The Rest Pause Technique and it’s Variations

Of all the intensity techniques out there, I have two favorites: drop sets and rest pause. Drops are a lot of fun and can take a normal set and turn it into a brutal one but they have one major drawback: for many exercises you need two spotters to pull plates off. Now, if you have two training partners, that’s great but what if, like me, you train alone? It ain’t gonna happen, that’s what! Enter rest pause. This technique has quite a history and a number of variations. In this article we will look at that and I’ll give you a routine using some of the variations presented.

Most people would trace this technique back to Mike Mentzer and his original Heavy Duty program. While the origins of this technique are unknown, it’s safe to say it’s been around long before Heavy Duty. Arnold used a variation of it in the 70’s and Joe Weider named one of his “principles” after it. If you consider that he began naming and organizing his “Weider Principles” pretty early on in his career, it’s safe to say this technique has been around for about 60 years. As a point of reference, the Weider principles were observations Joe Weider made of the various techniques and ideas the bodybuilders of the 50’s and 60’s used, adding to them as he saw something new and worthwhile. He named each one and organized it into the “Weider System”. Back when I started, that’s all you saw in his magazines and you were given the impression he invented each one of them. In fact, he didn’t really invent them and it’s not a system in the pure sense but it is a valid organization of ideas.

There are quite a few versions of rest pause. The version most people would know would be how Arnold used it: as you fail on your set, you take a 5-10 second “rest-pause” and knock out a few more reps. Take another 5-10 second rest and knock out a few more, continuing until you can’t budge the bar.

The original Weider Rest-Pause Principle differs quite a bit : using 85-90 percent of your max, do 2-3 reps and put the weight down. Then do 2-3 more, rest, 2-3 more and rest for a total of 3-4 rest-pauses. The short rest-pauses allow enough time for ATP to be re-synthesized and permit further reps with the heavy weight.

Here’s the Mike Mentzer version, also popular as a strength technique: using a weight that would allow one all out maximum rep,he would then rest for 10 seconds,this allows enough time for the muscles to clear out waste products and bring new fuel and oxygen so he could do another all out rep. After the second rep and another 10 second rest he would have his training partner help him do another all out rep, or he would reduce the weight by 20%. He would then rest 15 seconds and do his last all out rep. This was considered one set, with each and every rep of the set being an all out effort.

A slight variation to this is to use a weight that allows 3 reps. Do 1 rep and rack the weight for 15 seconds, unrack and do 1 more rep, racking again for 15 seconds, going for a total of 5 reps in this manner. This version can be modified in almost any fashion: you can count to 8 or 10, you can shoot for 6-8 reps as well as 3-5 reps. My use of rest pause is to use it at the end of a set as a means of extending the set, count to 8, and do as many reps as I can, count to 8, again doing as many reps as I can and so on 3 or 4 times. My more strict use would be to use a 3RM weight, do as many reps as possible, rack the bar and count to 10, continuing in this manner until I hit failure.

Let’s look at some of the other variations:

Variation #1 – Use 75% of your current max poundage for the number of reps you plan to do in a normal set of your chosen exercise.

Example – if you bench press 225 for 10, use 170 lbs. Do 10 reps, rest 10 seconds, do 9 reps, rest 10 seconds, do 8 reps and so on to 1 rep.

Variation # 2 – Determine a poundage you can do 10 reps of your chosen exercise with. Add 10% more weight to the bar – not 10 lbs, 10 % more weight. Do 6 sets of 10 reps. After the first set, rest 15 seconds. After each remaining set, add 15 seconds rest. Add more weight when the 6 sets of 10 seems easy. My version of this would be to start with 60 seconds rest, then decrease each set’s rest period by 10 seconds! Why make it easier, make it harder!

Variation # 3 – Using a weight that allows 3 reps of your chosen exercise, do 1 rep, rack the bar for a 10 count, do 2 reps, rack the bar for a 10 count and so on until you hit 10 reps.

I have one more variation: any of the famous 20 rep routines ( squats, deads, power cleans) are really rest pause because you are stopping and taking a rest for several breaths as the set gets harder.

As you can see, the variations are endless. Rest pause can not only be used to extend a set but can be used to handle more weight than usual for a predetermined number of reps because you allow a brief recovery period between reps. This is one of the many variations to training you can apply to keep your routines fresh. As many of you know I believe in changing things around every 3-4 weeks and while you can make small changes I like to make complete routine changes as often as possible. My exception to this is if you are pursuing strength gains then you need to maintain a core program of basic exercises and the use of progression techniques to achieve your strength goals but the rest of your routine can be changed any way you like. I call this concept the ” Anabolic Surge Program”. If it’s planned to provide a steady overall progression of poundage increases and intensity increases over time, you can cause an increasing “anabolic surge” of your bodies natural hormones resulting in faster results. Recovery is critical in this case and proper recovery allows maximum benefit from this approach. “Anabolic Surge” also refers to the idea of imposing a new stimulus to your muscles just as they are adopting to the current one, thereby forcing an anabolic response as they adjust by getting bigger and stronger. I do advocate going with a easier routine after a progression of 6 routines to allow your joints a break, then you can start again with new variations or complete new routines. If you are going to change things up to that degree, it makes sense to move things forward each time. Of course, many people do not take it to that extreme and that’s OK as long as you see results. For these people, using the fundamentally same routine for longer time periods and changing up small things like exercise order or rest between sets, maybe changing out an exercise or two every few weeks, is enough. I look for the beginner growth spurt and maximum results, however, and I tend to prefer compete routine changes to achieve that goal.


Rest pause lends itself well to basic exercises, so we will set up the routines around those. This is one routine with some variations.

Routine # 1

I recommend my personal favorite 4 day split:

Training day # 1
Back, biceps, forearms, abs

Training day # 2
Chest, triceps

Rest day

Training day # 3
Rest day
Training day # 4
Deltoids, abs
Rest day

This split can be set up any way you like, but I would take a rest day after two training days in a row. I will say I find a 4 day hard to do if I’m working a lot of hours, in that case I would make it a 3 day by moving delts in with chest and tri’s. This is not ideal as I feel that becomes to much work for one day but you work around that problem by choosing the right exercises – the ones that give you the biggest bang for your buck. Currently, this is the split I have to use due to work. I’ll give examples of both.

Day # 1

Back, biceps

Deadlifts – 3 warm up sets using 15, 12, 10 reps, on these sets perform a shrug at the top of the movement.1 working set: using the Mentzer/strength version of rest pause: take your 1rm, do one set, rack the bar and count to 8, unrack and perform one more rep, again racking the bar for a 8 count, following this procedure until you hit 6-8 reps.Bent rows – 2 working sets of 8 reps, using the same weight for each set.

Lat pulldowns – this will be the Arnold version of rest pause. You will be doing 2 sets with a weight you can normally hit 6 reps with. When you fail, rack the bar for a 8 count, un-rack and do as many reps as you can, re-rack for a 8 count, un-rack and again knock out a few more reps. Do this one more time and this counts as one set.

EZ curls – this is, to me, the bread and butter biceps builder. Having said that, I have been doing EZ curls lately off the low pulley of my lat machine and, as long as you can use decent poundage, finding I prefer them over the bar because they keep a constant tension all the way up. Now, before you think I’ve gone all Arthur Jones, let me say that this is, in my mind, the only free weight exercise where you have an obvious drop off in the tension to the point that a similar machine exercise may be a better choice. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped using the bar, you just have to make a performance adjustment to get the most from EZ bar curls: you stop about ¾ of the way up.

You will be doing 3 sets, on the third set use a weight you can get 3 reps for and you will rest pause your way to 8-10 reps. This is the Arnold version and you may need 4 rest pauses to hit that rep level.

Wrist curls – 2 sets of 10 reps
Reverse curls – 2 sets of 10 reps
Crunch – 2 sets of 25 reps
Oblique crunch – 2 sets of 25 reps

Day # 2

Chest, delts, tris
Bench press – same warm up/working set scheme as with deads except use your 3rm and go for 8 reps
Flyes – 3 sets of 8 reps, hold at the stretched position for a 2 count
Incline Press – 2 sets of 6-8 reps
Overhead press – 3 sets of 6-8 reps, when you fail at that range use the Arnold version of rest pause for as many more reps as you can get.
Close grip bench press – 3 sets of 8 reps
Variation: if you are using the 4 day, I would add in 3 sets of press downs using the Arnold version of rest pause on the last set, and on delt day I would add in 3 sets each of side laterals and rear laterals as well as shrugs for 3 sets.

Day # 3

This is going to be fun!

Squats – same warm up scheme as deads. Working sets – we’re doing Variation # 2: 6 sets of 10 reps with 10% more weight than your usual 10rm but we are doing my version – we’re decreasing our rest between sets by 10 seconds every set. So we start with 60 seconds rest after our first set and decrease it by 10 seconds after each remaining set. If need be, use the Arnold version of rest pause to hit your 10 reps.
Calf Raises (standing) – 3 sets of 35 reps
Crunch – 3 sets of 30 reps
Leg raises – 3 sets of 12 reps

You’ll notice I only have squats as the leg exercise. If you do deep, full squats you will work the whole leg – I don’t see a need for leg curls. If you work these hard enough you shouldn’t be able to do anything else. On squats, I’ve always used a standard foot width/stance. However, other foot widths have advantages – try a power-lifting stance, feet wider than usual and pointed a little to the side, like a sumo wrestler. So, it makes sense to change up your stance as you do your sets for better results.

So we see we can combine some of these different versions within one routine and even one exercise as well as combine rest pause with some other techniques but another great way to do it is to simply pick one of the versions you like and apply it to the major exercises in your workout. For example, you can take the same routine and simply use the Mentzer/strength training version of rest pause on deads, benches and squats and then on every other exercise perform more normal sets, using the set/rep schemes suggested. This, to me, is great for promoting good strength increases in the Big 3 and in effect you are supporting those movements with assistance exercises. Personally, I use it similar to the Arnold version at the end of most of my exercises but I also like to combine it with other techniques, such as burns and static holds. As you can see, the rest pause technique offers a lot of options, try it for yourself, you’ll be happy with the results!

Jim Brewster has over 30 years experience in bodybuilding and
is known internationally as an authority in the fitness field.
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