If there’s one thing that I think is overlooked in training, it’s comparability. Above everything, we want progression, improvement from week to week. It might initially seem obvious that one extra rep or set means progression but I propose that it’s not always that simple. 

I’ll illustrate with the following example:

You’re squatting, doing 5 sets of 5. Last week the last set was a real grinder and you only managed 3 reps. This week, you’ve left the weight on the bar the same but you’re determined to get those extra reps. So, between sets 4 and 5 you spend a little longer getting in the zone, psyching yourself up, selecting the song, focussing on the task at hand. The result – you get the 5 reps, shaky form, but still, you got the reps.

The question is, is this progression? You’ve taken more time between sets this week creating a different environment from the last time, what’s to say you couldn’t have done that last week, maybe you’ve actually made made no progress at all? If you use a standard rep/set progression model in this situation, hitting 5×5 would mean more weight next week, what when you can’t make the sets then? Rest longer, let form worsen further, cheat reps? Sure, I may be taking this to extremes but the core message is that true progression can only really be monitored when we have to comparable situations, a constant amongst complexity.

Some may attest that this argument is moot, that extra reps are extra reps. My retort would be that this practice over a number of weeks, manipulating a training environment just so that you can note down 5 instead of 4, 4 instead of 3 will eventually lead to a brick wall. My point is that in the above example, you progressed because you made a more favorable environment, not actual progression and that a better decision would have been to hold variables the same and get the same reps with better form or maybe 1 extra rep, leaving one in the tank for next week. Even in the best case, it’s indicative of an attitude lacking in tenacity and integrity, you need to be honest with yourself about how well something is working in order to truely evaluate and move forward.

With this in mind, a good practice to generate consistency is monitor your rest periods. This isn’t for any reason other than measurability, not to ‘burn fat with weight training’, not to ‘elevate cardiovascular output’ – simply that Week 1 can be accurately compared to week 2. 


The rest periods you choose are up to you, a sensible approach would be to adapt the rest periods to the intensity of the session/exercise/rep scheme.

As an example, here’s what I do:

I use a linear periodisation model where I ramp up in 5s, 3s and singles or doubles, changing from week to week.

In week 1, I ramp in 5s, I know this is a moderate stress and the weights are light comparatively speaking, so I’ll set the rest periods at 2 minutes.

In week 2, I ramp in 3s, the weights get heavier and the overall stress is higher, so I increase the rest periods to 2.5 minutes

In week 3, I ramp in doubles and singles with the rest periods become 3 minutes.

For assistance work I use either 1 or 1.5 minutes.

The result, I can compare the weeks I ramp in 5 like for like, if I increase the weights I use, I’ll know it was under comparable circumstances, real progress.


There are other benefits to this approach:

1) You can start to use the length of your training session as a metric of total volume. If you keep rest periods constant and total training time increases from 60-70 minutes, that’s a comparable increase in training volume. This is one way to progress either between training weeks or blocks and as now time = volume = stress, you can use this to manipulate the stress of your training within a block of time.

2) You can use timing techniques to increase the density of your sessions. If you normally use 1.5 minutes for a rest period for assistance exercises, half the time to 45 seconds and  use this time to add a light antagonistic exercise.

For example:

normally you might do a set of DB press every 1.5 minutes. You could change this to:

Set 1: DB press

45 seconds

Set 1: bodyweight chins

45 seconds

Set 2: DB press


Increasing density is another way to progress week on week.

3) You create more time to add in effective warm ups, intra-set mobility and cool-downs. By making the time that you spend training more efficient you can afford to add a 10-20 minute warm up, mobility work between sets or a cool down.

Here’s my current warm up routine for some ideas to include.


How to do it:

A timer on your phone is an option but an inconvenient one, if the above method appeals I suggest considering one of the following stopwatches and trying out this method for a few weeks. I’m confident you’ll not look back.

I like either a regular wrist-watch with stop-watch features or the GymBoss. The IPhone App GymHero, as reviewed by Yusef in a recent article also has a timer in its premium version.


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4 responses to “Rest intelligence

  1. Note on tools: The Jefit mobile app (Adroid & iOS) that I use for my 5/3/1 program has configurable rest periods. As you complete each set, you tap the weight level and reps then tap the ‘Save & Rest’ button. When your time is up, you get a short alarm telling when to start your next set.

    Very effective at tracking your training results without notepad/pen, and regulates your rest periods too.


  2. Great points there… when I belonged to a gym, I used to at least watch the second hand on the wall clock between sets. Now at home, I “wing it”, but I really need to get a stopwatch, an app, or at least a wall clock back in the workout area.

  3. Good to hear, I would only ever suggest decreasing rest as a progression method as a last resort. In my opinion you should prioritise rep and set performance as a priority.

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