Supersets, tri-sets and giant sets have become staples in many strength and conditioning programs, and for good reasons.
First, pairing exercises reduces the amount of time spent in the gym. This is easy to illustrate. When you complete only one exercise at a time, you must take time to rest between sets of the exercise.
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In a superset, rather than sitting around waiting for your next set, you complete another exercise during the rest period. You complete the two supersetted exercises in less time than it would take to complete them separately.
Besides saving time, pairing exercises creates a higher metabolic disturbance, increasing the amount of calories expended in a period of time, and a more favorable hormonal response for building muscle and burning fat.
But, despite the benefits of pairing exercises, this strategy can have negative consequences when chasing certain goals. Unfortunately, many coaches, lifters and athletes have become blind to these drawbacks because pairing exercises has become the norm.
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Common Exercise Pairing
When we think about pairing exercises, we usually consider two “big-bang-for-your-buck” exercises. And most of the time, we want the exercises to be non-competing. For example, we could pair a Front Squat with a Chin-Up, a combo I frequently use with my athletes and the general population. It’s a lower-body spinal compression exercise combined with an upper-body spinal decompression exercise, allowing the body to recover more efficiently between sets of each exercise since they don’t directly compete with each other.
While this is a sound approach to programming (and again, one I use a lot), it is not always the best option.
Sometimes using the classic straight set method, in which you complete only one main exercise at a time, is a better approach.
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When to Use Straight Sets and Forget About Pairing Exercises
There are two scenarios when straight sets can produce better results.
When you are learning a new compound exercise (or variation) such as a Squat, Deadlift, Pull-Up, Bench Press or Lunge, you require a high level of focus and movement pattern linking. And if you try to do that with two exercises at the same time, you will not have as great a focus and movement reserve to dedicate to each exercise respectively. Your nervous system try to adapt and learn two highly technical skills/movements at the same time. This can be done, but the process is slower.
It’s like trying to learn algebra and geometry at the same time. Both involve numbers and similar reasoning skills, but when you try to learn them simultaneously, you are more likely to “forget or mix up” some of the information from one or the other.
In this case, reinforcing the new movement with straight sets produces better movement adaptation.
The second scenario is when strength or power is the main adaptation you are seeking. Although the pairing of exercises should involve noncompeting exercises (most of the time), thereby reducing local fatigue of the working musculature, two high demand exercises will have a fatiguing effect on the nervous system.
With nervous system fatigue, performance starts to dissipate. A drop in performance means less weight can be used and the speed of the movement begins to slow down, inevitably limiting your progress in strength and power.
So when your goal is to get stronger, faster or more powerful with a movement, you don’t want another exercise fatiguing your nervous system between sets.
Just Take a Seat?
If your sport or upcoming competition requires maximal strength or power output, and you are closing in on that competition, it may be best to take a seat and achieve full recovery between sets of max effort lifts.
But for most of us, the majority of the time, this is not the case.
Although two or more demanding compound exercises should not be paired if you are trying to learn a new technical lift, or to maximize strength or power, you can still pair a low-demand exercise during the rest periods.
These have classically been termed “filler” exercises, but I refer to them as “support” exercises; filler” suggests that they are not important.
When strategically placed, support exercises can enhance the main movement being executed or prepare you for an upcoming movement. They should be used to help solidify a movement, activate the musculature being targeted or about to be targeted, and work on necessary mobility.
The key is that these exercises need to make a low enough demand to not interfere with nervous system recovery between your main sets.
Some examples include:
Lower-body patterning and mobility exercises such as quadruped rocking, Tall Kneeling Hip Hinge, quadruped rocking adductor mobility, half kneeling hip flexor mobility and ankle mobility.
Lower-body activation exercises such as Glute Bridge, Single-Leg Glute Bridge, Glute Bridge and March, Side-Lying Clam variations, and Band Walk variations.
Upper–body patterning and mobility exercises such as Wall Slides, Back-to-Wall Slides, Quadruped Overhead Reaches and quadruped t-spine mobility variations.
Upper-body activation exercises such as Internal and External Shoulder Rotations, Prone Trap Raises, Prone Ys and Band Pull-Aparts.
Core activation exercises such as Birddogs, Deadbugs, Planks, Side Planks, Half-Kneeling Cable Chops and Half-Kneeling Cable Lifts.
No Paired Exercises?
Once the main movements have been completed, pairing exercises can and should be programmed. Accessory movements should not be as taxing on the nervous system but create a greater metabolic disturbance.
Therefore, pairing exercises such as single-leg variations, row variations, Dumbbell Press variations, etc., is warranted to save time and increase the density of a session.
Putting It Together
The following three-day full-body lift program achieves the benefits of straight sets during the main movements, then uses paired support exercises to complete the accessory movements.
With this strategy, power and strength are not compromised, you can enhance your movement ability, and take advantage of the effects of paired exercises to finish the session.
Day 1 (Lower Pull, Upper Push)
- 1a. Deadlift – 3×5
- 1b. Wallslide to Liftoff – 2×8
- 2a. Barbell Incline Bench Press – 3×5
- 2b. Quadruped Adductor Mobility – 2×8/side
- 3a. Single-Leg Dumbbell RDL – 3×8/side
- 3b. Flat Dumbbell Squeeze Press – 3×8
- 4a. Glute Ham Raise – 2-3×12
- 4b. Push-Ups – 2-3×12
Day 2 (Lower Push, Upper Pull)
- 1a. Front Squat – 3×5
- 1b. Prone Trap Raise – 2×8
- 2a. Chin-Ups – 3×5
- 2b. Hip Flexor Mobility – 2×8/side
- 3a. Dumbbell Split-Squat – 3×8/side
- 3b. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row – 3×8/side
- 4a. Single Squat from Box – 2-3×10/side
- 4b. Face Pulls – 2-3 x12-15
Day 3 Full Body
- 1a. Single-Arm Dumbbell Push Jerk – 3×5/side
- 1b. Half-Kneeling Adductor Mobility – 2×8/side
- 2a. Front Squat Grip Reverse Lunge – 3×6/side
- 2b. Side Plank – 2×20 seconds per side
- 3a. Dumbbell RDL – 3×10
- 3b. Incline Dumbbell Press – 3×10
- 3c. Inverted Row – 3×10
- 4a. Single-Leg Hip Thrust – 2-3 x10/side
- 4b. Abwheel Rollouts – 2-3 x10-12
Although pairing exercises has many benefits and has become the norm in programming, take into consideration that if your goal is to learn a new movement or maximally enhance strength or power, pairing exercises is not the best way.