What To Do Between Sets
written by sean hyson
The rest period is what separates we lifters from the cardio crowd. Well, that and about 50 pounds of muscle, intact knee joints, and the ability to cheat on our diets more without getting fat.
But you know what I mean. Doing a set and then stopping to catch your breath and let the burn go away is probably the only thing that all strength-training workouts have in common. Strength training, by nature, is simply too intense to be done continuously, so we need periodic breaks from it.
However, this doesn’t have to mean stopping the workout dead. There are things you can do with your downtime between sets to build more muscle, burn fat, recover better, and generally get more out of your time in the gym. Let’s see now...
Brian Grasso, a strength coach turned life coach in Montreal, gave me this idea years ago. Assuming you’ve warmed up your entire body, even if you’re just training one half or the other that day, perform stretches for the non-working muscles. So if you’ve been doing a leg exercise, you can stretch your pecs. If you just did some bench presses, stretch your hip flexors.
This can be a little tricky recovery-wise because stretching—if you’ve ever done it—tends to get your heart rate up. If it keeps it slightly elevated but you can still feel semi-fresh going into your next set, that’s great. If you find you’re pouring sweat at the end of your stretch and you’re still out of breath from the previous set, you’re probably not ready to do your next set yet.
One way around this is to do simple stretches that don’t require you to balance or that put you in an awkward position. I’d go with a lying hamstring stretch rather than raising my leg onto a power rack to stretch.
Why not stretch the muscles you’re working? Well, bodybuilders like Arnold used to do that, but I don’t like the idea. Studies have shown that stretching a muscle right before you use it intensely temporarily weakens it. Notice I said TEMPORARILY. There’s nothing wrong with stretching your hamstrings and then going on to do squats and deadlifts. By the time you work up to your main work sets, any weakening the stretching caused will be gone. However, if we’re talking about a span of a minute or less, you’re not going to be up for that next set like you would if you stretched another muscle group, or just let the working muscles rest.
You CAN stretch muscles you’re training if they’re very tight and loosening them allows you to perform the exercise you’re doing better. Eric Cressey and Tony Gentilcore, two great coaches in Boston, often program hip flexor and piriformis stretches into their clients’ workouts between sets of deadlifts. Doing so helps them activate their glutes better and reach the bar more easily for the pull, and, as I suggested above, neither stretch is very difficult to perform and doesn’t interfere with recovery.
If you’re fairly well-conditioned already and eager to jack up fat loss, you could try jumping rope between sets. Keep it light—no fancy Rocky Balboa-type tricks. You just want to keep your heart rate elevated to burn more calories in the workout.
If you haven’t been training long or your goal is maximum strength, I would not attempt this. It’s hard, and you’ll be wasted for your next set. Regardless, I would still tack on another 30 seconds or so of pure rest after 30–60 seconds of rope jumping to make sure you can do your next set properly. That is unless you’re training for some kind of MMA fight or something where you’re trying to simulate very intense work bouts and short recovery intervals that are only slightly less intense. In this case, jumping rope as a “rest” between exercises in a caveman-type circuit is pretty bad ass.
This goes along with the stretching idea. You really can’t do enough foam rolling, and most of us tend to rush through it before workouts and skip it entirely after training. Like stretching, if you roll muscles that are tight and typically “get in the way” of the ones you’re training, you may notice that they get more and more relaxed and loose as your warm-up sets go on, so that by the time you’re ready to really work, you’re completely prepared and moving great.
Bands are for more than dynamic effort work (powerlifting) or standing on to do curls with (a poor excuse for not using actual weights!). They’re great for stretching and strengthening problem areas. John Meadows, the man behind the Mountain Dog training and diet programs, likes doing “over and back” stretches between sets of shoulder and chest work. Hold a band in front of you at arm’s length with hands out wide. Keeping your arms straight, reach over and behind your head with it and then back again. The band will give you a little resistance but also elongate where you need it to in order to do the movement through the whole range of motion. Narrow your grip as your flexibility improves. This is excellent for shoulder mobility—preventing injuries that can start with bench pressing—and, according to Meadows, it even enhances the pump you get from your chest/shoulder lifts.
Another option: band pull-aparts. Hold the band in front of you and just pull it apart, reaching your arms 90 degrees out to your sides. This will pump up your rear delts and upper back, making it a good counterbalance to bench work or anything else that rotates your upper arms internally. These are great between warm-up sets.
MIX UP A SHAKE
The role of intra-workout nutrition is getting more attention these days. The specifics of what you may need to optimize it aren’t entirely clear and are the subject for another post, but here’s an idea: scoop the dry ingredients (your protein and carb powders) into a shaker bottle and take it with you to the gym. About mid-way though your training, add water, shake it up, and start drinking. Getting protein and carbs into your system before the workout even ends jump starts the recovery process and can give you quick energy to finish strong. Lately, I’ve been mixing up shakes of equal parts whey, whey hydrolysate, and casein, and slightly more maxy waize or cyclic dextrins. It seems to keep me training more intensely until the end, whereas I was running out of gas and slacking a bit on my last exercise or two beforehand.
Having a mid-workout shake is also a good idea if you’re trying to gain weight. You’ll be ready for another shake or more food sooner after your workout is done, and getting more food in that post-training window is proving to be more and more important than previously thought for muscle gains.
MASSAGE OR ICE THE WORKING MUSCLES
Kneading the dough that is your biceps between sets of curls can help alleviate the burn somewhat by flushing the acid buildup out of the muscle. Another idea that may have some validity is icing. I recently wrote up a study for Men’s Fitness that found that subjects who iced their muscles in between sets were able to get more repetitions on subsequent sets. Although where you would get ice in a commercial gym is a head scratcher, and what the other members might say to you if they saw you icing yourself also makes me wonder.
What about flexing?
Another bit of old-timer bodybuilding science was to flex the muscles you’re training between sets. I guess there’s something to this as far as helping you better establish the mind-muscle connection, but I don’t like it. For one thing, it makes you look like an asshole. Unless you have a body that resembles Arnold’s in his prime—even vaguely—I don’t think you can do this in public without looking (and feeling) like a showboat, narcissist, wack job.
But even if you’re less self-conscious than I am, I think it hinders recovery, too. A hard muscle contraction, even one that’s brought on isometrically, is still a hard muscle contraction. It’s going to use ATP and wear you down a little bit. If you’re going to flex, do it at the top of each rep (the old “peak contraction” idea), so you have your rest periods to, you know, rest.
And this brings me to my last point: it’s ok to just rest, too. You can forget all my advice and just sit down between sets if you really feel you need to. Sometimes you will. I am not against full rest periods by any means.
I think that the rise of Crossfit and MMA training has got everyone thinking that the best way to train is to keep “running and gunning” through the workout. Never let up. The idea, I guess, is that one day you may find yourself in a situation where you can’t rest—you have to keep “fighting”—and if your workouts don’t prepare you for it, you’re not getting “fit”.
But… that’s kind of bullshit.
The body doesn’t work that way. As I said in the beginning, weight training isn’t like cardio. It REQUIRES rest. The only way you can do it without resting is to do it at such a low intensity that you reduce the training effect significantly.
There are powerlifters who like to talk about times they’ve rested so long between sets that they could read whole articles in the newspaper. Obviously, that’s taking it a bit far. Further than most of us need to. If you’re resting so long that you lose your pump, you cool off to the point of feeling chilled, or you lose interest in your next set, you need to push yourself harder. But don’t be shamed into resting less than you feel you really need to.
If you can’t do your next set with intensity and hit the number of reps or the weight you want with it, you probably started up again too soon.