Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Time Between Sets

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | January 18, 2022

reading between sets

Five minutes seems like a long time when you're not doing anything. The five minutes between sets can be made productive, but it's important that when the time comes to do the next set, you do it. Don't get distracted by all the nonsense a phone can provide. Here are a few things you can do between sets to make 5 minutes feel faster.

Review the Previous Set

You need to be your own coach if you don't have a coach, so you should already be videotaping all of your work sets. Review the previous work set, and compare how it felt to how it looks in video. You'll find they can be quite different. You'll also see deviations from what the lift should look like. Based on that, decide what you'll focus on during the next set to improve your technique. Using this method, you can coach yourself, in a sense.

reviewing the previous set

Reviewing the previous work set to think about corrections for the next set.

Warm Up the Next Exercise

Those with a home gym or well-equipped public gym will be lucky enough to be able to warm up the next exercise between work sets.

To illustrate, imagine you just completed the first squat work set, and today you have to squat, press, and deadlift. Typically, a warm up will consist of 5 light sets and then a rest before starting the first work set. Five minutes of rest should then take place between the first and second work set and again between the second and third work set.

Instead, immediately after your first work set of squats, start a 5-minute timer and then do 2 sets of 5 presses with the bar. Sit during the remainder of the rest time. Do another squat work set, then immediately do a weighted set of 5 presses, followed by a heavier set of 3, then sit. Do another squat set, then immediately do the final warm up of presses. Rest a minute or two, and then do the first press work set. You can then do a similar warm up procedure with the deadlift in between each press work set.

This change can save about 5 to 8 minutes per exercise, and can help if you don't have a lot of time to work out.

Socialize and Help Other Trainees

This is highly situation-dependent, but camaraderie can enhance the training experience and make training more fun. If you're working out with friends or gym-buddies, time between sets can be a great bonding experience, especially if you're coaching each other and trying to help. Be careful in public gyms. Most people are happy for the socialization, but if you come off as trying to give unwanted, unsolicited advice, it's just going to alienate you.

socializing between sets

Trainees and coach having a grand time chatting between sets.

Entertainment and Productivity

Just being entertained might be a good idea between sets. You might get weird looks if you're in a public gym, but you won't notice when you read or pursue other entertainment. A friend of mine and I used to play cards every Sunday when we'd workout.  

playing chess between lifting sets

Games can be a good way to pass the time between sets. The first person to post the correct next move for Black in the forums will win a free t-shirt.

General productivity might be viable as well. If you have a home gym, cleaning or tidying up can be a good use of time. I get a lot of business work done between sets, that is usually just busy work that needs to get done. I also like to outline and write rough drafts of articles. This is probably not viable in a public gym, but it's a nice perk of a home gym.

writing between lifting sets

A staged picture for an article of me working on an article before my next set of bench presses.

Use the Time to Not Be Productive - Just Enjoy Relaxing

If you're reading all of this and wondering why someone would want to optimize their training time, that's totally understandable. You might want to use lifting as your one opportunity to get away from everything and just relax between sets. Or maybe you're so tired from your work sets that you can't think or do much between sets anyway. I know several people who use training as a form of meditative relaxation, and that's fantastic, especially for those who are extremely busy at every other time of the day.

These are just some ideas to help the time between sets go by faster, but it's important to understand that rest time is not optional. It's not “doing nothing.” It's giving your body time to replenish the ATP it needs in order to complete the next set – and that may take more than 5 minutes. When the weight gets heavy, you will not be able to complete that second set unless you rest long enough.  

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