Recovery time: optimizing strength and power gains

Optimizing recovery periods for maximum strength and power gains

Just what is the optimum rest period between sets to derive maximum explosive power and strength from your weight training workouts? John Shepherd looks at what the latest research has to say…

How long you rest between reps and sets when weight training can have more of an effect on maximising your strength and power returns and building lean muscle than you might realise. Maximum strength is achieved by lifting as heavy weights as possible – 80 to 100% of 1-repetition maximum (1RM) over low (1-4) rep ranges. In contrast, power is generally developed by using medium to heavy weights (60-80% of 1 RM) over medium rep ranges (6-12) .

Most coaches will probably argue that both strength and power require relatively long recoveries between sets if the athlete is to achieve ‘maximum strength and power, as well as promoting quality lifting’ with little fade. However, when pressed as to exactly how long the athlete should recover between sets and reps, they may be less sure.

Whereas ‘a couple of minutes’ might be enough for a maximum strength developing session comprising 3 x 3 reps at 90%1RM, will it be enough for a 4 x 10 reps at 75% of 1RM power sessions, where the weights are moved as fast as possible? Some coaches may also argue that a shorter recovery is better, due to a greater hormonal and muscle building response, something we’ll come to later.

Thoughts of an expert

Tudor Bompa is one of the world’s foremost strength and conditioning experts and is the only coach to have produced an Olympic champion in a power event (javelin) and a world champion in an endurance event (rowing).
Bompa has devised numerous strength training protocols for what he calls the ‘periodisation of strength’ – the progressive development of strength through various resistance training methods, notably weight training, which is specifically relevant to improving sports performance (1).

Limitations on space prevent a detailed analysis of his theories; however, a focus on what he calls ‘the maximum load method’ is a useful starting point for the analysis of rest between reps and sets when weight training. This focus is also considered relevant because it is argued that developing this type of strength is critically important when it comes to producing strength that directly benefits power athletes. Box 1 explains the some of the benefits of the maximum load method.

For Bompa, rest is a crucial training variable in the development of strength and power through the maximum load method. This is clearly put into context by the requirement of these workouts to create as he puts it, ‘the highest possible tension in a muscle’ (1). As a consequence, exercises must work the prime movers involved in the athlete’s chosen sport – for example, the calf muscles, hamstrings, quads, glutes and hip-flexors of a sprinter.

The reps must be also be kept low (1-4) to enable the athlete to achieve the highest possible muscle tensions. And crucially, the rest period must be long enough to enable a ‘full out attack’ on each lift. Experienced athletes know that they only have a certain amount of ‘energy’ for these types of workouts; Bompa is also aware of this and therefore argues that only 3-5 exercises should be included in a relevant workout. If there are more then the athlete will be unable to maintain the desired workout intensity, both physically and mentally.

To this end, he advocates a recovery of between 3-6 minutes between sets for optimisation of performance. Six minutes may seem an awful long of time between a set comprising of perhaps only two lifts, but Bompa argues that it is needed to allow the athlete to put maximum effort into each lift. As he puts it, ‘To stimulate the necessary physiological and morphological central nervous system changes, higher number of sets should always take precedence over a higher number of reps.’ Not only does this generous rest period allow ‘maximum commitment’ for every set from the athlete, but it also allows ample replenishment of creatine phosphate and adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP), the body’s high-energy compounds between sets.

Recovery and hormonal response

Athletes and coaches may rightly believe that shorter recoveries induce greater muscle hypertrophy (growth), especially when combined with lifting medium to heavy weights fast. This is a protocol used extensively in bodybuilding. They may also believe that this is the best way to improve sports speed, for example. Training in such a way will boost growth hormone and testosterone production, increasing the potential for increased muscle size, as well as developing muscular power. And since a larger muscle is often equated with greater power potential it is easy to see this correlation.

Shorter recoveries

A growing body of research indicates that short recoveries between sets and reps, and the use of medium to heavy weights over 8-12 rep ranges maximises the release of the strength and muscle building hormones, testosterone and growth hormone. For example, Brazilian researchers discovered that a 30 seconds’ recovery between sets for women, who performed the same 4 exercise lower body weights programme, produced superior growth hormone release compared to 60 and 120 second rest periods (incidentally, no difference was found between the 60 and 120 second protocols) (2). Other research has indicated that the more dynamic the exercise, the greater the hormonal response (3). (Ed – for a detailed analysis of weight training’s effect on hormone release in the body, see PP issue 221.)
However, this could be detrimental to sports performance because weight gained could reduce power to weight ratio, which is crucial for performance in many sports. The good news is that a muscle can be made to be a great deal more powerful without a significant increase in size and weight. But in order to achieve this, the rest period between sets and reps becomes very important.

Recovery and power

Researchers from Australia looked at the effects that breaking down a 6-rep maximum session (this requires the athlete to lift a load that would induce failure on the 7th rep if performed) into single, double and triple rep sets had on strength gains in 26 elite junior male basketball and soccer players(4). To test this, three ‘inter-repetition’ groups were established:

1. Singles group; performed 6 x 1 repetition with 20-seconds’ rest periods between each repetition;

2. Doubles group; performed 3 x 2 repetitions with 50 seconds between each pair of repetitions;

3. Triples group; performed 2 x 3 repetitions with 100 seconds’ rest between each 3 repetitions.

The subjects performed bench presses using their 6RM load and the power output for each repetition was recorded.
The researchers discovered that significantly increased power outputs (25-49%) were achieved over the later repetitions (numbers 4-6) of all three loading schemes above. Significantly greater total power output (21.6-25.1%) was observed for the inter-repetition rest interventions (schemes 2 and 3) when compared to traditional continuous 6RM total power output (scheme 1).

The researchers concluded that ‘utilising inter-repetition rest intervals enables greater repetition and total power output in comparison to traditional loading parameters’. This could equate to the development of greater power potential for specific sports training and competition, subject to a relevant sport specific conditioning programme.
Researchers from Illinois compared squat strength gains and volume (total amount of weight lifted) when resting for 2 minutes or 4 minutes between sets over multiple mesocycles (5). Fifteen trained men were matched and randomly assigned to either a 2-minute (7 subjects) or a 4-minute (8 subjects) rest interval group. Each performed the same training programme.

Two workouts were performed a week; one was labelled ‘heavy’ and the other ‘light’. The workout intensity was varied, as were the number of sets and repetitions. However, each group stuck to their designated recovery periods. The researchers looked at the differences in strength gains and the loads, intensity, volume and repetitions utilised per set and compared these between the groups.

Both groups demonstrated large strength gains, although the magnitude of these gains was not significant between the two groups. However, during all mesocycles, the 4-minute group demonstrated significantly higher total volumes for the heavy workouts – they were able to lift more weight as a consequence of their longer recoveries. The team therefore concluded that, ‘athletes attempting to achieve specific volume goals may need longer rest intervals initially, but may later adapt so that shorter rest intervals can be utilised without excessive fatigue, leaving additional time to focus on other conditioning priorities.’

This research provides part-corroboration for longer recoveries between sets when weight training for increased strength. It is possible to argue that once the gains in strength for the high volume group began to tail off over a number of mesocycles, a different training methodology should have been implemented in order to capitalise on this increased volume.

At this point it is crucial to appreciate that sports strength is different to ‘strength gains for strength’s sake only’. Gaining strength is an adjunct (although crucial) to the conditioning needs of the athlete. There is no point in gaining strength for athletic purposes unless that strength then becomes usable – hence the need for a specifically prepared and relevant training programme.

Exercise order as a rest factor

The order of exercises in a weights workout can have a significant influence on the outcomes of a workout and should be considered as a rest variable. If you perform all your sets on one exercise consecutively with a specific rest period, is this the same as performing the same exercises after three, four or five different exercises have been performed before it in a ‘circuit’ style workout? Very few research studies have actually explored this theme, but one from Holland has (6).

The specific purpose of the study was to, ‘examine the effect of exercise order on back squat performance in the context of a whole-body workout’. Nine resistance-trained male subjects performed back squats, using the following system – 4 sets at 85% of 1RM, on 2 separate occasions.

Protocol A involved the squat being performed first;

Protocol B involved the squat being performed after a whole-body resistance-exercise session.

The researchers measured the number of repetitions, average power, and rating of perceived exertion (RPE) for each protocol from the subjects.

What they discovered was that while there were no significant differences in RPE values between the 2 protocols, all subjects performed significantly more repetitions during the first set of protocol A (squats), compared with protocol B. However, and rather surprisingly, the average power for the squats was higher during protocol B compared with protocol A. The team summarised their findings thus, ‘…. performing the barbell back squat first in an exercise session allowed the completion of more total repetitions.’

But why did protocol B produce (on average) more power than A? The researchers theorised that the greater power outputs for the squat were more than likely attributable to the preceding power exercise, the hang pull, and an effect called postactivation potentiation. This effect can be achieved by performing a dynamic exercise (in this case the hang pull) to enhance the activation of the neuromuscular system, which then enhances the performance of one subsequent exercise (in this case the squat).

Conclusion

The length of the rest period between exercises and sets in a weight training workout can have a big influence on the outcomes of a workout and this can have crucial sports training implications. The coach and athlete must think carefully about this and general weight training programme design, if they wish to maximise sports specific transference. It appears that for increasing speed and power potential, optimum recovery needs to be longer than may have been previously thought, for example 3-6 minutes for maximum load weight training. The order of exercise is also important.

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