Not all things in the weightlifting realm are well named. “Dumbbells” are actually one of the smartest training tools ever devised. The murky origins of the Roman chair reveal no link to the likes of Caesar and Augustus. And should any of us really go near an exercise called the deadlift?
You can safely place the rest-pause principle in this group, as well. Its name is not only oddly redundant but it doesn’t even begin to convey the value of this old-school training trick. Rest-pause has scientifically proven benefits, increasing the intensity of your workouts by condensing more action into less time and taking advantage of the incredible resilience of the human body.
Here’s how it works. A typical set of an exercise is fueled by the phosphagen system, which is the body’s short-term, explosive energy source. This energy is created without oxygen, meaning it’s fast. It helps you handle short bouts of high-intensity effort but it doesn’t last long, with the supply exhausted after about 10 to 20 seconds of exertion. Thing is, it regenerates quickly. After just a few seconds of rest, the system can recover strength-wise to an incredible degree. Not to 100 percent, but certainly enough for you to eke out a few additional reps.
So instead of stopping a set after failure and resting anywhere from 30 seconds to three minutes as you normally would, you “pause” within the set for 15 to 20 seconds and then get right back to it. The result is more intensity — read: weight lifted — within a shorter timeframe.
“Using rest-pause means more time under tension; that is, how many seconds your muscles are subjected to the training load,” says Michelle Brown, NASM-certified personal trainer and IFBB figure pro based in Los Gatos, Calif. (michellebrown.fitness) “It can really promote a greater pump, bringing nutrients into the muscles, and increased strength.”
Science has thus far confirmed the power of rest-pause. One particular Australian study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport in 2012 compared rest-pause using 20-second pauses after failure to rest periods of three minutes between sets of squats. Among the 14 male subjects who underwent EMG measurement of six hip and thigh muscles, researchers noted “increased motor unit recruitment during the rest-pause method, compared to (other) protocols.” That extra stimulus came with no greater exercise fatigue afterward when compared to the longer rest periods.
The Rest of the Story
With that in mind, how often should you use rest-pause, and how? “This is a great way to switch up your program and add an extra boost from time to time, yet it’s not an everyday type of workout,” Brown explains. “I would say toss rest-pause in for each body-part once every three to four weeks. This is something that will burn a good amount of energy, more than your normal workout.”
The technique is applicable to a wide variety of exercises, although it’s preferable in a situation where you’re not reliant on a spotter. Brown especially likes rest-pause with arms. “Biceps curls are one of the best movements for this technique,” she says. “That muscle may be comparatively small, but it can take a tremendous amount of load. Triceps can also be worked with rest-pause. One move I like is the basic cable pressdown: It’s tough because the starting position is really at your weakest point.”
Rest-Pause: Do It Right
There are a number of ways to use rest-pause training. One of the most popular is to go heavy, working with your six- to eight-rep max weight on a particular exercise but stopping short of failure at three to five reps, then repeating that up to five times to create a single, large-but-segmented set that drastically increases the total weight moved in that set. Experienced lifters can do this two to four times on a single exercise for a punishing, targeted workout.
But there’s more than one way to take advantage of the rapid replenishment of phosphagen. Here’s how to use rest-pause using a dumbbell bench press as an example:
1. On your final one to two sets of flat-bench presses, choose a resistance level of about 6RM: a weight that would cause you to reach momentary muscle failure at about six reps.
2. Start repping, doing as many as you can until you hit the point of initial failure.
3. At that point, bring the dumbbells down into the start position alongside your torso and rest, taking in deep breaths for 15 to 20 seconds.
4. After that pause, continue repping until hitting failure again. If you have a certain goal in mind for the set — say, 15 reps — repeat this process until that goal is achieved. Otherwise, you can stop the set here.