How Long Should You Rest Between Cardio Sets?

How Long Should You Rest Between Cardio Sets?

Hammering out the HIIT? Good for you! If you want to feel great, build athleticism, and do all manner of good for your heart and lungs in record time, HIIT — high-intensity interval training — should be a major entrée on the fitness menu. But you might wonder how long to rest between sets.

Let’s start at the beginning. For the uninitiated: In a high-intensity interval workout, you run (or cycle, or jump rope, or Ellipti-cize) at a high intensity for a brief period. Then you rest. Then you do it again (and again and again, depending on your program). Then you towel off and go home, wondering how you got such a great workout in so little time. Simple enough.

But when you’ve moved past the rank beginner stage, details matter more and more. How long do you work? How long do you rest?

Here’s a primer.

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How Long Should I Rest Between Rounds of HIIT?

woman jumping rope | how long to rest between sets

Rest periods for HIIT workouts vary based on the intensity and duration of your efforts. That makes sense because the harder you work, the more time you’ll need to recover.

“I would suggest work to rest ratios as the best way to optimize performance and recovery,” says Openfit Fitness Advisor Cody Braun.

For example:

  • A work-to-rest ratio of 1:2 indicates that a one-minute work period would be followed by two minutes of rest.
  • A 30 second work period would be followed by 60 seconds of rest.

Use the following chart to determine rest period length based on the intensity of your effort:

resting between sets guide | rest between cardio sets

So if you’re trying to build power — the capacity to work in explosive bursts, as in tennis or basketball — you’d work with shorter, higher-intensity intervals with a medium amount of rest between them.

If you’re looking for endurance — the ability to maintain a medium-high intensity over a long period — you’d choose a lower intensity interval with a more extended rest period.

 

Why Should You Rest Between Sets?

We’ve been told for so long to take our cardio sessions at a moderate pace, so working faster and harder — even as fast and hard as you can — might seem strange at first. But that’s the key: you have to work hard during those work periods. Otherwise, you’re just doing cardio with breaks, and that makes your workout easier, not harder.

When you do it right, you’ll have no choice but to take rest breaks. In fact, you’ll find they can’t come fast enough.

Resting between bursts of interval training also ensures that you can perform each interval at close to your maximum speed. And that’s vital since one of the aims of HIIT is to make you faster, stronger, and more powerful. You won’t get there by slogging through your sprints. Each rep should be crisp and fast.

 

Can You Rest for Too Long Between Sets?

Your goal determines your rest period. If your goal is increased speed and performance in, say, the 100m-dash event, a longer rest period between sprints is beneficial because you want to perform each rep as fast as possible. Resting too briefly will slow you down.

But if your goal is cardiovascular endurance and metabolic health, there is benefit in incomplete recovery — performing your next rep before your heart rate has completely recovered. You shouldn’t be panting — but your heart and respiration rate may still be elevated from your previous effort when you start your next one.

Shifting in and out of high levels of effort is also beneficial because it tunes up your metabolism, teaching it to switch between running on slow-burning fats and fast-burning carbs. Such metabolic flexibility is a key indicator of good health.

 

Is It Okay to Do Some Resistance Training in Between Cardio Sets?

fitness group doing weighted lunge | how long to rest between sets

If you’re short on time, alternating between brief periods of cardio and strength work can be a very effective, exciting, and time-efficient way to reap the benefits of both types of activity. This approach mimics the demands of sports like basketball (which alternates low-intensity activities like jogging and dribbling with high-intensity ones like driving and rebounding), and obstacle course racing (where you switch off between periods of running and periods of lifting or calisthenics).

One caveat: It’s a fairly exhausting way of working out. You won’t lift as much weight when you’re still panting from cardio as you will when you’re fresh, and you won’t run or cycle as fast or as far when you’re tired from lifting weights as you would if you were doing a stand-alone cardio session.

So if you’re seeking maximal strength, muscle gain, or performance in either activity, you’re better off breaking these two activities into separate sessions — at least some of the time.

But if you’re fairly fit, and want a novel way to challenge your body in a time-efficient way, go for it.

Andrew Heffernan CSCS, GCFP

About

Andrew Heffernan, CSCS, GCFP is a fitness coach, Feldenkrais practitioner, and an award-winning health and fitness writer. His work appears regularly in Men's Health and Experience Life. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children. Learn more at andrewheffernan.com