If you’re like me, you’re always on the lookout for new ideas and techniques that can help pack more muscle mass on my frame. The irony of it is, there are some truly spectacular methods that have been around for half a century or more that have fallen into relative obscurity in this age of digital information overload.
One of these is the rest-pause set. It’s so simple that you might laugh, especially if you’ve never tried it or never heard about it. In simplest terms, a rest-pause set allows you to get more reps with a given weight than you would normally be able to complete. You perform your set either to failure or close to it, then rest for a measured amount of time such as 15, 20, or 30 seconds before going again. This process is typically repeated until you can’t get even one more rep with the weight. Let’s say you can bench press 315 for 12 reps. What if instead, you did 10 reps, then rested 30 seconds and went again? And repeated that once more, or twice? Your set might end up looking like this:
315 x 10, 6, 4, 2
You just did 22 reps with a weight you could only get for 12 in the standard straight set method. This is what differentiates rest-pause sets from a far more popular type of extended set you’ve all done, the drop set. With a drop set, you keep the set going by reducing the weight with as little rest as possible, which is highly effective for inducing a pump.
The major advantage of rest-pause sets over drop sets is that the resistance remains the same. Over time, they will stimulate strength gains along with new muscle growth. Rest-pause has enjoyed a recent resurge in use thanks to a variation on them called ‘cluster sets,’ a term many of you may have heard over the last year or two. The main difference between the two is that cluster sets typically feature lower rep totals per set. For the purpose of our discussion, we will be strictly sticking to rest-pause.
Rest-pause sets have been around for a very long time, and it’s safe to say that thousands used this technique instinctively without even knowing it was anything that had a name. Arnold was observed to continue sets with pauses built in, and the late three-time Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva supposedly did all of his upper body training in this style, though not as much for legs. It wasn’t until Mr. Universe Mike Mentzer began extolling its virtues in his writing in the later part of the 1970’s that bodybuilders around the world began intentionally including it in their own workouts. Who wouldn’t want a massive, rugged physique like Mentzer had?
As we entered the new millennium, rest-pause enjoyed an even larger surge in use and popularity thanks to Dante Trudel and his DC Training system. The cornerstone of his system was that a stronger muscle is a bigger muscle, and he found through trial and error through a multitude of coaching clients that most people were able to increase both far more effectively using rest-pause than when they simply attempted to add more weight each week to their exercises. You would train with a weight that you were able to get for a total of 11-15 reps with two ‘pauses.’ Once you are able to surpass 15 reps, you increase the resistance in small increments, and repeat the process. Over time, many thousands of DC devotees swear this method allowed them to drastically increase both their size and strength.
There is very little science in general that supports the superiority of any one training technique or modality over another. In the case of rest-pause, the most often referenced study was one conducted by Jonato Prestes et all and reported in the July 2019 edition of Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
In the study, one group of lifters training using a single rest-pause set per exercise for arms, chest, and thighs, while the other group did three standard sets. After six weeks, there was no difference in the growth of the upper body muscles. However, the thigh muscles of the rest-pause group had increased in thickness by 11%, while the other group saw only a 1% gain.
While no one study should supply the definitive answer, this does point out that you can at least make the same gains in less time training in rest-pause style, since it takes less time to complete a single rest-pause set than it does to do three or more standard sets.
Some exercises simply take a lot more out of you than others, mainly because they involve so many different muscle groups working in concert. The squat uses primarily the quadriceps and glutes, but every other muscle in your lower body plays a role in getting you back up after you dip down with a heavy barbell on your back.
Deadlifts are the most ‘compound’ of any exercise, the closest thing to a full-body movement possible: using the lats, traps, spinal erectors, quads, hams, glutes, even the rear delts and biceps. It stands to reason that you will need longer to recover some strength (and catch your breath) when doing those two movements in particular. For a smaller bodypart like the biceps, 15-second pauses will suffice. For squats and deadlifts, take 30 seconds between efforts.
Any intensity-boosting technique has a very real potential for abuse. Whenever you increase the intensity, you are damaging the muscle fibers more than when using standard straight sets to positive failure (when you can’t lift the weight anymore). More damage means more time is required to repair the fibers and allow them to rebuild thicker and stronger. This gives you two options. You can either use rest-pause very sparingly, say for no more than 3-4 sets in any given workout, or to use them for nearly all bodyparts and all exercises but build in more rest days completely off from weight training.
The standard DC Training split follows the latter pattern, as rest-pause is so heavily utilized. Usually trainees only work out on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday each week, doing half the body at each workout so that Monday’s workout would be done again on Friday, and that Wednesday’s routine would be repeated again the following Monday. This gives trainers four full days of rest away from weights every week.
Though many find this ideal both in terms of recovery and for providing plenty of time to get more done in life outside the gym, many of you enjoy training so much that you would likely go out of your minds with restless anxiety on such an infrequent training schedule. Just know that you can’t have it both ways. Either use rest-pause sparingly and train more often, or make it the foundation of your workouts and spend more time outside the gym resting and recovering.
Because I know the mindset of bodybuilders well, I realize that some of you will ignore the advice above and dive right into using rest-pause on every exercise of every workout. I do applaud your enthusiasm! If you do this, please at least make a concerted effort to maximize your recovery to give you the best chance of making mass gains using rest-pause.
If you won’t take more rest days from the gym, your sleep and nutrition need to be on point and then some. Don’t even think about getting less than eight hours of unbroken sleep per night. I know your DVR is stocked with so many cool shows and movies to watch from1,000 different channels, you have 10 different streaming services, and you just got PS5, but sacrificing sleep is never in your best interest as a bodybuilder. Eating is just as crucial to recovery. Eat no fewer than five quality meals every day with high-quality, fresh protein and carbohydrate sources.
Forget about fast food and junk food. Go for freshly cooked chicken, eggs, lean beef, turkey, fish, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, oats, and fresh fruits and vegetables. And no matter how much sleep and good food you’re getting consistently, you can still overtrain if your CNS and muscles aren’t adequately recovering. Always be on the lookout for telltale symptoms of overtraining such as general fatigue and/or loss of motivation to train, loss of appetite, and the worst of all – a decrease in size and strength. The best remedy in nearly every case is to back off and take at least 4-5 days off from weights.
Even if you aren’t following a program based on rest-pause such as DC Training, the principle of using it as a means to progressively increase your strength as a means to an end for greater muscle mass still holds true. That’s why I encourage you all to track your RP sets with a logbook or on your phone notes. Otherwise the technique becomes random and unquantifiable.
And let’s be real. If you do 315 pounds in the bench press today for a RP set totaling 18 reps and a year from now you’re still getting the same 18, do you really think your chest will be any bigger? You need to increase the weights over time. Rest-pause is a highly effective way to achieve that goal, so use it that way!
Though you are free to make up your own variation, plenty of people have had success with the same basic format. Here’s what to do.
– Use two rep ranges: 12-15 for the upper body, and 15-20 for the lower body. These will be the total reps for your rest-pause sets.
– Find a weight that allows you to complete 6-8 reps for the upper body, or 8-10 for the lower. This will be your weight for the duration of the RP set.
– Take time to warm up properly with several sub-max effort sets that gradually get you closer to your working weight for your all-out RP set. These are heavy weights you are using, so be safe about it.
– Get as many reps as you can, then rest for a count of 15 seconds (counting one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand in your head or looking at a watch with seconds). Go again to failure. Rest again. Go one more time. That was three mini-sets to failure with the same weight. Remember to rest for 30 seconds between mini-sets on squats and deadlifts.
– Record the set, listing the weight, how many reps you got per mini-set, and the rep total
– Do NOT do more than one of these RP sets per exercise in any given workout! Arthur Jones of Nautilus fame used to say, “you can train long or you can train hard, but you can’t do both.”
– Once you exceed your rep range totals, add a small amount of weight next time – this is where those tiny 2.5 pound plates come in handy. Dumbbells will be trickier, obviously, as most come in 10-pound increments once you pass 100 pounds.
– Do NOT sacrifice form to get more reps just so you can use more weight next time. Crappy form doesn’t stress the muscles as well as good form does, and it subjects you to far greater risk of injury.
Hopefully this answers the question, what is a rest pause set? Use them properly, and they can help you beef up your body starting today!