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Varying rest periods and sequence of exercises in resistance training

Resistance training is used by athletes in a number of sports to increase strength and power. When using resistance training athletes regularly vary their routines by changing the exercises they perform. But improvements can be made by changing some other variables.

Improvements can be made by changing the order that exercises are performed within a session and by varying the rest intervals used between exercises. Examples have this have been discussed in previous articles with the effects of potentiation and complex / contrast training being discussed.

Sequencing and rest periods in resistance training

This article will provide further details on potentiation and complex / contrast training as well as further details on how sequencing exercises and varying rest periods between sets can have a positive effect on performance.

All the sessions that are described are based on the following five exercises. The exercises should be performed with care and not without prior coaching. The 5 exercises are:

  • Bench press - Lie face up on an exercise bench, lower the exercise bar to your chest and then push up. Works the chest and tricep muscles.
  • Bench pulls - Lie face down on a higher than normal exercise bench, pull the exercise bar up to your chest from the floor, then lower it. Works the upper back muscles.
  • Bench throws - Using a Smith machine, lie face up on the exercise bench, lower the exercise bar to your chest, then throw it up as quickly as possible, catching it as it comes back down. Again works the chest and triceps.
  • Squat - Standing up, place the exercise bar across the back of your neck on your shoulders, bend your knees until your thighs are parallel with the floor, then return to start position. Works your leg muscles.
  • Squat jump - As for the squat, but instead of returning to a standing position, jump up as high as possible and land safely.

Rest Periods

Research has not yet come up with a definitive answer as to how much rest should be used between weight training sets and exercises. This is partly due to the varied training levels of subjects used in the studies.

In a study using untrained college students, rest periods of 30 and 90 seconds between sets were compared to determine which was most effective at increasing strength or muscle mass.

After 12 weeks of training, both groups were found to have increased strength and muscle mass in comparison with a control group (no training performed), but the improvements in strength were greatest in the group who rested for just 30 seconds.

By contrast, a study on trained subjects found that five minutes rest was better than one or two minutes for increasing the amount of total weight that could be lifted over four sets of the squat and bench press at an 8RM (weight used for 8 repetitions) load.

Downside of short rest intervals

Of course, an increase in strength is desirable, but another study found that the downside of short rest intervals (one minute compared with three minutes) when doing heavy training sessions (10 sets of 10 reps at 65% 1RM) may lead to greater muscle damage, affecting the athletes' ability to perform on the following day, and may also affect the immune system in such a way as to increase the chances of illness.

Yet another group of researchers compared the effects of rest intervals of one, two, three, four and five minutes on three sets of bench press performance at 90% and 60% of 1RM, and also of one, two, five, seven, 12 and 15 minutes at 85% 1RM.

They tested both the performance following the rest periods as well as the athletes preferences. The rest intervals of one and two minutes led to a significant reduction in performance by comparison with the longer intervals. And, interestingly, the intervals of 3-6 minutes, which resulted in most improved performance, were also those most preferred by the athletes.

The researchers concluded that trained subjects might be best placed to identify the optimal amount of recovery needed for the work they perform.

Longer rest periods

However, while a longer rest interval seems best for trained subjects performing high-volume, strength-based workouts, a shorter rest may be appropriate when performing complex training sets (performing a strength exercise e.g. squat, followed by a power exercise e.g. squat jump, set for set in the same workout).

No significant differences in jump performance were found after intervals of one, two and four minutes in a study of 21 US college athletes who performed sets of 5RM squats followed by five countermovement jumps.

This has practical implications in terms of fitting sets into training sessions. If too much rest is taken between exercises, then less overall work can be performed within the time available. Those same researchers also found that one minute rest intervals were best for trained subjects performing two sets of 1RM squats.

So it appears that briefer rest intervals may be appropriate for some power training sessions using lighter loads, such as body weight, or when performing very low volume, but high intensity lifts.

Sequencing of Exercises

How important is the order in which the exercises are performed in a session? Very - if you are trying to achieve the most effective workout with the least amount of work.

For example, performing squat jumps after squats makes for effective training in experienced athletes, but not their recreational counterparts.

This is because recreational athletes find the squats tiring and are less able than trained athletes to activate the potentiation response, (one exercise enhances the impact of the next one e.g. squat enhances squat jump performance).

That same effect has been demonstrated, again for trained subjects, with upper body exercises using the bench press and bench throws. A study, involving strength trained rugby players, used six reps of 65% 1RM bench press, followed by three minutes' rest, then five bench throws of 50kg.

Power output was shown to have increased after the bench press, by comparison with a control group who just performed the bench throws.

But what happens if you put plyometric exercises (e.g. jumps) before strength exercises (e.g. squats)? That's what a team of US researchers set out to consider with 12 experienced subjects who performed 1RM squats after a warm up of five submaximal sets of squats.

The study compared the effects of three different warm ups 30 seconds before attempting their 1RM squat:

  • Normal warm up
  • Normal warm up with two depth jumps
  • Normal warm up with three countermovement jumps

The researchers found that performing the depth jumps increased the 1RM by an average of 3.5% by comparison with the countermovement jump or no jump at all.

The explanation for this improvement is likely that the prime muscles involved in the squat exercise were prepared for maximal effort by the depth jump.

It is important to note that no similar research has been carried out with untrained subjects, and care should be taken before extrapolating these results to them.

Interestingly, further research has shown that power may be enhanced by working the antagonist muscles before the agonist muscles. The researchers found that performing the bench pull immediately before the bench throw lent more power to the latter movement.

It seems that when a power exercise is preceded by an opposite movement, the antagonist muscles can be educated into relaxing more during the subsequent exercise. Again, however, this effect has only been observed in one study, and this was on trained subjects.

Order of exercises and their role on fatigue

One further factor to consider when deciding the order of exercises in a session is the impact of overall fatigue. The order of exercises may be carefully designed to promote power or strength and you may have planned in rest periods at the optimum times, but if the session lasts as long as 45-60 minutes the quality of work at the end is likely to be lower than at the beginning.

In a study looking at a sequence of six different exercises, using three sets to failure, with a 10RM load and two minutes' rest between sets, the researchers found that the last two exercises produced significantly fewer reps, an effect which persisted when the sequence of exercises was reversed. In other words, of the six exercises performed, only four were performed with sufficient load; the last two had fewer reps, so less work was done and less strength gained as a result.

One implication of this finding is that, when designing your sequence of work, it is important to put the most important movements at the beginning of the session. If all the movements are considered important, it is probably better to split them into different sessions, allowing for adequate recovery and adaptation between sessions.

So, a power training session for experienced trainers might look something like table 1, below, with one set of squats followed by one set of squat jumps, for three sets. This is then followed by the bench pull, bench press and bench throw performed as a sequence, then repeated twice more.

Table 1: power training session for experienced athletes

Exercise
Load
Reps
Sets
Recovery (mins)
Squat
60% 1RM
5
3
1
Squat jumps
30% 1RM
5
3
4
Bench pull
185% 1RM
3
3
3
Bench press
60% 1RM
5
3
1
Bench throw
10% 1RM
5
3
3

And a strength training session for experienced trainers might look like table 2, below, with the squat jumps and squat performed in sequence, then the bench pull, bench throw and bench press as the final sequence.

Table 2: strength training session for experienced trainers

Exercise
Load
Reps
Sets
Recovery (mins)
Squat jumps
30% 1RM
5
4
1
Squat
80% 1RM
5
4
3
Bench pull
80% 1RM
5
4
3
Bench throw
10% 1RM
5
4
30 secs
Bench press
80% 1RM
5
4
3

Less experienced trainers would benefit from establishing a strength base before performing explosive exercises with weights. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to squat your own body weight before considering progression to more advanced leg exercises.

Failure to establish a strength base could not only put you at risk of injury but also hinder long term gains in power. As a starting point, you could use the strength session set out in table 2, but leaving out the squat jumps and the bench throw.

Summary

  • Research has yet to come up with definitive answers on the amount of rest required within a session and the ideal sequence of exercises.
  • What is known is that experienced strength trained subjects are better able to produce power than untrained subjects.
  • Therefore coaches should ensure that their athletes have a solid strength base before introducing more varied and complex training methods.
  • If time permits, the athletes themselves may be the best judges of how much rest they need within a session.
  • Sequencing strength exercises before plyometric exercises, and vice versa, will provide an added training stimulus that will ultimately produce stronger, more powerful athletes.

Courtesy of PPonline.co.uk

References

1. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 1998; 30(5), Supplement abstract 939
2. Journal of strength and conditioning research (JSCR) 2005; 19, 1:23-26
3. JSCR 2005; 19, 1:16-22
4. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2001; 33(5), Supplement abstract 1828
5. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2001; 33(5), Supplement abstract 1829
6. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2000; 32(5), Supplement abstract 646
7. JSCR 2003; 17,4:634-637
8. JSCR 2003; 17, 4:671-677
9. JSCR 2003; 17, 3:493-497
10. JSCR 2003; 17, 1:68-71
11. JSCR 2005; 19, 1:202-205
12. JSCR 2005; 19, 1:152-156

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