What you do between sets may or may not help you reach your goals.
You’ve just completed 12 reps of a lat pull down and your trainer tells you to do 15 burpees before the next set. You roll your eyes, sigh, and then start those nasty burpees. But, is doing burpees and other exercises between sets a good idea?
It’s known as “active rest”, which is different from “active recovery”. Active recovery is doing lighter intensity exercise such as cycling, walking, jogging, and swimming, on days between hard workouts. Active rest, on the other hand, is when you do some other exercise in between sets of strength training exercises. These active recover exercises might include push-ups, crunches, mountain climbers, jumping rope, and others.
There are some advantages of active rest. First, a lot of people waste time in the gym by resting too long between sets. They never take their muscles to failure because they stand around for five minutes before starting their next set. Active rest forces you to do one set and then go on to the next set as soon as you complete the active rest exercise. If I can complete about 25 bicycle crunches in 30 seconds, that’s all the rest I get in between sets. Active rest also keeps your heart rate elevated, adding an element of cardio to your strength training workout. The added bonus is that you’ll burn more calories during your workout than you would if you just stand around. This is all good if you are trying to lose weight and burn calories.
The downside of active rest, however, is that it robs you of energy and power. If you are training for strength and power gains, active rest may not be such a good idea. A general rule of thumb is that during a normal intensity workout, your muscles will recover 50% of their strength in 30 seconds, 75% in one minute, and 100% in 2-5 minutes. If you are working with heavy loads at a low number of reps (<6), then you may need a passive rest period. While you will definitely burn more calories with active rest, you’ll use up the creatine that your muscles need to lift heavier loads.
If you do decide to incorporate active rest in between your sets, you should try to work opposite muscle groups. For example, if you are doing a chest press, the muscles of the chest and triceps are fatigued and the heart rate is elevated. Good opposing exercises would be a seated row, bent over row, or anything that does not require use of the chest and triceps. The seated row, for example, works the muscles of the upper back as well as the biceps.
Mix It Up
Personally, I incorporate a mixture of active rest and passive rest. I’ll usually start out with active rest in between sets of the first few exercises of the large muscle groups. As the training session goes on, I move to passive rest to allow the client to reserve power for the final few exercises and sets. If it’s a back and biceps day, I’ll have them doing push-ups, leg lifts, or bicycle crunches between sets. I avoid anything that fatigues the biceps because they are called upon during most back exercises like low rows or lat pull downs. As we move closer to biceps, I allow passive rest of about 30 – 45 seconds in between sets.
While a lot of bodybuilders seem to get annoyed with people who are doing active rest exercises next to machines, I believe it has its place and purpose. Sometimes it’s a good idea; sometimes it’s not. I use active rest in my workouts and when I am training clients and I can attest that it has played an important role in not only my fitness transformation, but my clients’ successes as well.
To your health!