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All the literature seems to suggest I should do between 4 to 5 sets of bench presses, but after my third set or so, I start to feel very exhausted, often to the point where I couldn't even complete a single rep if I tried. (This actually holds for all compound lifts, not just bench.) I find myself taking 30 second breaks at first, then 90 second, then sitting for 5 minutes waiting to get my breath back, procrastinating the next set, and getting nothing done.

How often is it appropriate to take a break while lifting, and how long? If I could take 5 to 10 minute breaks between each set (even if I did so by lifting other muscle groups) I could definitely meet the 5 sets goal. But would that negate the effect of doing 5 sets? Does letting your muscles recuperate between sets defeat the purpose?

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What program are you on? What's your goal--strength, athletics, appearance? How many reps are in each set? What kind of rest periods are you aiming for? How much weight are we talking about? – Dave Liepmann Mar 19 '13 at 19:55
@DaveLiepmann My goal is appearance- not weight loss, just muscle gain and tone. 9-12 reps per set depending on the lift. I'm at about 110 now in each lift. I'm not on a specific program at the moment but I generally work out 3 days a week, give or take a day depending on work schedule and inspiration. Workouts run about 50 min long between 3 compound lifts and a little wind-down cardio. I'm not sure what rest periods I should be aiming for - that's what I want to ask about. – Alexander Gruber Mar 19 '13 at 20:22
When you say 3 compound lifts, do you mean squat/bench/deadlift? – Dave Liepmann Mar 19 '13 at 20:48
@DaveLiepmann Always do bench, then either squat and deadlift (alternating days), then usually curl-press with dumbells. – Alexander Gruber Mar 19 '13 at 22:18
up vote 3 down vote accepted

For bodybuilding and muscle growth, you want to keep your rest periods relatively short. This approach differs from strength training and power-oriented Olympic weightlifting, in which rest periods of three, five, or even ten minutes is called for between max effort sets.

Rippetoe and Kilgore recommend very short rest periods to optimize muscle size:

If muscle hypertrophy is the only concern, rests of 45 seconds or less are best. There seems to be a link (although not necessarily a causal relationship) between lactic acid production from resistance exercise, hormonal status, and increases in muscle mass. Between-set rests of about 45 seconds would be optimal in maintaining this relationship.

(Page 82, Practical Programming)

I am not a bodybuilder, but I imagine it would be reasonable to have longer rest periods for those exercises where you're focusing more on strength than hypertrophy. You might not have any exercises where that is true, but it's worth considering strength work even in a hypertrophy program. In those cases it would still be good to keep the rest periods short--say, three minutes.

If you can't complete your later sets, then I would lower the weight, reduce the number of sets, or accept a longer rest period until you're better adapted to your current program.

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