You mentally prepare yourself to press a heavy set of 5. You take a big breath and take the bar out. 1st rep, 2nd rep, 3rd rep, and the fatigue starts to build. The 4th rep is harder than you expected, but you manage to grind it up. And just before the 5th and final rep, you pause. Just to catch your breath. Just to rest for a few seconds.
When coaching a lifter like this, I can tell whether or not a lifter will miss their last rep.
After taking a few seconds to rest, now you’re ready! So you take a huge breath, brace hard and start to press.
The bar moves up to about your nose… but refuses to go further, no matter how hard you push. Against your will, despite doubling your effort, it starts to sink back down. That’s when you know the last rep ain’t gonna happen and you rack the bar.
But I already knew that, from the moment you paused after the 4th rep.
“Resting” between reps when the lift gets hard
This is something I’ve noticed (especially on the press), and that’s what this article addresses.
There are many articles about how long you should rest between each set (in fact, we’ve written one ourselves). There isn’t really, however, much discussion about how long you should take between each rep. Should be pretty straightforward, no? Just bang out the reps until you’re done. Well, not really.
Generally, when the lift gets hard, there’s a tendency to pause too long before going for the next rep (although I’ve noticed that before the last rep is where lifters tend to pause the longest). You might think you’re resting, but these longer than necessary pauses add to your fatigue.
Because “resting” isn’t actually resting
That’s because you’re not really resting – you’re still loaded with the heavy barbell, either in your hands or on your back. You’d still have to stay tight to hold up the barbell.
Let’s say you take 3–4 seconds to “rest” between each rep. If it’s a set of 5, you’d have held the bar for an extra 8 seconds or so. So taking that extra few seconds does not contribute anything to the set except spending extra time under the bar.
Gives you time to overthink
As you stand there with a heavy bar in your hands, trying to catch your breath, self-doubt starts to enter your mind. Do any of these sound familiar?
“Ah damn, that previous rep was really hard. Not sure if I can get the last one.” – worrying and starting to doubt yourself.
“Shit, this feels really heavy. Oh man, this is heavy! Alright, just one more. Hope I can do it.” – trying (and failing) to psych yourself up.
These self-doubt thoughts are pretty obvious – I can practically see these thoughts running through the eyes of lifters, whenever they take a long pause. Basically, you just nocebo-ed yourself. (A nocebo effect occurs when your negative expectations cause a negative outcome; it’s the opposite of a placebo effect.) Sure, there are lifters who can hype themselves up to press that last rep up, but I’d say that they’re not in the majority.
And while you’re busy overthinking and nocebo-ing yourself, you’re still holding up the bar.
Instead of doing all that, concentrate on your coach’s cues to make the next rep better and follow an optimal cadence.
Follow a set cadence – not too fast, not too slow
A cadence is a “balanced, rhythmic flow”, usually applied to movements with a beat, like dancing or marching. In music, a cadence is a progression that leads to a pause before you start the next phrase.
Lifting is similar. The progression of movements in a rep have a certain rhythm for optimal efficiency. Ideally, you then complete a set by repeating all the reps with this efficient cadence.
Here’s how a rep cadence might look:
Unrack the bar and get into position for the lift.
1. Once you’re in position, Breathe, brace (get tight), go.
2. Do the lift while holding your breath.
3. Rep done. Short, sharp exhalation. Keep most of your air in. Exhale too much and you’ll lose tightness.
4. After the short, sharp exhalation, immediately take one big breath in, get tight and go for your next rep.
It should take about 1-2 seconds between each rep.
Here’s how it looks like:
Too much time between reps affects each lift differently
Not all lifts are equally affected by waiting too long between reps. Squats, for example, seem to be still doable even if you rest longer.
But from my observation, a long pause definitely affects the press. I’ve seen the self-doubt in many lifters’ eyes, when the bar comes back down on a difficult second last rep. It’s my job as a coach, to identify this exact moment where they’ve already failed before they act.
How do I know they’re not gonna make the last rep? Because they take a little longer, and take a few extra breaths. Then they start to press… anddddd the bar refuses to go up. This happens almost every time.
For the bench, it’s the same deal but to a lesser extent.
What about the deadlift, since the bar’s on the floor?
This is the only lift where you’re not loaded for the entire set. Deadlift reps start and end on the floor, so you might think that it’s okay to rest in between. After all, you’re not holding up any weight, so you’re really resting, right?
Well, not really. The deadlift has a pretty uncomfortable starting position – bent over in some sort of awkward half squat. If you rest there, it’s hard to take big deep breaths and your quads will feel like they’re on fire. Then, because it feels horrible, you’ll tend to want to speed up the rep, usually by pulling from a non-optimal position and/or yanking the bar off the floor – both aren’t good.
Even worse, you might rest by taking your hands off the bar, and standing up for a few seconds before starting again. Then it stops being a set of 5 reps, but rather 5 singles.
You wouldn’t rack the bar after 3 reps for the bench, squat or press, take it out again to complete the last 2 and consider it a set of 5 right? So why would you do so for the deadlift? The bar on the floor makes the deadlift the most susceptible to long breaks between reps. That’s why it’s even more important that you think of deadlifts (and all lifts) as one continuous set of linked reps, and perform them that way.
Ignore how it feels and stick to the cadence in mind
It’s hard, it goes against your instincts, and you feel like you need a break to complete your set. Push that thought away and stick to your cadence.
Yes, of course, you don’t want to rush (that causes other problems, which may be addressed in another article in the future). But by the same token, taking your time will make the set harder than it needs to be. After each rep, make a short sharp exhalation, take a big breath, get tight and go!
How do you beat the instinct to take too long between reps? Follow the cadence cues we’ve shown you above, or contact us for an in-person session – a coach will keep you on track.