Wait, What's Rest-Pause Training?

Rest-pause is an intensity extending method that's long been praised for its strength and hypertrophy benefits.

It's where you perform an exercise to technical failure. After your initial set, you pause briefly. This "rest period" is typically 15-30 seconds. Then you'll do another set until failure before taking another brief break. You do this until you've completed a targeted number of total reps.

The total reps you choose depends on a variety of factors, but generally speaking, it should be double the amount of reps you were able to perform during the first initial set. So for example, if I were able to bench a weight for 8 reps in the first set, I'd aim to accumulate 8 more reps in the following sets to hit the targeted total of 16.

Here's what that might look like:

  • Set 1: 8 reps to failure (8 total reps completed)
  • 15 seconds rest
  • Set 2: 4 reps to failure (12 total reps completed)
  • 15 seconds rest
  • Set 3: 2 reps to failure (14 total reps completed)
  • 15 seconds rest
  • Set 4: 1 rep to failure (15 total reps completed)
  • 15 seconds rest
  • Set 5: 1 rep to failure (16 total reps completed)

Does It Work?

Yes, it can work for both muscle and strength gains because you're able to maintain high motor unit recruitment. It also allows you to use the same high loads for all sets, unlike something like drop sets where you reduce the load with each subsequent set.

Anyone who's tried rest-pause knows it works... to a degree. The research confirms its efficacy, too, but a lot of coaches have probably exaggerated how well it works, especially as it relates to strength and size. Are the benefits of rest-pause more from the rep scheme itself, or is it just a matter of basic lifting principles like intensity, volume, and effort?

I'd argue it's more of the latter, especially when you compare it to boring old traditional lifting where you do a set, take a full rest period, and then do another set.

Dumbbell

Rest-Pause and Hypertrophy

A 6-week study comparing strength, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance between rest-pause training and traditional training found all measures were equal after the study, except lower body endurance and lower body hypertrophy, both of which were higher in the rest-pause group (1).

If taken at face value, this study shows you can get equal strength but induce more muscle growth and more endurance benefits by switching from traditional sets to rest-pause sets. However, if you look a little closer, you'll realize you probably can't have your cake and eat it too.

Both groups (which included both men and women) trained 4 times a week with 2 days designated as upper-body push days and 2 days devoted to training back, biceps, and legs.

  • The rest-pause group lifted with 80% of 1-rep max to failure with a rest-pause protocol that included 20-second rest periods between sets until lifters reached 18 total reps.
  • The traditional group did each exercise for 3 sets of 6 using 80% of 1-rep max. They rested 2 to 3 minutes between sets.

This study should get a lot of credit as its design was better than most studies. It used trained individuals, controlled for the same 1-rep max, and made sure both groups did 18 total reps, but unfortunately there were some issues that would obviously favor the rest-pause group:

1 – Intensity was matched, but effort wasn't.

Both groups used their respective 80% of 1-rep max, but the rest-pause group trained to failure while the traditional group not only didn't train to failure but couldn't have, given their protocol.

The traditional group did 3 sets of 6 at the same load of 80% of 1-rep max. In general, someone using 80% of 1-rep max load should be able to crank out at least 7-8 reps when taken to failure (6), but they were only instructed to do 6 reps per set.

Furthermore, if you consider the following personal differences, the participants might have easily done an even greater number or reps:

  • Individual differences: Research consistently shows that different people can crank out a different number of reps even with the same 1-rep max (2).
  • Adaptation differences: The more endurance you have, the more reps you can complete before failure at a given 1-rep max percentage, even when using as high as an 80% load (3).
  • Gender differences: Women can perform more reps given the same 1-rep max (4). Any guy who's trained with a girl can easily testify to this. Some women are just insane volume queens.

Considering all this, there are plenty of reasons to think the traditional lifting group stopped short of, or pretty far from, failure. The study had another problem, too.

2 – Progressive overload wasn't matched.

The rest-pause group used progressive overload, but not the traditional group. Since the rest-pause group was instructed to train to failure until reaching 18 total reps, progressive overload was naturally built into their program.

Hypothetically speaking, as they got stronger, their weekly progression for a given exercise could've looked something like this:

Week 1

  • Set 1: 6 reps
  • Set 2: 4 reps
  • Set 3: 4 reps
  • Set 4: 3 reps
  • Set 5: 1 rep

Week 2

  • Set 1: 6 reps
  • Set 2: 5 reps
  • Set 3: 4 reps
  • Set 4: 2 reps
  • Set 5: 1 rep

Week 3

  • Set 1: 7 reps
  • Set 2: 5 reps
  • Set 3: 3 reps
  • Set 4: 3 reps

As the rest-pause group grew stronger, their protocol allowed them to apply progressive overload. They were able to do the same number of reps with the same weight in fewer sets. They were also able to set rep PR's for their first few sets.

Contrast that with the traditional lifting group. They had to complete the same number of reps using the same weight for the same number of sets for 6 weeks, regardless of whether they got stronger. The strict design of the study didn't allow for any progression.

Yes, the study concluded greater muscle growth and endurance in the lower body for rest-pause training, but I think it would have played out differently in real life.

If the traditional sets could be taken to failure and some form of progressive overload applied, the strength and size advantage would likely favor traditional sets, especially considering how longer rest periods are better for strength and muscle growth (5).

On a side note, I don't disagree with the muscular endurance advantage found in the rest-pause group. Taking short breaks while doing high intensity work is a great way to induce endurance/work capacity adaptations. This is an underappreciated benefit of rest-pause training. But as far as maximizing on strength and size adaptations, rest-pause is likely suboptimal.

Lifter

Looking at Rest-Pause From Another Angle

The sad fact is, most of the literature on rest-pause is poorly designed because effort is almost never matched. For example, one specific study showed rest-pause squat training had higher muscle activation, but the rest-pause group trained with a higher intensity (7).

Fortunately, we have another study that tells us a lot (8). This one doesn't resemble the exact rest-pause protocol most coaches prescribe, but it did match for effort by making both groups train to failure. Korak and collogues compared the neural activation, strength, and volume between a rest-pause group and a traditional lifting group.

Both groups completed 8 sessions of bench press training where 4 sets of 80% 1-rep max were taken to failure. The traditional lifting group lifted conventionally while the rest-pause group racked the bar for 4 seconds after every rep. A metronome was used to keep tempo consistent between groups.

Because both groups went to failure, neural activation was similar between groups, showing that effort matters a lot in fair study design.

Strength increases between groups was the same despite the rest-pause group performing about 32% more reps. This shows us that while rest-pause can lead to more volume, the additional volume doesn't really enhance strength.

Anecdotally, this explains why most powerlifters build their programs around traditional sets instead of rest-pause. Adding intensity-extending methods might not enhance strength given that substantial volume/intensity/effort is already in place.

What Rest-Pause Is and Isn't

All things being equal – the number of sets and proximity to failure – rest-pause is likely to be suboptimal to conventional training in maximizing strength and hypertrophy because the latter allows more total volume with adequate (long) rest.

Rest-pause only does well in research when design favors it, but it does have some merits in real world application. Christian Thibaudeau points out that it might help someone train harder because it's more appealing to certain individuals, especially those who enjoy heavy weights but need to do more volume work (9).

Here's how I recommend programming rest-pause:

  1. As a time saver. If you're short on time or want to get more work done in a shorter period, rest-pause is a great method.
  2. As a fresh and novel stimulus. It's an exciting way to do more volume because as great as traditional sets are, they can get boring.

Ultimately, rest-pause sets are great and you should sprinkle them in, but they're not better than traditional sets, especially when you match for effort and apply progressive overload.

Related:  Does Rest-pause Training Actually Work?

Related:  Rest-Pause Training, Prison Style

References

  1. Prestes, Jonato, et al. "Strength And Muscular Adaptations Following 6 Weeks Ofrest-pause Versus Traditional Multiple-Sets Resistance Training In Trained Subjects." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 4 Apr. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28617715.
  2. Mitchell, Cameron J, et al. "Resistance Exercise Load Does Not Determine Training-Mediated Hypertrophic Gains in Young Men." Journal of Applied Physiology (Bethesda, Md. : 1985), American Physiological Society, 1 July 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3404827/.
  3. Richens, B, and D J Cleather. "The Relationship between the Number of Repetitions Performed at given Intensities Is Different in Endurance and Strength Trained Athletes." Biology of Sport, Institute of Sport in Warsaw, June 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4042664/.
  4. "The Influence of Gender on Skeletal Muscle Endurance Capacity." Taylor & Francis, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/108331905X68529?journalCode=yptr20.
  5. Schoenfeld, Brad J, et al. "Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26605807.
  6. Helms, Eric R, et al. "Application of the Repetitions in Reserve-Based Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale for Resistance Training." Strength and Conditioning Journal, Strength and Conditioning Journal, Aug. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4961270/.
  7. Marshall, P W, et al. "Acute Neuromuscular and Fatigue Responses to therest-pause Method." Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2012, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=21940213.
  8. Thibaudeau, Christian. "Accumulation Methods - Rest/Pause." Thibarmy, 20 Mar. 2018, thibarmy.com/accumulation-methods-restpause/.