As the old saying goes, you should indeed “finish what you start.”
On the other hand, they never said you had to do it right away, did they? Hey, sometimes a break is exactly what you need to relax, recharge and then complete the job.
Such is the case in bodybuilding, at least when it comes to one particular technique that’s been used with success for decades. “Rest-pause” increases the intensity of your workout by condensing more work into less time, taking advantage of the incredible bounce-back ability of the human body.
To understand that, let’s consider a quick physiology lesson. The typical weight-training set is fueled by the body’s short-term energy source, the phosphagen system. This energy, produced without the need for oxygen, is designed to handle bouts of high-intensity workload. But as such, it burns out quickly, with the tank running dry after about 10 seconds of exertion.
However, at that point an interesting thing happens — after just a few seconds of rest, the system recovers a to a high degree, not 100 percent but fairly significantly.
Normally, we rest anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes or more between sets to let ourselves thoroughly recuperate. But technically, in just 15–20 seconds, you can get right back to work and power out a few more reps, thus increasing intensity by cramming more overall work into a shortened window of time.
Of course, as you might guess, this is not something you’d want to use excessively. Constantly burning out the phosphagen stores in this way on every set will quickly put too much undue strain on your overall system, leading to eventual burnout and overtraining symptoms. But as an occasional finisher on the last set of an exercise during a bodypart routine, it’s a rut-buster of the highest order.
To use the rest-pause technique, follow these steps, using wide-grip seated cable pulldowns as an example:
- Let’s say you normally do five sets of pulldowns for 8–12 reps each in your back workout, pyramiding up the weight each set. To start, do the first four sets as you normally would.
- Starting with the fifth set, choose a resistance level of about 6 RM — i.e., a weight that would cause you to reach momentary muscle failure at about six reps.
- Begin the set, doing as many reps as you can muster.
- Once you reach initial failure, rest for 15–20 seconds, taking deep recovery breaths. Here is where opinions differ, with some experts suggesting you set the weight down completely during this brief respite, while others contend you should merely pause in the starting position, in this example with arms extended but weight stack not touching down. To us, either way is acceptable — the benefit of the former gives your muscles a complete break, while the second keeps you engaged and in the ready position.
- After that pause, continue the set, going for as many reps as you can before achieving failure again. If you haven’t reached your goal amount of reps — in this case, up to 12 — you’ll add a third segment; otherwise, terminate the set at this second point of failure.