High-Intensity Training- Why Rest Is NOT Your Enemy!

Rest has become the enemy in today’s fitness world, which is obsessed with the “harder is always better” mantra. Rest periods have turned into some kind of black sheep – a last resort, that is only grudgingly tolerated.

If you do dare to rest during a high-intensity workout, you may have some guy yell in your ear to keep going. Everything is done for time now. Resting is soft. Some people attempt to cut out rest from their gym life completely – finding it hard to enjoy a day of complete rest without feeling a constant itch of guilt.


Let’s stop the madness and look at why programming adequate rest periods into a high-intensity workout is the way to superior training results, and why the “no rest” credo will amount to nothing much in the long run, if you use it incorrectly and too frequently.

When Did Rest Become So Bad?

Rest periods are shunned because of the way many people measure the value of their training sessions today. The workout rises in perceived effectiveness, if it leaves you utterly destroyed, using many “cool” exercises along the way and ultimately, sore as hell afterwards.

Martin Rooney put it nicely: “Anyone can make you tired, not everyone can make you better.”

Anyone can put a workout on a board that calls for a colossal rep count in a number of exercises known to make you tired quickly, and then tell you to do it as fast as possible. Does it make him a good trainer for having his students sprawl on the ground fighting for air when the workout is done? Has the training made them better? I doubt it.

Training at high-intensities requires longer rest periods to allow the taxed energy systems (mainly the anaerobic phosphate and glycolytic systems) time to recuperate. These are fast suppliers of energy, but with a limited capacity to deliver it.

That is why we cannot maintain high-intensity efforts for very long. Sprint the 100m and see if you can do it again after 30 seconds. You could, but it wouldn’t be a sprint and it wouldn’t be pretty.

The whole point of metabolic training is to push yourself hard. But the harder you push yourself, the more rest you will need to repeat the effort with the same intensity and get all the benefits of an anaerobic type training.

Yet, this is ignored in training sessions nowadays (I highlighted the word ‘training’, because I want to make clear, that we’re not talking about competition, where all bets are off. Training is where we are supposed to make our bodies stronger, better conditioned and prepare it for letting loose in competition.)

So, when the fast energy systems are depleted, the aerobic system takes over and the intensity at which we can train drops significantly, due to multiple fatigue factors including lactate build up and a lower muscle pH level, that basically prevents powerful muscle contractions.

Shortchanging rest in high-intensity workouts can turn the whole session into a purely aerobic event, cuts down intensity and sends it into a downward spiral.

In a classic Interval Training study, two groups were assigned a continuous running pace that would guarantee fatigue within 5 minutes. One group was told to run continuously at this pace, while the other group would work in intervals, using work: rest ratios of 1:2, 1:1 and 2:1.

The results were that the interval training group covered up to four times the distance of the continuous running group before fatigue set in.

The bottom line: You can work at high intensities for longer, if you add adequate rest periods. And shockingly, being able to do more work at a high intensity will get you better results.

It’s like Mickey said to Rocky: “You’re gonna eat lightning and you’re gonna crap thunder.” But let the intensity of your work sets drop, all you’ll be eating is fluffy clouds and crapping out I don’t know what, but something a lot less tough than thunder.

Ignoring Rest attempts to put quantity over quality, or efficiency over intensity. By cutting out rest periods, you may be able to keep working, but it comes at a price – the quality and speed of the movement go down.

Don’t forget the intel you are feeding your nervous system too. With adequate rest, you teach it to work at high intensities, even when you are tired. And it’s not just the repetition itself, that the body’s nervous system remembers, but how the repetition was performed.

Especially if you’re a Beginner, you don’t want slow, tired, sloppy efforts being burned into your motor program. Better to take a little longer to recover and focus on clean, forceful efforts.

If your rest periods are too short, you will not be able to maintain a high work output.

Of course, this is nothing new. It’s what the whole concept of Interval Training is built on. But the principle is often ignored. Too many people are taking interval training and slicing and dicing the rest periods, and this ultimately leads to the following scenario: The work sets become too soft and the rest periods “too hard”.

Rest For Advanced Trainees Vs Beginners

It seems to be common sense that beginners should be assigned shorter work and longer rest periods than the advanced trainee, due in part to things like a better muscle buffering capacity and other training adaptations of the trained person.

This theory, however, disregards the total work performed. Taking  a Dumbbell Bench Press as an example, a trained person may be able to lift a heavy weight (2 x 30kg) 14 times in 30 seconds.

The lesser trained individual, however, might only be able to press a lighter weight (2 x 20kg) for 10 reps. The trained individual moved 840 kg in 30 seconds, while the untrained person only moved 400kg. That’s more than twice the amount of work and it’s fair to say, if someone needed additional rest, it would be the trained person.

The theory that untrained people need more rest doesn’t always add up. Even though they are working at their limit, that limit is also way below that of a trained person.

Again, this becomes clear when we look at maximal exertions. A strong person with a 200kg 1RM Deadlift will most likely need a lot longer to recover from the lift, than a beginner who can deadlift only 70kg. Max efforts are hard on the strong and better trained person.

One last example. Look at a favorite metabolic training tool, the Battle Ropes. If you are strong as hell, you will not be able to slam those ropes for more than 20 seconds going all-out, before keeling over with the nasty taste of iron in your mouth.

Beginners can slam that rope for 45 seconds and hardly break a sweat. Their strength levels does not allow the production of enough force – projected into the ropes –  to elicit the same training effect.

So, having weaker, lesser trained people do high-intensity stuff, which is so popular today, is like trying to run before you can walk. It pays to bring up strength levels to get the biggest bang for your buck in metabolic type workouts.

Rest And Hormones…And CrossFit

Many CrossFit guys are huge and ripped. But for every male Crossfitter that looks like that, there are ten others, that you would have trouble believing they train as much as they do. Why is that?

Because the top guys spend the bulk of their time focusing on developing their absolute strength and becoming technically proficient in things like the olympic lifts (arguably, there might be some other reasons too). They know aerobic capacity is rarely the limiting factor at the top of the game. It’s strength and technique.

Too many mainstream Crossfitters are busy annihilating themselves with timed WODs every time they set foot in the gym. Once constant High intensity and high volume work spikes cortisol (stress hormone) levels past a tipping point, it in turn will lower testosterone and HGH, which will lead to fat retention and not getting bigger or stronger at all.

This might have less of an effect on the hypertrophy of women, as they can do more reps at a higher percentage of their 1RM, and thus might respond better to the high reps that are so typical of CrossFit. Maybe that’s how someone came up with the term: “Crossfit: Making men small and women hot!”

Just to be clear, I don’t believe that’s true. It’s like saying Squats hurt your knees. No, doing squats the wrong way hurts your knees. There’s a German saying: “The dosage makes the poison.”

If you are doing a crazy amount of training, but your bodyfat won’t budge and you’re not getting bigger or stronger, you’ll need to cut back on the volume of high-intensity work… or how about experimenting with longer rest periods?

A Quick Guide

I should add this: If you’re an athlete of a particular sport you need to adjust intensity, work and rest periods according to the demands of your sport.

For most people a 1:1 Work:Rest ratio is usually the minimum that I prescribe for high-intensity interval type work. If you are doing a HIIT session and your work sets are 30 seconds, that means you get to rest 30 seconds before you start the next set. And if you’re moving decent weights and go all-out – like you are supposed to – you will need that rest if not more.

It goes without saying that the higher the intensity, the shorter your work periods will be and the higher your work:rest ratio must be to allow for adequate recovery. Sprint up a hill for 15 seconds and let me know when you’re ready to go again at equal or close to equal intensity. It’ll be at least a W:R of 1:6 or even 1:8.

I’ve been to plenty of gyms where I see 45 seconds of work coupled with 15 seconds of rest prescribed in a circuit class. The whole workout is like watching runners stumble over the finish line at a marathon.

It’s a slow, weak display where technique goes out the window very quickly and the training effect we’re meant to get from an anaerobic workout is lost.

The only time I would program a negative Work: Rest ratio is when the HIIT workout is really short, like a Tabata for example.

Or when prescribing short work periods, where the weights are light and the exercises are simple and non-conflicting, so that they can’t be screwed up by the trainee when fatigue does set in, meaning they’ll still be able to perform each set at full intensity.

I hope this has shed some light on why you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of rest, if you want to take your fitness to the next level.   

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