Rest-Pause Training: What, Why, Who, and How

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In the realm of fitness – and particularly strength and conditioning – there’s no shortage of programs to follow.

Moreover, when you factor in all the varying set/rep protocols, rest intervals, tempos, and any other permutations, algorithms, or NASA level geekdom that can come into play when designing a program or general template…’s easy to see that the possibilities are endless.

And that’s what I dig so much about this field.

I’ll be the first to admit I have my own biases on what I feel are the most useful, safe, and time efficient protocols to implement for any given goal or task.

Hint: none include the Shake Weight.

At the end of the day there’s really no one BEST way to train someone.  Everything works!

At least for a little while anyways.

Having said that, today I want to discuss – albeit briefly – one of my favorite protocols that I feel leads to amazing results when implemented correctly (and with the right person).

Rest/Pause Training

What Is It:  Opinions may vary, but here’s the nuts and bolts.  Unlike a standard powerlifting routine where one performs low reps (1-3 reps) for several sets with long rest periods in between (typically 3-5 minutes), rest-pause training requires you to take as little as 10-15 second breaks between each set.

Why Use Rest/Pause Training:  That’s a great question.

It’s essentially a fantastic way to increase both training density and training efficiency with the compound movements (think: squat, deadlift, bench, chin-ups) using heavier loads by utilizing shorter rest periods between each rep.  There’s no dilly dallying around, and it’s no wonder that many people who choose to follow this type of training for a training block (or two) get really strong and pack on a decent amount of muscle in no time flat.

Sounds cool, right?

Who Should Use It (and How): Another great question.  And as with anything… depends.

I see two trains of thought here:

1. The more accepted (and popular) form of rest/pause training is geared towards those who have more of a  hypertrophy or muscle gaining agenda.  You know:  guys (or girls) who want backs the size of Kansas, pecs that can deflect a tank, and/or tree trunks for legs.

The most widely used variation of rest/pause requires you to perform a set to “failure,” rest about 25-30 seconds, perform another set to failure, rest about 25-30 seconds, and perform a final set to failure.

More often than not it will go something like this:  perform set, rest 15-20s, eek out 2 more reps, rest 15-20s, eek out another 1-2.

I placed “failure” in quotations because there’s a bit of a caveat.  When I say failure in this context I don’t mean “OMG OMG OMG OMG someone help and get this bar off my neck failure.”

Rather, what I really mean is TECHNICAL failure.

That is:  end your set when technique starts to falter and you can no longer perform any reps without the risk of destroying the back of your pants, dismemberment, or putting your life in danger.

2.  You can also view rest/pause training as a hybrid form of cluster training, where you perform 1-3 reps with a specific weight with an emphasis on strength and performance.

I’ve been toying around with this variation for a few months now with my deadlift training, and have seen marked improvements – especially with my speed off the floor (which I have always been miserable at).

I’ll take 70-80% of my 1RM and perform 5-10 singles (sometimes more) with 10-20 seconds rest in between each rep.

If I’m feeling super masochistic, I’ll set a timer for 15-20 minutes and try to get as many “singles” as possible within that time frame – taking the appropriate rest intervals of course.


But as I noted above it’s a superb way to increase training density, and with regards to the timed variation, has a pretty significant conditioning component as well.

Moreover, there’s a built in progression in that you can try to beat your rep-record from the previous week.

Taking it step further is a variation I “stole” from strength coach Mike Mahler (which I’m sure he stole from someone else, who probably stole it from Jesus), called modified rest/pause training:

To quote Mike himself:

What you do initially to prepare yourself for modified rest-pause training is to take your three rep max and do ten singles with that weight. Instead of taking only 10-15 seconds between each set, take one-minute breaks between each set.

For most people, this won’t be too difficult and that, of course, is the point. I want you to build a pattern of success with a few relatively easy training sessions to prepare you for the brutal rest pause training sessions to follow. Once you can complete all ten singles with one minute breaks, decrease the breaks to 45 seconds between each set. Keep the weight the same.

Once you can complete all ten sets at 45 seconds, go down to 30 seconds. Once you can do that, go to 15 seconds (even though you’re only resting 15 seconds, you’ll still rack the weight in-between).

Once you’ve completed ten sets with 15 second breaks, increase the weight by 10 pounds and go back to one minute breaks between sets. Work your way down the rest pause ladder again until you’re back to 15-second breaks. At that point, increase the weight again by another 10 pounds.

And I Lied, There’s Actually Three Trains of Thought

3.  While considered a more advanced protocol to follow – and definitely not for the faint of heart – I’ve also incorporated rest/pause training with some beginners I train to help with their technique.

A lot of personal trainers and coaches make the mistake that beginners should use nothing but high(er) rep training to slowly introduce them to loading and to better prepare the joints/tendons/ligaments to the rigors of training.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with that notion – how many times have you seen a beginner dominate his or her technique when performing a set of 10+ rep squats?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.  You’re more likely to see another Fast and Furious movie being made.  I mean, what are they up to now, five?  There’s no way they can keep this thing going.

Oh wait…….

I’m not gonna lie:  that does look pretty sick.

But back to my point – hammering technique is the name of the game when it comes to beginners, and I’ve found that, sometimes, rest/pause training fits the bill nicely here.

You just don’t need to be too aggressive with the loading!!!!!!!

If someone is struggling with technique, instead of having someone perform five continuous reps (which can get ugly really quickly), I’ll have them break down the “set” into five separate singles with 10-20 seconds rest in between.

Now I can have them focus on perfect technique with each rep, but without having fatigue become a determining factor.

And There You Go

Like I said, there are dozens (if not more) of other variations of rest/pause training out there, but hopefully this helped to clarify as to whether or not it would be a good fit for YOU.

This isn’t something that can (or should) be used long-term, but it’s definitely a great way to spice up your training and take your physique and performance to the next level.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Comments for This Entry

  • Morgan Bird

    Are there any lifts in particular you recommend this for?

    March 1, 2013 at 11:36 am | Reply to this comment

  • Nick

    Boom. Wrapping up a six week cycle shortly, so this looks like a fun (horrifying) challenge for the next six weeks. Also, quotes like "and he probably stole it from Jesus" is why your blog rules.

    March 1, 2013 at 2:52 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Conor

    Interesting! I've been using this method to get good at the oly lifts without even realising it!

    March 1, 2013 at 3:34 pm | Reply to this comment

  • claudia

    As a rider of the third train, I think rest-pause deads are super-helpfully awesome. Score another one for Tony!

    March 1, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Freddie Fit

    I don't think that for beginners this is the way to go - if they train by themselves. Sooner than later they will sacrifice form to get the weight up one-more-time and, whoops, my back!

    March 2, 2013 at 11:52 am | Reply to this comment

  • Ace

    I never really knew about rest-pause training, but now that I think about it, that's what I've been doing recently with my squats. It's 20s rests as I work my way up to my working set ~85% Then I deload to about 65% but stay with the 20s rests forr another 3 sets. I usually go past the 72 hours DOMS and I cry. Since then, depth and strength at the bottom of my squat is much improved.

    March 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Rees

    Yeah, That looks badass. Solid post man.

    March 4, 2013 at 8:37 am | Reply to this comment

  • Lee G.

    How many weeks do you reccomend doing the "Pause/Rest Traning", Tony?

    March 4, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Chris

    The modified rest-pause approach is strikingly similar to Ethan Reeve's idea of "Density Training" - at least the approach as I've seen for developing reps with bodyweight exercises (i.e. pull-ups/chin-ups, etc.).

    March 5, 2013 at 3:24 am | Reply to this comment

  • Tom

    I'm starting a program that focuses on rest-pause training which consits of 7 sets and 30 reps. Now am I doing 30 reps for 7 sets OR do I have to complete 30 reps within those 7 sets? Help would be appreciated thanks!

    October 16, 2013 at 12:27 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      30 reps for 7 reps would be a bit excessive IMO. If you're going heavy, I'd break it up and do 4-6 reps per set.

      October 17, 2013 at 5:20 am | Reply to this comment

      • Tom

        Yeah on the strength days its outlined to do 2-4 reps for 8 sets. so would it be okay to do lets say 12-15 reps for 3-4 sets for hypertrophy days? appreciate the help! i just started and was just confused with a lot of things.

        October 17, 2013 at 3:55 pm | Reply to this comment

        • TonyGentilcore

          To be honest, I prefer rest-pause training for more maximal strength protocols. Going as high as 12-15 reps per set, while doable, seems like cardio to me than anything else. The advantage of rest-pause is that it "theoretically" allows you to use heavier loads compared to if you did the same set/rep scheme as a straight set. It's a great way to increase density with heavier loads, but with submaximal loads, I'm pretty indifferent about it.

          October 18, 2013 at 5:56 am | Reply to this comment

  • Veteran

    This rest pause method goes back 70 years ago. I used the “Super Rest-Pause Method” as explained and elaborated on by Donne Hale in the Old Iron Magazine, July 1965, pages 22-23. Most of the programs initially used the sequence of 1 rep then a 10 second rest, 2-reps then a second rest, 3-reps then a 10 second rest until one reached 10 reps and a 10 second rest. Donne reversed the order of performance. The advantages here is one worked with the heavies weight first thus inducing hard fiber strong muscles that could perform as well as they looked. To perform the “Super Rest-Pause Method’ You take a weight and perform 10=reps then a 10 second pause, pick up the weight perform 9-reps then a 10 second pause, pick up the weight again then 8-reps another 10 second pause and so on until you are down to 1 rep. If you can do more than one rep you simple keep going until failure on this last set. A lot of intense concentrated work can be done this way in a minimal of time. Donne is one of the top physical culturalists in America for 70 years and today at 94+ years he looks amazingly youthful and continues to regularly work out. He has published his own Magazine the Florida Weight-Man in the 1960s, written for Iron Man Magazine in the 1960s in a segment called “Bits of Brawn”. He also operated the Sandy Surf Hotel on Miami Beach in the 1960s where international top strongmen body builders and other athletes came and trained. Don himself was able to clean and jerk 300 pounds at 160 pounds in the 1930’s and in addition to this was a top boxer and hand balancer. Even in his mid-60s he was capable of strict barbell pressing well over 200 pounds. I myself have followed his training advice such as the “Super Rest-Pause Method” above and at age 62 have a 19 1/4 inch arm and can do seated 80-degree simultaneously presses with a pair of 105 pound solid dumbbells for sets of 5 reps. I have never used anything stronger than a protein powder and not all much of that. Stephen Herndon, BS, MS, MA, Ed.S., Ph.D., Professional Member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association

    May 11, 2015 at 11:21 am | Reply to this comment

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