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This is assuming I am training purely for strength (it seems there are already topics about this subject from a bodybuilding perspective).

Lets say I only barely make it through my first set of squats, and am sure that I will fail on the second set if I go for it in another 3-4 minutes. Is there any particular disadvantage other than convenience to, say, taking a break and doing my press, and then coming back with my legs completely refreshed for the next set of squats. Basically, would it be better to just to go with the shorter rest times and do 5/4/2 rather than wait as long as I need to and get 5/5/5?

This seems especially relevant with chinups/pullups, where I can either go to failure and do ~7/4/3, but if I wait a half hour between sets and go for sets of 5, I can easily total 40-50 chinups in a single day.

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Are there disadvantages to longer rests between sets?

Sure. I cool down if I wait longer than five or so minutes between heavy squat sets, and that can be a problem if my mobility is iffy and I really need to be warm to get good form. It's also annoying to have the two-hour-plus workouts that result from 10-minute rests between sets of, say, heavy squats and ego-driven pull-up sets.

Lets say I only barely make it through my first set of squats, and am sure that I will fail on the second set if I go for it in another 3-4 minutes. Is there any particular disadvantage other than convenience to, say, taking a break and doing my press, and then coming back with my legs completely refreshed for the next set of squats. Basically, would it be better to just to go with the shorter rest times and do 5/4/2 rather than wait as long as I need to and get 5/5/5?

All the problems above apply. Plus, I know you said this is purely for strength, but...there's a whole host of other benefits from being able to do the sets with only a five minute rest: improved muscular endurance, cardio, recovery capacity, mental fortitude to fight through soreness, and so on. Plus I find it a little more challenging to stay focused on my squat form when I'm switching back and forth with other exercises.

If you're doing a novice linear progression, I'd just focus on doing better with the 3 sets in a row, with 5 to 10 minutes rest, rather than trying to continue to add weight by jumbling the exercises you're doing.

This seems especially relevant with chinups/pullups, where I can either go to failure and do ~7/4/3, but if I wait a half hour between sets and go for sets of 5, I can easily total 40-50 chinups in a single day.

Now we're talking about Greasing the Groove and not a single workout. That's a whole different enchilada that requires separate research. It works, but single high-rep sets are more impressive and productive, as discussed in detail here.

For your pull-ups, I'd do both: three maximum-rep sets (with good form) with a maximum of five minutes rest, and sets of 5 throughout the day on rest days.

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Well, I did mean besides the inconvenience, but you make a good point that I would be sacrificing a lot for the relatively small benefit of delaying a stall. –  Carl May 18 '13 at 4:34
    
@Carl Yeah. Figure out where there's a problem (diet, sleep, stress, need a deload...), fix it, and do the squats all in a row like the program is designed. –  Dave Liepmann May 18 '13 at 4:35
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It really depends on what you are after. If you are running the Starting Strength program or some other beginner program, they take the stance of take as much rest as you need--even 10 minutes between sets! The goal for those programs is to increase the weight on the bar as quickly as you can.

Trade offs for Rest Times

  • Longer rests provide more recovery between sets
  • Too long of a rest and you might "cool down" enough that you won't be ready for the next set without more warm up. For example rest times of 30 minutes or more will likely cool you down.
  • Shorter rest provides more training stress/fatigue
  • Increasing training density (more work in less time) is another way of getting stronger

Applying that to your goals

If your goal at the moment is to increase the weight on the bar with a given amount of sets and reps, take as much rest as you need. Just make sure you don't cool down in the process. You are pushing yourself pretty hard, and will need to make those adjustments.

If your goal is muscle size or to burn fat, shorten the rest between sets as much as you can. You'll likely have to stay at the same weight while you work on shortening the rest times. Some really strong people train this way. Sam Byrd (a power lifter) performs his squats 5 sets of 5, and works on doing them quicker until he can get it all done in less than 25 minutes. Then he increases the weight and repeats the process. His squat is over 700lbs.

If you are feeling a bit worn down, increase the time between sets. Playing with training density (volume / time) is one way to manage fatigue and recovery.

If you have limited time to train, shorten the rest between sets and adjust the weight on the bar to something you can do in that time. Over time as you increase weight, but keep the time the same, it pushes your more rested max even higher. You may have to drop 10-20 lbs the first time you switch to short rest periods (1 minute or less), but you'll make up the difference soon.

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Yes, there are disadvantages in that you won't be stressing your muscles enough to get all the growth that is possible out of each session.

Muscle growth is a combination of two different types of hypertrophy, sarcoplasmic and myofibril. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy produces more size, but less strength (This is what is stimulated by the 8-12 rep range), while myofibril hypertrophy produces more strength but less size (2-6 rep range, with higher weights).

Also, the muscle responds to micro tears by repairing the tissue, and adding more to try and prevent that kind of injury in the future. If you don't go to overload/failure or near that point, then you are not stressing your muscles to the degree needed to stimulate full growth. You can do things with lots of rest, but you won't get the same training effect as you would with shorter rest intervals, and while you may see growth, it won't be as much as you would see otherwise.

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It does make comparing your lifting sessions useless.

If you time your rest periods then you can be assured that one week you were doing better than another and see whether or not you were making progress.

aka doing 1000 chinups over a full a day can't be compared to doing 4 sets of 10.

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