As strength & conditioning coach Mike Boyle is fond of saying: “In the fitness industry, common sense is not very common.”
I was once again reminded of this in the middle of my own training session yesterday.
Normally, I pay zero attention to what other people are doing in the gym, as I’ve noticed reminiscing about Jessica Alba’s underwater scenes in Into the Blue in the midst of a rest period keeps my blood pressure relatively within the accepted norms as opposed to having to witness yet another leg press-knee extension-lying leg curl training session that seems to be the go-to lower body workout for almost every personal trainer and their clients in town.
But as I recovered from my R-rated, heavily Jessica Alba-influenced thoughts for a thorough look at the peeps training at the half-empty gym, it suddenly dawned on me that almost nobody uses supersets (sets combining opposite muscle groups/movement patterns) in their strength training sessions.
Why should this matter?
Let’s do a little math here… If you perform all your exercises in a straight set fashion, resting 3 minutes between every work set in a training session lasting an hour, you can perform a maximum of 20 sets per workout.
When you factor in the time it takes you to complete a set, loading and unloading weights on or off the barbell, and possibly having to wait for equipment to free up in a crowded gym, that number falls somewhere between 12-15 work sets per training session.
While I’ve never been a fan of adding more volume purely for volume’s sake, 12-15 work sets per workout does appear paltry even in my eyes.
Phases of low volume training can be beneficial for beginners (who don’t need much volume in order to gain strength to begin with) or during the in-season for athletes (when the focus is on maintaining the gains achieved in the off-season), but as a long-term strategy I would definitely strive to get more work done.
Let’s say it’s upper body day and you’re going to bench press and chin for four sets of 6-8 reps with 3-minute rest periods.
Here’s how this would look like with straight sets:
1) Bench press 4×6-8 rest 180s.
2) Chin-up 4×6-8 rest 180s.
On a basic 201 tempo (2 seconds for the eccentric and 1 second for the concentric part of the lift), this will take about 25-30 minutes and you’ve only completed 8 sets of total work at this point in the training session.
Now let’s say we’re going to combine those two exercises while simultaneously cutting the rest periods in half, so that we first perform a set of bench presses, rest for 90 seconds (instead of 180 seconds as was the case with straight sets), then do a set of chin-ups, rest again 90 seconds, go back to benching, and so on and so forth four times through.
1a) Bench press 4×6-8 rest 90s.
1b) Chin-up 4×6-8 rest 90s.
If you run the numbers with these shorter rest periods, you’ll notice that it will only take us about 15 minutes to run through this superset.
However, rest periods for the SAME muscle group(s) have been left unchanged (a set of bench presses is still performed every three minutes, and the same is true for chins as well) – which means you don’t have to worry about performance decreases (having to use less resistance or being able to complete less reps) as is often the case when rest periods are cut shorter.
As a result, we’ve essentially halved the amount of time spent on benching and chinning the same amount of volume.
Or put differently, by pairing exercises in this manner we can DOUBLE training volume without having to spend one extra minute in the gym.
And as we now, more quality training volume leads to more strength and muscle gains.
Not only that, getting more work done in an hour (or however long your training sessions last) enhances work capacity (your level of fitness), which in turn determines your general preparedness for playing your sport – an aspect that obviously shouldn’t be overlooked by athletes.
So summing up, by supersetting exercises, you can:
– perform more work in a given time frame
– experience better gains in strength and hypertrophy
– increase work capacity
– spend less time in the gym
Pretty convincing benefits, if you ask me.
Thus, pairing exercises would definitely fall under “common sense” in my view.
I have a feeling I’ll want to re-visit this topic in a few weeks and give you some more pointers on how to successfully pair exercises for better performance gains in the gym.
On a completely different note, I recently bumped into a timely blast from the past…
Perhaps the greatest NHL goal call of all time – Rick Jeannerette yelling “Mayday! Mayday!” after Brad May dekes through the legs of Ray Bourque, then buries one past Andy Moog as the Sabres sweep the Bruins in ’93.
A fitting way to get the May 1st celebrations under way.
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Yunus Barisik, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for an elite junior hockey organization based in Espoo, Finland. He has trained hundreds of hockey players at the junior, college and pro levels, including NHL Draft picks and World Champions. An accomplished author, Yunus has had articles published on top fitness and performance sites, including STACK and Muscle & Strength. He also wrote Next Level Hockey Training, a comprehensive resource for ice hockey players on building athletic strength, size and power, while staying injury-free.