiation—occurs about four minutes after a near-maximal contraction and then gradually wanes so that it’s gone by around the fifth minute. Consequently, when training for strength, you should rest about four minutes between sets of an exercise—that is, assuming we’re talking about a compound exercise. For isolation exercises three minutes of rest normally suffices.

An individual’s maximal strength has an impact on the phenomenon, however. If you can curl 155 pounds for reps, you may need four minutes; if you curl only 75 pounds for reps, three minutes should suffice.

With a properly designed strength session, you should actually become stronger on every set of an exercise—up to a point. That point occurs later for well-trained athletes: An intermediate trainee may reach it at four sets, while an Olympian may reach it on the eighth set.

Although four minutes between sets of the same exercise is generally best for strength, there are ways to manipulate that recommendation. If you alternate two exercises for opposing muscle groups, you can get by with less rest time between sets, provided that you still keep four minutes between sets of the same movement. Applying that idea to seated dumbbell presses and loaded chinups, your workout could be as follows:

A1) Seated dumbbell presses: 6 x 4, 4/0/X/0 tempo, 120 seconds’ rest

A2) Weighted chinups: 6 x 4, 4/0/X/0 tempo, 120 seconds’ rest

Breaking it down even further, the workout would proceed as follows: set 1 of seated dumbbell presses, rest 120 seconds; set 1 of chinups, rest 120 seconds; set 2 of seated dumbbell presses, rest 120 seconds; set 2 of chinups, rest 120 seconds; and so on.

Keep the pattern until you complete all six sets of four reps. Although the rest time between sets is 120 seconds, you actually have more than four minutes of rest before recruiting the same muscle groups again.

If you have the antagonistic pairs contracting alternately—flexion followed by extension—as opposed to agonist contractions alone—precontraction of antagonists—you can often enhance full motor-unit activation in a muscle contraction.

Over the past 30 years I’ve found that alternating between two antagonistic muscle groups or movements is the best way to train for strength. It makes for shorter rest intervals, a greater total volume of work per training session and greater recruitment of motor units. It’s a win-win deal.

I’ve found that athletes who reach the highest levels of maximal strength strive to reduce their rest intervals and repeat sets of maximal loads.

Q: What do you see trainees typically doing wrong in planning their cardio work for fat loss?

A: They make two main types of mistakes:

1) They always perform low-intensity, or steady-state, cardiovascular work. With low-intensity cardiovascular work, your body reaches maximal adaptations usually after six to eight weeks—for life. Therefore, it’s better to move on to interval training if you want very rapid results in fat loss. 

Although aerobics gurus call for a single cardiovascular training protocol for stimulating maximum weight loss, research suggests otherwise. As I mentioned last time, the notion that low-intensity cardiovascular work is superior to high-intensity work was refuted by a study published in the July 1994 issue of Metabolism in an article titled “Impact of Exercise Intensity on Body Fatness and Skeletal Muscle Metabolism.” As the authors reported, “The results of the present study show that for a given level of energy expenditure, a high-intensity training program includes a greater loss of subcutaneous fat compared with a training program of moderate intensity.”

2) They perform cardiovascular work before strength training. Trainers may recommend working on fat burning first by performing cardiovascular work before the weight workout. In reality, the reverse is true: Emptying your glycogen stores through strength training actually primes the fat-burning process for a cardio program that follows. Further, performing cardio before weights makes you weaker, as the blood pH drops, hampering the body’s ability to recruit high-threshold fibers.

Q: How good do you think the Internet is for finding strength-training information?

A: Be aware of the difference between the strength journalist and the strength expert. A clue that someone is not growing or becoming stronger is that he or she is spending more hours reading about training than training.

The Internet is great for getting access to information; the problem is that on 90 percent of the sites the information is useless. Go with individuals who have a proven track record. If they never name who they work with or cannot produce a training program associated with a name, they’re probably not worth what they’re charging. 

Often those coaches claim that all their elite clients have them sign confidentiality agreements that forbid them from discussing their working relationship, but such agreements are rare and are usually a ruse. Don’t get ripped off. All of us who have success with athletes know one another, as we end up working with the same agents or general managers. When someone asks if so-and-so is reputable, I advise calling a sports agent. If he doesn’t know the coach, the coach is not worth the advice he gives.

Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit Also, see his ad on page 259.  IM

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