How Rest Time Affects Your Workouts

by Deion Clifton

Chances are you’ve seen that person who spends more time on their phone having a break than they do working out. Or vice versa; you’ve probably noticed that person who takes the phrase, “no days off” way too far. Your body needs a break.

When working out, there’s always that age-old question looming in your mind: How long should I rest? Whether between sets, exercises, or workouts, rest time is essential for rejuvenation and recovery.

Many factors play into your rest time. When resting between sets, some may need to rest longer due to prolonged muscle recovery time or poor muscular or cardiovascular endurance. Others can break a sweat with fewer or shorter breaks.

Whatever you do to reach your fitness goals, adding the proper amount of rest is key. But what is the adequate amount?

Power Your Workout

It’s all about your source of energy. Do your muscles have the power to carry you through this workout?

Three different energy systems help to power you through your exercises. Known as the three metabolic pathways, these systems break down macronutrients into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), turning it into usable energy. ATP is necessary for all body processes, enabling muscle contractions.[4] That’s why eating at least one hour before exercising is essential.

The intensity of your workout also factors into the appropriate amount of rest time. Different energy systems come into play depending on the intensity of your workout.

The phosphagen pathway is what powers high-intensity workouts. It fuels the first 10 seconds of activity before depleting completely. This system is anaerobic (oxygen-free) and, thus, uses creatine phosphate (CP) to generate ATP. It takes just 30 seconds to replenish 70 percent of stored ATP-CP. However, ATP-CP fully restores after 3-5 minutes of rest. This is why you may see power lifters resting for so long between sets. It’s also the reason we’re only able to lift our max weight one time.

The glycolytic pathway powers medium-intensity workouts. Its use starts after 10 seconds and lasts up to three minutes before depleting. This system is also anaerobic. It relies on carbs in the form of glucose stored in the muscles to form ATP. Remember, you only have as much glycogen as carbs consumed, so make sure you’re eating a good pre-workout meal. The harder you’re planning to exercise, the more carbs you should be consuming.

While the glycolytic pathway is active, glycogen and glucose go through a process called glycolysis to form ATP. During this process, lactate and hydrogen are produced. Hydrogen ions make the blood more acidic, which is that burning sensation you feel when pushing yourself. It is lactate (also known as lactic acid) that causes soreness in the muscles after working out.

The glycolytic pathway will trigger when ATP from the phosphagen system depletes. That’s why you tend to feel sore after a heavy lift day or other high-intensity workout. Even though the phosphagen pathway doesn’t produce lactic acid, the muscles switch to burning carbs for energy and begin producing lactic acid when the phosphagen pathway is exhausted.

The oxidative pathway powers low-intensity workouts. Use of this system starts after three minutes and can continue for as long as you can produce oxygen. This system is aerobic but can use protein and fat as a resource to help make ATP. Protein and fat take longer to break down, meaning the oxidative pathway can’t produce ATP as quickly as the phosphagen and glycolytic pathways.

Passive vs. Active Rest

Rest is essential to your muscles because if you’re not allowing sufficient time to recover and continually pushing yourself past your limits, an injury could occur.

However, you also have to think about how you’re resting. Just like recovery, there are different methods of rest. Are you active or passive during your rest days and time between sets? Active rest involves keeping the body busy through engagement in non-strenuous movement, while passive rest involves no action.[7]

Fitness enthusiasts and trainers almost universally agree that active rest produces greater benefits than passive rest. Active rest promotes recovery through movements such as walking, stretching, or massaging well-worked muscles (either manually or with percussive tools).

Between Workouts

Based on what we now know about energy systems and ATP replenishment, we have a better understanding of how long rest periods should be.

Your rest time is contingent on the type of workout you’re doing. Whether you’re weightlifting or doing cardio, giving your body a break for a recommended period of at least 24 hours between workouts is essential.

Active rest days are preferred because light exercises, such as walking, jogging, stretching, or even foam rolling, help restore your muscles by increasing blood flow and removing toxins built up through strenuous activity. This means that active recovery can actually help relieve soreness more quickly than equal amounts of passive recovery.

Between Sets

Specific energy systems will only sometimes deplete the muscles while you’re working out – whether or not this occurs depends on your exercise, how strenuous it is, and how long the systems have performed. Because energy is quickly depleted during high-intensity activity, it’s best to rest until energy is fully restored to the muscles. During phosphagen workouts, like heavy lifting at or close to your one-rep max, you should rest for 3-5 minutes between sets to allow the depleted ATP to recharge so you can use all of that energy to generate maximum power.

Exercises powered by the glycolytic pathway won’t often drain your energy levels completely, so they don’t require as long of breaks as those powered by the phosphagen pathway. Medium-intensive anaerobic exercises like interval training require a recommended rest period of 90 seconds – two minutes between sets.

Aerobic endurance training involving minimal resistance allows energy to be stored and exerted for a more extended period. Training would look like keeping a steady cardio pace for 30 minutes to an hour or performing three-minute intervals of a fast stride into a walk or a slow-paced jog for 30 minutes. A 1:1 work-to-rest ratio is recommended when training the oxidative system.[3] This means you should practice active rest for the same time you just worked for.

Active recovery is the recommended rest/recovery method between sets or intervals. Steady movement between sets, such as walking, stretching, or shaking out limbs, ensures a steady flow of blood to the muscles. This blood flow will help to maintain tendon pliability and reduce lactic acid buildup in the muscles.

Consider wearing a MYZONE belt as a guide to help predict how much rest time you should be taking during your workouts. For more information on MYZONE belts and their functionality, visit or ask a trainer.

3 Key Points to Take with You

  1. Your rest time between sets depends on the type of workout you’re doing. Your muscles produce and use energy from one of the three metabolic pathways—your ability to identify which one will help gauge how much rest is best.
  2. Ensure you get at least 24 hours of rest and recovery between your workouts.
  3. Get into the habit of practicing active rest and recovery between sets and on your days off. Light activity can make a world of difference in your level of soreness and preparation for your next sweat session.


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