Should You Keep Your Heart Rate Up During Strength Workouts?

Last weekend I got a Marco (do you Marco Polo??) from a dear friend who is also a client. She had taken some time off from workouts and was excited to be back in the gym. A male trainer approached her and said,

“Why are you resting in between sets? You really should keep your heart rate up to burn fat by doing an exercise in between.” (like burpees or cardio)

She messaged me totally confused because my program she’s following (The Comeback) has her resting in between sets. But one of her goals is to burn off some fat, and the trainer’s advice seemed to make sense.

So today on the blog I’m tackling this question and sharing with you:

  • The best way to burn calories and fat
  • The value of rest in between sets
  • Why you’re often told to “keep your heart rate up”

The Best Way to Burn Calories

If your goal is to burn off some body fat, it’s helpful to think bigger than your workout.

The point of your workout is NOT to burn calories. The point of your workout is to build muscle.

This is an argument for ignoring the media headlines that brag about 1000 calorie workouts. High intensity workouts do burn more calories than a traditional strength workout BUT…

Well-designed strength workouts build muscle. Muscle burns more calories 24/7 – even when you’re not working out.

Strength training helps you could burn more calories each hour – even when you’re sleeping. A high intensity workout (like the kind that keeps your heart rate elevated the whole time) only burns calories for about 3-4 hours after the workout.

You’ll get better results if you start to think of your strength workouts as a tool to build strength and muscle.

The Value of Rest In Between Sets

The best way to build muscle (especially for women) is to follow a straight set protocol where you work hard during a set, and then rest, and repeat. The goal is for the set to be SO HARD that you NEED rest phase. The harder the work set, the longer the rest you’ll need. Most of the time I create strength programs where you rest 60 seconds in between sets. If you need less than 60 seconds, you can most likely work harder during the set.

Resting in between sets is your best friend! It is the pathway to harder and heavier sets that truly build muscle and boost your hourly caloric burn.

Why You’re Often Told to Keep Your Heart Rate Up

The reason you see this strategy so often is that people are drawn to workouts that burn the most calories. Many people think this is the best use of their time. There is also something gratifying about a hard workout that leaves your tired and sweaty.

It seems logical to burn as many calories as possible DURING the workout if weight loss if your goal. But this approach really is short-sighted, unless you just want a good cardio session.

Anytime your heart rate stays elevated for a long time, the workout becomes a cardio or endurance workout, rather than a true strength-building workout. Even if you are lifting what seems like heavy weights, a high intensity workout limits your energy and power. You literally have less ability to move a higher percentage of weight load.

Here is a very simple example: Let’s say that the weight load needed to truly change your leg muscles is 100 lbs on the leg press. Another way of saying this is that 100 lbs is NEEDED in order to change your muscles. Now, if you perform some burpees in between your leg press sets, you’re fatiguing your body as a system. When you return to the leg press for you second set, you now have less raw energy to dedicate to moving that 100 lbs. Because you’re fatigued from the burpees, you can only move 80 lbs on the leg press. In the end, you’re short changing your body of what it COULD do if it was given the right program variables.

There is definitely a time and place for high heart rate workouts! But if you REALLY want to change your body through strength training, research shows the best way to do this is old-school, traditional straight-set protocols…especially if you’re a woman. And even more so if you’re a woman over 40!

I hope you’ll share your thoughts below in the Comments section…

And remember,

You are strong.

6 replies
  1. Beth
    Beth says:

    Living proof: Last week I was very fatigued and still wanted to strength train so I rested for much longer in between sets than usual… and this week I see a HUGE gain in strength. I’m now ready to increase load and reps on all exercises.

    • Holly Perkins
      Holly Perkins says:

      Yessss! It’s SO true! By resting in between sets you literally have more energy for your next set. And a heavier next set is exactly how you get STRONG! Way to go friend, so happy.

  2. Deborah Donnelly
    Deborah Donnelly says:

    I found this article super interesting as I kinda do both, I think. I super set each exercise. For example I do 10/12 reps bicep curls then 10/12 reps of tricep pull downs and repeat 3/4 times then move on to maybe lat pull down and chest press in the same manner. I am giving each body part the rest then going back to it within a short space of time. What are your thoughts?

    • Holly Perkins
      Holly Perkins says:

      Hi Deborah! Yes, that is a traditional superset and yes, you are giving each muscle group a rest (while the other muscle group is working). And while I do love this protocol, it is still similar to the example I gave in this blog post. Depending on your goals, this approach could work well for you. IF (caps) you are looking to REALLY change your muscles, I believe you will get better results by following a straight set approach. This means you’d complete one set of bicep curls, rest, then complete another set of curls. This would be done before moving on to triceps. Alternatively, you can also add in a rest after the superset! You’d complete bicep, then tricep, THEN rest for a minute or so. Then complete the next round of superset. When I program supersets (like I did in Easy Gainer in my book Lift to Get Lean) I always still add a rest in between each superset. Otherwise, you’re basically circuit training if you move from superset to superset. Make sense? Hope this helps!


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