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How to Use Rest Periods to Maximize Your Fat Loss

Try This Workout Hack to Boost Your Training Efficiency

author image Eric Bach
Eric Bach is a personal trainer, author of The Power Primer, and fitness business consultant in Denver, Colorado. His passion is simplifying fitness, helping clients get great results through the ruthless execution of the basics. Find out more on his website Bach Performance, or hang out on Facebook.
How to Use Rest Periods to Maximize Your Fat Loss
Photo Credit Peathegee Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images


If you’re like most people, you’re already tracking exercises, reps and weight. But you’re likely neglecting a huge part of your fat-loss program: rest periods. (You know, those breaks you’re supposed to take between sets during your workout?)

Luckily, there are guidelines to get you back on track to lose more body fat and improve your training.

It seems counterintuitive, but the amount of time between exercises and sets has implications to the amount of fat your body burns (provided the rest of your program is sensibly designed).

But your training must be specific to your goals to achieve the desired outcomes. In the case of maximizing fat loss, you need to use a variety of rest-period lengths for safe training and maximum fat loss.

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The amount of time between exercises and sets has implications to the amount of fat your body burns.

Why Rest Periods Are Important

Exercise rest periods restore short-term energy sources. During high-intensity exercises like heavy lifting or sprints, you deplete your energy sources quickly. By taking proper rest periods, you’ll allow your body to recover and refuel properly.

They also aid your central nervous system recovery, preparing you for maximal power output and proper technique. When you exercise, your nervous system sends signals from your brain to your muscles. Without enough recovery, your brain can’t keep up and send signals to muscles fast enough to continue exercise with the same intensity.

When you’re training, byproducts from your strenuous effort cause that heavy, lead feeling in your muscles and prevent you from training as hard or as long as you need. With proper rest, your body clears metabolites for your system, helping to alleviate the burn in your muscles.

Lastly, proper rest keeps your heart rate regulated. Keeping your heart rate high (but not too high) throughout a workout will help you burn more calories during your workout and after your workout. But this doesn’t just apply to cardiovascular exercise.

Even if your primary goal is burning fat, successful fat-loss programs have moderately heavy strength work included. This serves three purposes: It maintains your strength even when you’re losing weight, maintains hormone levels like testosterone in the presence of a caloric deficit and preserves lean muscle mass to maintain your metabolism.

Optimizing the Length of Your Rest Periods

Depending on your goal, the length of your rest periods will vary. To maintain or improve strength, you need a workout that starts with moderate-heavy strength work. That also means your rest periods must be long enough for your nervous system to recover and allow multiple heavy sets and proper form. If rest periods are too short, then your nervous system and muscular fatigue will limit your strength and result in poor technique.

If, however, you’re looking to improve strength and sports performance, keep your rest periods longer. You’ll need three to five minutes between heavy strength sets for maximum performance, as short rest periods impair physical performance during subsequent sets and therefore should be avoided.

To keep your strength and improve workout efficiency, use noncompeting supersets. For example, you can do four sets of six chin-ups, rest 90 seconds, do four sets of six military presses and then rest for another 90 seconds. So while three to five minutes between sets is ideal for strength exercises, less time can be used when opposing muscle groups are trained. However, three to five minutes is still recommended between sets of the same exercise.

To emphasize fat loss in your training, one principle must remain: Strength should not be sacrificed. Staying strong with heavy lifting in a caloric deficit maintains hormone levels, strength and lean muscle mass.

Like tracking weights, reps and sets, rest periods and high-density training are an important piece of the fat-shedding puzzle. With the exception of heavy and neurologically demanding exercises, rest periods should be kept below 60 seconds as long as safe technique is maintained.

Taking Advantage of Shorter Rest Periods

When it comes to training for fat loss, intensity reigns as king. If you’re able to hold a normal conversation, then you’re not working hard enough. If you’re training leaves you unable to speak without breaking up your words, you’re on the right track.

This brief test is known as the talk test, a quick way to see if you’re working above or below your aerobic threshold. Put simply, this threshold is the point in which exercise becomes classified as “high intensity,” as you’re working at a higher rate than your aerobic system can produce energy.

As a result, you start to breathing heavily and become extremely fatigued. While this is uncomfortable, there is one giant benefit -- exercise post-oxygen consumption (EPOC).

EPOC is the phenomenon in which your respiratory rate stays elevated for hours after an intense workout to regain all the oxygen lost during the high-intensity exercise. Essentially, all the air you’re gasping for during all that high intensity must be repaid. As a result, your body seeks oxygen to get back to baseline, keeping your respiratory rate and metabolism elevated long after exercise ends.

How much longer are we talking? Well, in one study, groups repeated three 30-second sprints and found they required more energy in 24 hours than they did from 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise.

After your main strength exercises, drop your rest periods on exercises by five to 10 seconds until you’re struggling to catch your breath. Dropping your rest periods will maximize training density and provide the benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Do this for consecutive weeks and see the fat melt away.

Integrating Rest Periods Into Your Workouts

When planning your workouts for the day, week or month, there are some key considerations to keep in mind.

1. Hormones are affected by your rest periods. Longer rest periods are vital for nervous system recovery, while shorter periods (30 to 45 seconds) create a greater release of growth hormone, aiding in burning fat and building muscle. Short rest periods are typically recommended for exercise protocols designed to maximize muscle hypertrophy because short rest periods augment the growth hormone response when compared with longer rest periods.

2. Rest periods should match the goal of the exercise. Multijoint exercises like squats have greater nervous system and mechanical requirements than a triceps extension or biceps curl and therefore require a longer rest period.

3. Adjust your rest periods as your fitness level improves. When you’re a novice in the weight room and squatting with 45 pounds for eight reps, you don’t need nearly the recovery of a stronger person using 225 pounds for eight reps. There’s no distinct line, but stronger and larger people will produce greater amounts of force, expending more energy to work at the same relative intensities as smaller, weaker people.

4. Boost your training efficiency. By training additional movements you get more work done in less time, which is ideal for busy schedules and those focused on maximizing workout density and fat loss.

5. Increase your cardio response. Depending on your goal, you can perform additional exercise as part of an active recovery with a focus on improved cardio. This is ideal for workouts focused on high training density like fat-loss training programs.

Remember, rest periods are a vital variable in every workout. Never blindly follow rest periods, but try to be out of breath during most of your exercises to get the benefits of EPOC. Never allow your form to falter due to insufficient rest. The risk isn’t worth the reward. With the proper amount of rest in between sets and in between workouts, you’ll allow your body to recover itself into a fat-burning machine.

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