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Use a rest pause set to build bigger and stronger muscles

To build bigger, stronger and more defined muscles you need to push them harder than they’re used to. And that’s where a rest pause set can be the difference-maker between you getting good or great results. If you’re serious about packing on lean muscle size and strength, consider adding a rest pause set to your muscle-building workouts to make the rapid progress you want, says New Body Plan fitness director Joe Warner

A muscle will only get bigger, stronger and more defined if push it out of its comfort zone. You need to work it harder than ever before, because it’s that extra push it wasn’t expecting or used to that sparks a chain reaction that leads to muscular hypertrophy, which is the technical name for the muscle-building process.

One of the very smartest ways to make your muscles do more work so they grow in size and strength is to use set-extending strategies. These are training tactics that prolong the duration of a standard set, to target more individual fibres of the working muscles and to work them more thoroughly, so your body has no choice but to rebuild these fibres bigger and stronger.

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Rest pause sets explained

One of the most popular types of set-extending strategies are drop sets, and with good reason. If you know how to do drop sets properly then you’ll be amazed at how quickly you get the muscle-building results you want.

But another set-extending approach is just as effective as drop sets, yet hardly even gets the attention it deserves. They’re called rest pause sets. And I can count on one hard the number of times I’ve seen anyone – other than me – do them in the gym.

If you’ve never done rest pause sets then you’re missing out on one of the smartest ways to build bigger and more impressive muscles. And if that’s what you want, keep reading for my complete guide to rest pause sets so you can take your training to a higher level!

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What is a rest pause set?

A rest pause set is a set-extending approach in which you lift to failure, take a very short rest break, lift to failure again, then rest and repeat until you’ve completed a pre-determined number of reps (or can no longer perform even a single rep after resting).

The short rest periods between blocks of reps enables you to complete a far higher number of total reps in one go. And it’s this huge additional workload on the muscles that results in significant size and strength gains.

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Why should I do a rest pause set?

Do you want bigger and stronger muscles? Then doing three sets of eight reps of an exercise is only going to work for a little while. Once your results start to slow down you need to do things a little differently to resume building impressive muscles.

Remember, your body is very good at quickly adapting to a new training stimulus. So good, in fact, that after a few weeks of doing the same thing it becomes almost impossible to keep progressing. That’s where the 7 training variables come into play. You need to change things up to keep the results coming. And set-extending strategies, such as rest pause sets, are one of the smartest and most effective tactics to force your body to keep adding lean muscle size.

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How do I do a rest pause set?

To recap, a rest pause set is when you do as many reps of an exercise as you can until you reach “failure”. This is the technical name for the point at which your muscles can no longer perform a single additional rep of the move with correct form.

When doing standard sets, reaching failure signals the end of the set. So you re-rack the bar, drop the dumbbells or return to the start position, if using a gym machine. Then you rest and do another set, go to another exercise, or end the session, if it was your last move of the workout.

But a rest pause set is different. Instead of ending the set, you pause or rest in position for between 15 to 30 seconds. You then resume the set and do as many reps as possible (with good form) until you reach technical failure for a second time.

You then rest in position again for the same amount of time, then resume the set and do as many reps as you can to failure. This rest-pause-resume pattern continues until you’ve completed a pre-determined number of total reps. At that point the longest-set-you’ve-probably-ever-done draws to a very tired and relieved end.

How many reps should I do in a rest pause set?

It’s a great question and there’s no definitive answer. Why? Because of a large number of variables involved, not least the exercise you’re doing and how much training experience you have.

However, a good rule of thumb is to do the same number of reps in your rest pause sets as you did in your first set to failure.

For example, say it took eight reps on the machine chest press for you to reach the point of muscular failure. After resting for 30 seconds you manage to do another four reps. You rest again for 30 seconds, then do two more reps, then rest again and do a final two reps.

This means you’ve done 16 total reps: eight in the first set to failure, then a combined extra eight reps in the three subsequent rest pause sets.

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What if I can do a lot more or a lot fewer rest pause set reps?

Did you do eight reps to failure, then after 30 seconds of rest hit another 8 reps? Firstly, make sure you are keeping accurate time and did only rest 30 seconds rather than two minutes (it’s easily done). If you are being strict with your rest periods, then try shrinking them to 15 seconds to give your muscles less time to recover, so subsequent reps are hared.

If you do 8 reps to failure, rest, but then can’t do any more reps try increasing the amount of rest you give yourself, up to a maximum of 45 seconds. Alternatively, a better approach, especially if you’re quite new to lifting weights would be to do drop sets instead.

Are drop sets better than rest pause sets?

It’s not that one type of set-extending strategy is any worse or any better than another. It’s more that they are different tools that can be used to do similar jobs.

With drop sets you reduce the weight you lift with each subsequent set extension. This has advantages (you can do more reps, and don’t need to rest between drops), but also disadvantages (you’re lifting a lighter and lighter as the set progresses). With rest pause sets the weight stays the same so you’re always lifting as heavy as possible.

So think of these two tactics, and all set-extending strategies, as smart approaches that can be used and rotated as and when you need them so you keep making progress.

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How much weight do I use for a rest pause set?

How much weight you should use for each exercise depends on a large number of variables. For a rest pause set there is no right or wrong answer. Anywhere between 60% to 85% of your one-rep max (the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single rep of that exercise) is the ballpark you should aim for.

If you’re new to weight lifting, or are experienced and want to complete a high number of reps, then stay closer to 60% of your one-rep max. The closer you go to 85% the fewer total reps you’re going to be able to do.

How often should I do a rest pause set?

Rest pause sets are extremely challenging on multiple fronts. They work your muscles to failure repeatedly, which taxes a huge number of muscle fibres and causes a lot of muscle damage.

They are also very intensive for your central nervous system, which can get overloaded by the high demands placed upon it to repeatedly contract your fatiguing muscles. It’s also tough on your cardiovascular system, because you only get very short rest breaks between very intensive efforts.

All told, this means you should use rest pause sets sparingly to get the maximum effort without any negative impact. Once per session, a couple of times per week, is more than enough to get the results you want.

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Are rest pause sets dangerous?

Rest pause sets are very challenging. And because you’re lifting to failure multiple times per set, your choice of exercise selection really matters to ensure safety. The last thing you want to do is reach failure and get stuck under a bar, which risks embarrassment at best and serious injury at worst.

For example, failing on the barbell bench press will see you pinned under the bar to the bench. A better option is the Smith machine bench press, because when you reach failure you just re-rack the bar. And even safer option is the chest press machine: once you hit failure you just return the handles to the start and let go.

One option would be do free weight barbell moves with a spotter on hand to help you out when you reach failure or if you get in to trouble. A spotter is there to assist you in return the bar back to the rack if you can’t do so on your own.

What exercises are best for rest pause sets?

To avoid failure in a compromising position that increases the risk of injury, the following bits of gym kit are the smarter options for safer rest pause sets:

Resistance machines
• Smith machine
Dumbbells
Cable machines

That means resistance-machine moves, such as the machine chest press, the lat pulldown, the seated row, or the machine shoulder press are great choices for rest pause sets.

You can also do them with almost every dumbbell exercise, as well as for bodyweight moves, such as chin-ups and pull-ups.

If you don’t have a spotter, then it’s smart to avoid barbell exercises for a rest pause set, because the risk of failure causing injury outweighs the benefit. That means barbell bench press and barbell squats are out. But the barbell overhead press is a viable option because you can re-rack the bar easily enough on your own if you have to.

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Rest pause set workout example

Try this chest press machine rest pause set during your next chest and back workout, when you do a push session, or in an upper-body workout.

Do three to four warm-up sets first, gradually increasing the weight for each warm-up set until you’re ready for the rest pause set. Do the rest pause set with around 60-65% of the weight of your one-rep max.

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

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