To help maximize your training efficiency and get the most benefit from your workout, consider combining two or more resistance training exercises into a single set. Two exercises performed back to back without pause is often refered to as a superset. Three or more exercises performed back to back with minimal rest is essentially circuit training, although traditional circuit training consists of about 8-12 exercises which in my opinion is too many to be practical when training at home.
Supersets and "mini-circuits" of 3-4 exercises will allow you to accomplish more work in a given time period than single exercise training, so that you can either finish your workout faster or else train more intensely during your allotted training time. It also provides a cardio aspect to your training so that you can either cut down or eliminate the cardio-specific portion of your training program (i.e. the time you spend on the bike or treadmill) without compromising your cardiovascular health.
Any number of exercises can be combined into a single set, but practically speaking it’s difficult to do justice to an exercise if your body is too tired to perform. In addition, as you tire your muscles will become less responsive so that your form becomes sloppy, increasing your risk of injury. So depending on the degree of difficulty of the exercises you choose, your combination sets should include no more than 2 to 4 exercises.
Please note the 2 to 4 exercise rule is based on a person exerting enough effort to be breathing hard at the end of their combination set. The point of combination exercises is to create additional demand on the body that triggers both muscle hypertrophy (growth) and cardiovascular development. If you’re simply going through the motions without pushing yourself, you’re essentially wasting your time if you expect to achieve any significant health benefit through combination exercise training. Please see my Basic Workout Guideline #9 for additional information about how training with intensity will maximize your workout efficiency.
In general (but not always), 3 or 4 exercises per set will increase the cardio aspect of your workout, but will be less effective for muscle hypertrophy than combination sets with 2 exercises only. That’s because in order to push yourself for those additional reps you will of necessity need to back off on the intensity of each repetition.
To create a better balance between cardio and hypertrophy during these 3-4 exercise sets, allow yourself to rest for 10-20 seconds as you transition between exercises within your combination set. As long as you do not fully recover your breath you will maintain the cardiovascular benefit, but pausing those few seconds will allow you to recover just enough to perform the next exercise with greater intensity.
There are a number of different strategies you can use to combine exercises together into combination sets. A few of these strategies are outlined below, with some sample exercises for you to try. You of course can also develop your own combination exercises, but a word of caution for doing so, particularly when 3 or more exercises are involved. Because your focus and coordination decrease as you tire, be sure to do those exercises which are most demanding in terms of resistance (i.e. heavier weights) and/or coordination first.
Always exercise in a safe and responsible manner. Please be aware that as with most physical activities, there is always a risk of injury associated with weight training and other exercise programs. While I have made every effort to describe how to perform the exercises outlined on this site in a safe manner, note that every body is different and so not all exercises can or should be peformed by all people. Therefore, if you feel pain or discomfort when attempting any of the exercises described on this site, please stop immediately.
It is always important to consult your physician before starting any exercise program, especially if you have been sedentary for an extended period of time. This is particularly true if any of the following apply to your current medical condition:
- chest pain or pain in the neck and/or arm
- shortness of breath
- a diagnosed heart condition
- joint and/or bone problems
- currently taking cardiac and/or blood pressure medications
- have not previously been physically active
|In addition, if you have any chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes or arthritis) or risk factors (such as smoking or being more than 20 pounds overweight), and have not discussed exercising with your doctor, you should do so before beginning. Exercise is often an important part of the treatment for such conditions, but you may have some limitations or special needs that your doctor can tell you about.
If none of these apply to you, start gradually and sensibly. However, if you feel any of the physical symptoms listed above when you start your exercise program, contact your physician right away.
Combination Sets: Opposing Muscle Groups
Training opposing muscle groups is my personal favourite because this allows me to ensure opposing muscles receive relatively equal training time, which helps protect against the development of muscular imbalances. A second benefit to training opposing muscle groups is that one muscle group can rest while the opposite muscle group is being worked. This allows me to perform the exercises for both muscle groups with greater intensity.
I therefore train the following muscle groups together:
- chest and back
- biceps and triceps
- quads and hamstrings
- abductors and adductors
- abdominals and lower back
Here are some sample combination exercises which include opposing body parts. You can either perform them individually (i.e. chest/back exercise) or group a couple of them together to create a 4-plex (i.e. chest/back + biceps/triceps). Click on the descriptions to see the details for how to correctly perform each exercise.
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Combination Sets: Related Muscle Groups
The various muscles in your body don’t always work in complete isolation. During pushing motions, for example, your chest muscles function as the primary muscle group and your triceps contribute to the movement as a “secondary” supporting muscle group. Similarly, your biceps assist your back with pulling motions.
There are a couple of ways you can use combination sets to work related muscle groups.
- Pre-exhaust the smaller supporting muscle through an isolation exercise, which then forces the larger muscle to work harder on the following compound exercise. Using the chest/triceps as an example, this means doing an exercise such as a triceps extension (which works the triceps only) and then doing a chest dumbbell press (which works the chest primarily and the triceps secondarily). This forces the chest muscles to work harder during the dumbbell press exercise because the triceps are already tired and less able to help.
- Pre-exhaust the smaller supporting muscle through a compound exercise, which then forces the smaller muscle to work harder on the following isolation exercise. In this example the order of the exercises is reversed, so that the chest dumbbell press is done first to tax the triceps somewhat and then the triceps extension is done to fully exhaust the muscle.
The following sample combination exercises are shown in accordance with option 2 above. You can reverse the order of any of these sample exercises to follow option 1. Both options have value, so both can be incorporated into your workout routine to add variety. However, I recommend the greater percentage of your combination sets be the option 2 type.
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Combination Sets: Same Muscle Group
A third type of combination exercise trains only one muscle group, so that the muscle is more fully exhausted by the end of the set. This means, for example, hitting the biceps with a traditional biceps curl and then following up with either a concentration curl or a tubing curl. If you want to build size, strength and muscle endurance, isolation supersetting is the way to go.
Following are some examples of same muscle group supersets for the various muscle groups.
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Combination Sets: Unrelated Muscle Groups
Like combination exercises for opposing muscle groups, combining exercises for unrelated muscle groups allows one muscle group to rest while the other muscle group is being worked, so that the exercises for both muscle groups can be performed with greater intensity. I personally like to combine shoulders and legs into this type of combination set.
Combination exercises for unrelated muscle groups can consist of any of the following:
- Two compound exercises, such as chest dumbbell presses and squats.
- One compound exercise and one isolation exercise, such as chest dumbbell presses and standing leg raises.
- Two isolation exercises, such as biceps curls and standing leg raises.
Compound exercises are more exhausting than isolation exercises, so take that into consideration when planning your workout volume. When combining a compound exercise and an isolation exercise, it is generally safer to do the compound exercise first.
Following are some sample unrelated muscle group supersets for you to try.
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