Monday, January 31, 2011

Paired Set Workouts to Enhance Your Exercise Efficiency.

       One of the main reasons people give for their discretion of not working out is lack of time. Moreover, there are many people already exercising who wish they could get more out of their time in the gym, or perhaps get in and out of the gym a little quicker. Well for these crowds, the answer may be paired set training or complexes. Traditional sets are defined as performing a given amount of repetitions followed by a given rest period and repeating. Paired sets involve performing one set of an exercise followed immediately by another. 
Following the following methods will help you get in and out of the gym much quicker

There are several ways to go about doing this, so let me fill you in on the technical jargon:

Super set: This is when you perform a set of an exercise (exercise A) and follow it up with performing an exercise (exercise B) that taxes the antagonist muscle group to exercise A. An example would be performing a set of pull ups immediately followed up by a set of dumbbell shoulder presses.

Compound set: This type of paired set is more often practiced by the bodybuilding crowd. Compound sets involve performing two or more consecutive exercises with no rest in between them as well. However this time around, all of the exercises are targeting the same musculature. Most often a compound movement (one involving multiple joints) will be followed by an accessory movement (one that only involves one joint) For example a trainee may perform a set of the bench press followed up immediately by a set of chest  flyes. After the rest period that has been established for this workout (let’s say 1 min.), this set will be repeated, most likely for a total of 3-4 sets when it’s all said and done. Personally I am against frequent use of compound sets.  Let me further elaborate on this.

Compound sets are very similar to another technique often used by bodybuilders, known as pre fatiguing. Pre-fatiguing involves performing a few sets of an accessory movement (lets use the chest fly again) followed by a compound movement (lets use the bench press again). The theory behind this practice is that the accessory exercise will tire the main muscles being targeted (in this case the pectoralis major) before the compound movement resulting in the muscles being taxed to greater extent during the compound movement (1). The problem is that this could not be further from the truth. What the science actually shows is that pre-fatiguing does indeed elicit fatigue in the targeted musculature, rendering them less active during the more stressful compound movements (2,3). Therefore this strategy alters the muscular recruitment pattern during the main movement placing more stress on complementary muscles and leaving the trainee more vulnerable to injury. Therefore it is my feeling that performing the additional accessory movement following each set of the compound movement renders the trainee at greater risk for injury due to poor recruitment and deleterious mechanics (2,3).

Complexes: Complexes involve grouping several compound exercises together in consecutive order and then taking short rests between performing this routine again. To do this form of training justice, I will write another separate post on the topic. Another great source on complexes is Cardio Strength Training by coach Robert Dos Remedios (4)

Now on to the research findings on paired set training. This type of training has been utilized by a lot of fitness enthusiasts for years, but Daniel Robbins and colleagues the University of Ballat in Australia kept busy this past year putting out research that shows that paired set training is effective at increasing the efficiency of workouts. In one of the trials(5), Robbins collected EMG data (a test measuring muscle activity) for the primary muscles during bench pulls and bench press (pectoralis major, anterior deltoid, latissimus dorsi, and trapezius) The subjects performed the exercises using the traditional method in session and using paired sets in another session. The findings revealed that despite performing the same amount of work, the paired set session took roughly half as long, the trainees were able to maintain the same volume load  (use just as much weight) throughout the session, and that there were no significant differences in EMG data, inferring that neuromuscular fatigue was no greater in the paired set group. Other trials by the same research team found similar findings in that the paired set sessions drastically reduced time while allowing the trainee to maintain similar power, intensity, and total volume load when using paired sets.(6,7) These findings are especially meaningful to populations that must emphasize power movements and high intensity lifting in limited time frames, such as athletes.
Troy Polamalu emphasizing complexes in his training. Its only gotten him to 3 super bowls and counting.

As for energy expenditure, studies have found that paired sets elicit greater energy expenditure during the workout session, which makes sense considering the trainee is performing more mechanical work by performing 2 exercises rather than 1 in the same time frame (8). Kelleher et al put a group of young men through a full 6 exercise, 4 sets each workout and found paired set training elicited an energy expenditure of 8.3 Calories per minute compared to only 6.3 Calories per minute for traditional sets. Now as you may note these Caloric expenditures are not that high but the great thing about weight training is (EPOC) excessive post oxygen consumption. EPOC refers to the body continuing to use above-resting oxygen while recovery begins to occur. As a generality, the more oxygen we are utilizing, the greater our caloric expenditure. The EPOC for the paired sets were significantly higher (18.9 Calories vs. 13.5) one hour after completion of the workout session. Another marker of raised metabolism, blood lactate was also significantly higher as well

Anecdotal observations and the scientific data reveal that paired set training is an effective way to get more volume in a workout session of equal time or get in a workout of the same volume in less time, while maintaining crucial aspects that elicit adaptations to occur, such as power and intensity. With that said it appears paired set training is the way to go for those of us in a crunch for time or who want to increase the Caloric requirement of our resistance training sessions. To further put all this into context, I will concede there will inevitably be days where the energy levels and motivation just won’t be there to effectively perform paired sets for the entire duration of a session. This style of training is very demanding! For days like these, I will discuss alternative strategies that can be used to enhance the workout without rendering it too demanding in another post.

Happy exercising,
1) Baeche & Earle (Eds) 2008 The Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Human Kinetics Champaign, IL
2) Augustsson J, Thomeé R, Hörnstedt P, et al. 2003 Effect of pre-exhaustion exercise on lower-extremity muscle activation during a leg press exercise. J Strength Cond Res.17(2):411-6.
3) Brennecke A, Guimarães TM, Leone R, et al. 2009 Neuromuscular activity during bench press exercise performed with and without the preexhaustion method. J Strength Cond Res. 23(7):1933-40.

4) Dos Remedios, R. 2009 Cardio Strength Training. Rodale Publishing New York, NY

5) Robbins DW, Young WB, Behm DG, et al. 2010 Physical performance and electromyographic responses to an acute bout of paired set strength training versus traditional strength training. J Strength Cond Res. 24(5):1237-45.
6) Robbins DW, Young WB, Behm DG, Payne WR. 2010 The effect of a complex agonist and antagonist resistance training protocol on volume load, power output, electromyographic responses, and efficiency. J Strength Cond Res. 24(7):1782-9.
7) Robbins DW, Young WB, Behm DG, Payne WR. 2010 Agonist-antagonist paired set resistance training: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 24(10):2873-82.
8) Kelleher AR, Hackney KJ, Fairchild TJ et al. 2010 The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults. J Strength Cond Res. 24(4):1043-51.


  1. I need to be fit not because I want to be sexy but because I want to be healthy.
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  2. Looks so much better after, amazing Thanks for your job