I hated studying for certification tests. Right out of college, I got one of the more serious certifications for strength and conditioning. During preparation, it wasn't very comforting to memorize concepts that the test makers thought were more important than me.
I was arrogant for sure, just like any twenty year old meathead, but to build a straw defense I had some real experience with formal strength and conditioning. I knew that many of the answers to the test questions would depend on the situation.
Theory and laboratory results are not always accurate in a practical situation.
One of those theoretical ideas that I never liked was normal rest periods. Most textbooks have strict guidelines for how long you should rest between strength training exercises or conditioning rounds and bouts.
I researched why they were recommended and found it arbitrary.
Textbooks would say so::
- Strength training for strength requires you to rest for 2-5 minutes between sets.
- For endurance cycling, 30-second breaks between exercises were best.
Heavier weight means you need more rest to recover and repeat – this makes sense.
I think the textbook authors haven't clarified the rest periods in terms of recovery or what to push?
Instead, it would be helpful if you had answers to:
- Has the specific duration challenged your body's ability to endure and recover from stress?
- Were they recommended because anyone, regardless of their training history, could fully recover and be ready to push hard again with that particular rest period?
These are two very different concepts and I'll explain them.
What is the purpose of the training?
If you want to feel strong or tireless at the start of each set, lap, or lap, you need to carefully consider your rest time.
If you want to challenge how much intense work you can do and resist fatigue, adjust to the stress of exercise and limit your rest.
You need to know how much rest you need first to understand how to strategically shorten them.
- Sometimes you should have a full recovery and feel your best about each set. This recovery is the best method for training compound lifts with heavier weights.
- Sometimes exercising isn't about feeling your best during the session or lifting the heaviest weights.
- Sometimes it is best to work on a deficit during a single training session for long-term gain.
Training the endurance and tolerance of fast-twitch muscle fibers to curb fatigue is part of the foundation of your strength ability.
These fast-twitch types are the ones who dominate power and force movements.
Alactic capacity, the general ability to sustain high-intensity movements, forms this foundation. To exercise these skills, you need to monitor, reduce, and change how long you rest between stress periods of a workout as you get stronger and more conditioned.
Does a real standard exist?
Recommended rest times for heavy weight training are usually based on the amount of time it takes for the central nervous system (CNS) and the energy substrates that cause muscle contraction to recover.
It makes sense, but I don't think the average rest times given in the textbooks are standard for most people. I assume that these studies will take place under laboratory conditions.
I cannot emphasize enough how many people I have seen do not fit this model in a practical setting.
At least the values need to be further investigated and tested. I base my opinion not only on what people tell me, but also on my specific observations of how long it took them to repeat exercises with the same effort and intensity. And I've seen these variances in both inexperienced and experienced customers.
Textbooks for the associations that certify coaches usually mention that rest times can be changed and an area is provided for this.
Still, I've never seen specific recommendations on how, when, or how much should be changed.
The breath can tell us something that a device cannot
Technology has created some great tools since these textbooks were written that monitor basic physiological shifts and recovery. Some of these are heart rate monitors and devices that track heart rate variability.
While tracking data is invaluable, I think we have a built-in regulator that we can use to decide how long to rest – our breath.
Observing the breath can tell us something that a device cannot.
It gives clues as to how mentally we are ready to take another heavy set or go through another intense period of practice. Controlled breathing can calm the mind and body. Just by watching it can tell if you are still panicking.
The word panic may seem dramatic, but it describes a stress-related state from a mental attitude that is manifesting itself, "I'm not okay or I can't. "
Even if your heart rate drops and other readings show your body is recovering, your breathing can still be fast or difficult.
And if your breath hasn't calmed down, your mind hasn't calmed down.
The mind can instantly quicken the heart rate and send blunt neural signals to the body to act in a coordinated, strong, and powerful manner. Even if the heart rate slows and the nervous system and energy substrates have had time to reset, you will undo your efforts on the next set or lap.
This calm is primarily an overlooked point for performance and recovery, but we teach it extensively in our JDI Barbell course.
The signals to be observed
When trying to monitor your recovery by tracking your heart rate between sets, you need to be careful about the quality of your breath as well.
- When you finish a series of weights or a round of conditioning, your breathing accelerates alongside your heart rate.
- You may also feel your shoulders and chest rise with each breath, even though you typically have a healthier breathing pattern of expanding and contracting your inhalations and exhalations through your abdomen.
- Your body tries to take in more oxygen to make up for what you put out during exercise.
- The breathing muscles in your chest, neck, and shoulders make you bigger when you breathe in and shorter when you breathe out. But they are the supporting muscles for breathing, much like afterburners.
- The lower core muscles, which expand and contract the abdomen, sides, and lower back as you inhale and exhale, should be the dominant muscles of your breathing, especially when you are resting.
- While these secondary breathing muscles can and should be cranking to help you draw in more air while you exercise vigorously, the primary forces should be responsible for your breath before your next set or lap. If it doesn't, then you haven't fully recovered.
These inhalations and exhalations mean that you are breathing heavily and that you are still in a stressed state.
Observe the patterns of breath
To use the breath to determine our rest times, we need to make sure that we are breathing naturally horizontally, where the upper body expands as we inhale and narrows as we exhale. If you want to dig into that, you can check out the work I have done with Dr. Belisa do.
- When we have this excellent pattern, we can track how long it takes after a set to switch from using those afterburner muscles to taking a relaxed horizontal breath.
- There is no need to force it. Look at it and draw it to use as a base. You can also track your heart rate to see the relationship between the two.
- Keep a log of how long it takes to make this switch after each set, until you have the average time for all sets over two weeks of training.
Also, write down how you felt during each set or round::
- Did you feel like you were pushing just as hard every time?
- Were there any sets where you just waited a little longer because you were more in touch with your breath?
- Were these sets better after you rested longer?
- Were you able to keep applying pressure for each set as the more fatigue crept in the longer a workout lasted?
- Following the above standards, did you start your next set as soon as your breathing became more relaxed?
- What if you take a few more calm breaths, even if you start breathing horizontally before starting the next set?
Sometimes it makes sense to shorten the rest period to exercise your ability to recover and to press the needle on both local muscles and total endurance. How do you challenge this without a baseline?
You need to know how long it takes to fully recover from each type of activity. You also need to know the feeling of returning to a fully rested state.
As you become more aware of the changes and the quality of your breath, you improve the connection and awareness you have of your body.
Often times you will see those who dive too deep, trying to work at an intensity that is unsustainable, with too high a stress level for them to recover or adjust.
They schedule short rest periods based on nothing more than what they have been told that makes training difficult. If you have no idea how long it will take to fully recover, then just guess what, and you can cut your rest time too short to keep your exertions throughout your workout.
There is nothing wrong with testing your ceiling, and there is a time for it. But each set isn't your last and you can't treat it as it is.
However, knowing your baseline can create challenging rest periods at that sweet spot that will fuel you, challenge your ability to recover, and keep you moving too.
Consider the whole picture when planning strength or conditioning training. If you plan to do eight rounds or sets of something but only get through four of them because you hit a breaking point in the first few sets, what was it about?
You couldn't keep up the effort because you were too hard at the beginning.
You ended up working less, despite the frantic exertion of your first few sets fueled by listening to loops of Death Metal remixes with Rocky themes.
Sometimes the main focus of training should be to stay as close as possible to the same effort in each fight. This main focus encompasses all of your workouts in a given week.
And to give each set a similar effort, you need to monitor how much rest time it takes to keep this up after each set, shift, or lap, and tracking your breathing can give you the details.
Track your breath for a useful metric
Let's go through the details. For breath to be a helpful metric in deciding whether to rest, we need to make sure that we have an excellent horizontal breathing pattern and that our breathing muscles are strong. After that, we can start tracking the changes in breathing to get a clearer picture of our fitness.
Do your set, sprint, racetrack or lap as usual and hit a punching bag. When it is time to rest, don't purposely slow down or control your breathing. Watch for a few breaths.
Ask yourself how the practice fight affected you::
Question 1. Is it difficult to breathe?
- Do you breathe horizontally through your upper body and through your neck, shoulders and chest at the same time?
- Are you not expanding and contracting your stomach, sides and lower back, and instead using only the secondary breathing muscles of your shoulders and chest?
- Record yourself or look in a mirror. Do you only get bigger and smaller when you inhale and exhale, or does your middle section move with it?
ON. 1. The answers to the first question will tell you whether your primary breathing muscles need more work and how hard the exertion was.
- When you find yourself using only the secondary muscles (breathing in and out without widening and narrowing your midsection), you need to be more conscious of practicing the correct muscles and patterns.
- And when you practice and strengthen these muscles, your recovery ability and performance improve instantly.
Question 2. How do you breathe in and out?
- Do you breathe in and out through your nose and mouth?
- Do you breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth?
- Do you breathe in and out synchronously through your nose and mouth?
ON. 2. If you answered yes to the second question, it likely means that you are using both primary and secondary muscles.
- You may still be breathing well horizontally, but if you notice your chest and shoulders actively lock into place as you breathe, you will have more information on how heavy the set was.
- When you breathe through both your mouth and nose, you are physiologically pushing yourself and taking more time to recover adequately.
Let it go
Instead of slowing, controlling, or quickly switching your breath to nasal, let yourself breathe quickly, as is natural. Just watch it for at least 10-50 seconds continuously.
Right now it starts to relax a little, to deepen, and to lengthen the inhalation and exhalation without changing the tempo of your breath too drastically or trying to just inhale through your nose if you haven't started naturally.
Take several breaths like this until you switch to a simple, nasal-only breath without forcing it.
Track and repeat
Take a stopwatch or watch and write down how long it took for your breath to change. Make sure you write it down. Then, make a judgment on whether you feel mentally ready to start the next set, lap, run, or drill, and repeat the same efforts as the last one.
The longer you work out, the more fatigue you will build up no matter what you do between sets. The idea, however, is to work as consistently as possible throughout the training session.
Build your baseline
Track rest times based on changes in your breath and the resulting exertion. Follow this over a couple of weeks with whatever training method you go through, whether it's strength training or conditioning battles.
Now you have your average rest time needed for a baseline to be broadly used based on your biology and condition.
Create your training plan
Remember that sometimes you can challenge your stamina (both strength and endurance) by limiting rest time. With a baseline that gives you specific indications of how long it will take to achieve a full recovery, you can strategically reduce your rest periods to challenge and improve them over time.
It's also easier to make adjustments. For example, let's say you cut your rest time by 20% but struggle to finish your workout every week. You can adjust and only set 10% until you adjust to it first.
Re-evaluate and adjust
Every time you exercise for the duration of a training cycle (3-6 weeks), follow your baseline or adjustments, but keep in touch with the feelings of your breath.
Then test your ability to recover. Now, based on that new baseline, you can set the rest and play with it.
Remember, this is not always linear progression. As you change the complexity or style of movement and movement, or get stronger and able to challenge yourself with heavier loads and equipment, recovery needs may change.
But you can always check in with your breath.