Safety and results are the primary charge of every fitness professional. But striking a good balance between these goals is not easy. Too much attention to one can lead to problems with the other.

Fitness professionals require tools that work, that are safe and that can be adapted to every individual. High-intensity unconventional workouts are surging in popularity and hold real promise for delivering results. But how does a trainer or group exercise instructor use these tools while keeping things safe and manageable for all fitness levels and physical abilities?

Rest-based training (RBT) may provide a solution. RBT is a system that makes rest, not work, the primary goal of the workout. It allows participants to take a rest for as long as necessary. Rest actually becomes a tool for increasing intensity, because exercisers can strategically use it to work harder than they could without rest. It also provides a buffer against overexertion, making even high-intensity workouts safe (Warburton et al. 2005).

In RBT, the protocol adapts to the individual rather than forcing the individual to adjust to it.

Exercise Motivation and Self-Regulation

Rest-based training draws inspiration from the school of psychology and self-determination theory (SDT). SDT posits that those who are given autonomy over change are far more likely to develop and maintain innate motivation (Deci & Vansteenkister 2004; Markland 2005; Ryan & Deci 2000). This is in contrast to those who are coerced into change. RBT applies this concept to exercise. When exercisers have control over when to rest and for how long, work volume can increase while safety is maintained.

Many current exercise trends work against the principles of self-determination theory. The “keep-up” militancy of boot camps and the competitive approach of some metabolic conditioning programs are examples. These approaches, while effective for some, may be counterproductive for significant segments of the population.

RBT flips these models around and gives complete control of the workout to the exercisers. By doing so, it creates self-motivation and ownership over exercise so that participants not only work harder but also become more aware of their physiology and more engaged in their programs. RBT encourages participants to adjust work and rest ratios according to their individual needs. The wording used in this approach is “Push until you can’t; rest until you can.”

Contrary to popular perception, exercisers given the ability to self-regulate exertion do not necessarily default to lower exercise intensities. A review by Ekkekakis (2009) highlights research showing that exercisers instead work at greater intensities than predicted. This remains true so long as the intensity remains below the anaerobic threshold. This is the whole theory behind interval training, which employs rest to allow greater exertion. RBT takes this concept one step further by using rest coupled with control. This achieves the results of interval training while keeping the workout safe and appropriate for all fitness levels.

Self-regulation in exercise is a built-in feature of movement management seen in animals. Animals naturally regulate exercise by using a “burst then rest strategy” (Ekkekakis 2009). This is likely an evolutionary adaptation allowing animals to maximize distances covered in a given time. It appears humans have the same ability to regulate intensity by employing rest (Edwards et al. 2011).

Physiological Link—Rest, Intensity and Results

Work and rest are often viewed as opposites. In reality, they are closely linked and dependent on one another. For example, consider a sprinter running a 100-meter race. If at the completion of the race that runner was told to immediately rerun the race, what do you think would occur regarding the degree of intensity?

Intense exertion is the major determinant of physical adaptation, and rest is the chief driver of intensity. Without rest, exercise must be naturally regulated with pacing strategies. This is a key insight, because aerobic exercise modalities by their very nature do not employ rest. With aerobic exercise, the only options for increasing intensity are going farther and going longer. These may not be the most efficient ways to drive results.

A meta-analysis by Miller, Koceja & Hamilton (1997) analyzed more than 400 aerobic exercise studies spanning 25 years. The conclusion of the research was that aerobic exercise provides an insignificant weight loss advantage over diet alone. Melanson, MacLean & Hill (2009) showed little metabolic stimulation from moderate-intensity aerobic exercise beyond the calories burned during activity.

At the same time, researchers have determined that higher-intensity exercise like weight training and interval exercise burns significantly more calories than once thought and can provide a substantial metabolic advantage. Anaerobic contributions to energy use can be underestimated by 70% for weight training and 95% for interval exercise (Scott 2005; Scott, Croteau & Ravio 2009). The metabolic advantage can also result in a significant “after-burn” that can last 16 hours in women and 48 hours in men (Schuenke, Mikat & McBride 2002; Osterberg & Melby 2000).

Interval training, boot camps, metabolic conditioning and other more anaerobic programs are surging in popularity. They also seem to deliver on the promise of results. Some studies comparing these programs head to head against traditional aerobic workouts have shown that the former yield substantial benefit. Trapp et al. (2008) compared a 20-minute anaerobic interval program with a 40-minute aerobic program. Sessions were conducted three times each week for 15 weeks. At the end of the study, the anaerobic group had lost approximately 5 pounds of fat while the aerobic group showed a nonsignificant trend toward fat gain.

The trick is to adopt some of the tools and techniques of higher-intensity exercise protocols, while keeping the workouts safe and scalable for all fitness levels. This is not an easy task. The average exerciser is not always equipped physiologically or psychologically to push himself to the exertion levels required to generate the results he seeks. Rest-based training solves this issue.

Rest-Based Training vs. Interval Training

The main goal of interval training is to balance the work intensity of every interval using the help of rest. Implementing the shortest rest period possible for metabolic recovery helps accomplish this. The “metabolic recovery” has to do with the clearance of hydrogen ions, restoration of phosphocreatine, recycling of lactate and resetting of electrolyte gradients. Once these results are accomplished, the physiology can perform at a high level once more. The reset point is likely different for everyone.

Definitive interval protocols (e.g., 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest) present a challenge. They are often too intense for the average exerciser and provide inadequate metabolic recovery. At best, this approach causes pacing, which compromises workout results; at worst, it presents safety concerns.

RBT theorizes that individuals will self-regulate work and rest intervals to maximize intensity and ensure adequate recovery. Research shows that this is indeed the case. In a study by Edwards et al. (2011), 11 well-trained runners were put through two trials. In the first trial, 1, 2 and 4 minutes of rest were given after 4 minutes of intense exertion. Researchers wanted to determine which resting protocol provided adequate metabolic reset for the physiology. They found 1 minute was too short, 4 minutes was too long and 2 minutes was just right.

The experiment was then repeated, but this time the exercisers were instructed to rest as long as they felt was adequate and then resume the workout when they felt ready. Surprisingly, the average rest taken by the participants in the second experiment was 118 seconds, almost identical to the 2 minutes researchers previously determined was most beneficial from a physiological perspective. The researchers concluded, “The concept of self-pacing facilitates greater self-awareness of physical capabilities . . . and it is our contention that the combination of using ratings of perceived exertion to gauge interval effort and perceived readiness scales to gauge recovery may be a useful means of organizing interval training according to individual conditioning requirements.”

Final Thoughts

Trainers are taught systems and protocols and then expected to fit a diverse client base to a specific program. It can be hard to find the right fit. The choices range from the militant or competitive approach to the “treat-with-kid-gloves” mindset. RBT teaches exercisers to instead match the program to their unique fitness levels and physical abilities.

This provides trainers with a much needed tool. The focus on rest and autonomy finds common ground between safety and results. It is a science-based approach drawn from the best of psychology and conditioning research and holds promise for providing safe and effective workouts.

Rest-Based Training Principles

There are four key components of RBT, represented by the acronym R-E-S-T:

  • R= Rest-based. Rest, not work, is the goal of rest-based training. This automatically increases the quality of work done and makes exercise psychologically easier (Edwards et al. 2011; Ekkekakis 2009; Lander, Butterly & Edwards 2009; Rose & Parfitt 2010; Williams 2008). When exercisers have permission to rest according to their needs, they voluntarily work harder without being consciously aware they are doing so.
  • E = Extrinsic focus. Intrinsic sensations—such as breathlessness, burning and other sensations—are inhibitors of exercise intensity (Duncan et al. 2010; Williams 2008). Rest-based training incorporates techniques that focus exercisers on what they are doing (extrinsic factors) versus what they are feeling (intrinsic feelings). With this in mind, a RBT workout is often structured to be quick-moving and psychologically motivating.
  • S = Self-determined. RBT workouts are structured, but exercisers have complete autonomy over exertion and rest. They are taught to use their rest strategically to push harder than they could without it. Giving control to exercisers increases workout quality (Edwards et al. 2011), improves exercise adherence (Deci & Vansteenkister 2004; Ekkekakis 2009; Markland et al. 2005; Ryan & Deci 2000; Rose & Parfitt 2010; Williams 2008), makes exercise psychologically easier (Lander, Butterly & Edwards 2009) and improves results over time, when compared with more definitive exercise prescriptions (Mann 2010).
  • T = Time-conscious. Time and intensity are linked. Harder workouts must therefore be shorter by necessity. RBT workouts usually last from 20 to 40 minutes and incorporate start-and-stop work and rest segments according to individual needs.
  • Rest-Based Training in Practice

    To help novice exercisers tap into their inherent ability to self-regulate, RBT relies on a 1–4 scale. This scale, which works as both an exertion score and a readiness rating, helps exercisers and/or trainers recognize more clearly when they should rest and when they may want to resume training. Research has shown this to be a reliable tool in maximizing work and rest to generate optimal intensities for results (Edwards et al. 2009). It also keeps workouts safe and manageable.

    ´╗┐RBT Exertion Scale

    1. Exerciser is at rest.

    2. Exerciser is exercising but can still talk, there is no burning in muscles, and/or the weight is light.

    3. Exerciser can no longer talk, there is burning in the muscle, and/or the weight is getting heavy.

    4. Exerciser must rest and recover.

    RBT Readiness Scale

    1. Exerciser is ready for full exertion.

    2. Exerciser is ready to attempt full exertion.

    3. Exerciser is unable to attempt full exertion.

    4. No exertion is possible.

    The goal of the workout is to reach a 4 on the RBT exertion scale repeatedly. Rest is then taken until the exerciser reaches a 2 on the RBT readiness scale. In time, the scales are no longer required, as participants quickly learn to hone in on their self-regulating abilities.

    Sample Rest-Based Training Workout

    Here is a simple RBT workout that can be done with a group of clients or in a one-on-one personal training setting.

    • Choose three full-body exercises, using a 10- to 15-repetition maximum.
    • Complete 8 reps of each exercise in circuit fashion.
    • Instruct trainees to work until rest is required, reaching a 4 on the RBT exertion scale.
    • Coach exercisers to rest as long as required, reaching a 2 on the RBT readiness scale.
    • Direct exercisers to resume the workout where they left off.
    • Have them continue this way, starting and stopping according to their own needs. The wording to use is “Push until you can’t; rest until you can.”
    • Use a stopwatch and time the circuit for 10 minutes. Remember, there is no structured rest. Trainees take rest according to their own needs.
    • After 10 minutes choose another three exercises and have clients go for another 10 minutes.
    • Repeat a third time with another three exercises for a total of 30 minutes.

    During the workout, some exercisers will use lots of short rests, while others will prefer less frequent, longer rests. The trainer’s job is to cue, coach and motivate the clients by reminding them they are in control. Check out the Video Web Extras for more tips on RBT.

    Video Web Extras!


Deci, E.L., & Vansteenkister, M. 2004. Self-determination theory and basic need satisfaction: Understanding human development in positive psychology. Ricerche di Psicologia, 27 (1), 17–34.

Duncan, L.R., et al. 2010. Exercise motivation: A cross-sectional analysis examining its relationships with frequency, intensity, and duration of exercise. The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 7 (7).

Edwards, A.M., et al. 2011. Self-pacing in interval training: A teleoanticipatory approach. Psychophysiology, 48 (1), 136–41.

Ekkekakis, P. 2009. Let them roam free? Physiological and psychological evidence for the potential of self-selected exercise intensity in public health. Sports Medicine, 39 (10), 857–88.

Lander, P.J., Butterly, R.J., & Edwards, A.M. 2009. Self-paced exercise is less physically challenging than enforced constant paced exercise of the same intensity: Influence of complex central metabolic control. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43 (10), 789–95.

Mann, J.B., et al. 2010. The effect of autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise vs. linear periodization on strength improvement in college athletes. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24 (7), 1718–23.

Markland, D., et al. 2005. Motivational interviewing and self-determination theory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24 (6), 811–31.

Melanson, E.L., MacLean, P.S., & Hill, J.O. 2009. Exercise improves fat metabolism in muscle but does not increase 24-h fat oxidation. Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 37 (2), 93–101.

Miller, W.C., Koceja, D.M., & Hamilton, E.J. 1997. A meta-analysis of the past 25 years of weight loss research using diet, exercise or diet plus exercise intervention. International Journal of Obesity, 21 (10), 941–47.

Osterberg, K.L., & Melby, C.L. 2000. Effect of acute resistance exercise on postexercise oxygen consumption and resting metabolic rate in young women. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 10 (1), 71–81.

Rose, E.A., & Parfitt, G. 2010. Exercise experience influences affective and motivational outcomes of prescribed and self-selected intensity exercise. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.;jsessionid=A58517F13C608BB5DC8491541DB05BA2.d03t01; retrieved Jan. 5, 2011.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. 2000. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55 (1), 68–78.

Schuenke, M.D., Mikat, R.P., & McBride, J.M. 2002. Effect of an acute period of resistance exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: Implications for body mass management. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 86 (5), 411–17.

Scott, C. 2005a. Contribution of anaerobic energy expenditure to whole body thermogenesis. Nutrition & Metabolism, 2, 14.

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Trapp, E.G., et al. 2008. The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. International Journal of Obesity, 32, 684–91.

Treuth, M.S., Hunter, G.R., & Williams, M. 1996. Effects of exercise intensity on 24-h energy expenditure and substrate oxidation. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 28 (9), 1138–43.

Warburton, D.E., et al. 2005. Effectiveness of high-intensity interval training for the rehabilitation of patients with coronary artery disease. American Journal of Cardiology, 95 (9), 1080–84.

Williams, D.M. 2008. Exercise, affect, and adherence: An integrated model and a case for self-paced exercise. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 30, 471–96.

Jade Teta, ND

I am a hybrid fitness professional who works as a holistic physician, wellness coach and personal trainer. I am a licensed family physician in Washington State, but work as a health, fitness and fat loss consultant in NC. I am also a freelance writer and author of The New ME Diet (4/2010 HarperCollins).

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