How to Pair Exercises for Better Gym Performance

How to Pair Exercises for Better Gym Performance

Here’s the sequel to a previous article I wrote on pairing exercises. It’s kinda like Terminator 2, only more violent.

Kendrick Farris Front Squat

As I explained before, pairing exercises in the gym can lead to the following benefits:

– higher training volume in a given time frame

– better size and strength gains

– increased work capacity

– less time spent training

I don’t know about you but looking at that list makes this strategy a hands-down winner over straight sets in my book, any day.

Below are three ways to successfully pair exercises for increased performance…

1. Target Opposite Muscle Groups/Movement Patterns

If you get nothing else out of this article, remember this:

For every set of an exercise you perform, do an equal amount of sets for the opposing muscle group(s).

That means for every exercise targeting the chest, shoulders and triceps, you pick one that hits the upper back, forearms and bi’s to balance things out.


Between hitting inclines and making funny faces, Arnie could be found over at the cable stack doing rows

This may take place during the same training session or over the course of a training week depending on what kind of training plan you’re following (full-body or upper/lower split). What counts is you go do it.

I know tons of people out there over-thinking this training stuff but what I’m saying here is far from anything complex. Check out the incredibly simple cheat sheet I made for ya:

Bench press -> pair with any type of row

Squat -> pair with a hip-dominant movement – deads, glute hams, hip thrusts etc.

Overhead press -> pair with a chin-up variation


“Remember, son… direct posterior chain work isn’t reserved only for those rocking a thong th-thong thong thong”

2. Pair Upper Body with Lower Body and Vice Versa

When training the entire body in one session, pair an upper body push with a lower body pull, and an upper body pull with a lower body push.

Following this template ensures your training program stays balanced, as too many pushing exercises in the absence of enough pulling can eventually lead to muscular imbalances and injuries.

Here’s an example – Phase 3, Day 2 of our U17 team’s training program…


As you notice, sumo deadlifts off blocks (LB pull) are performed together with 45° DB benches (UB push). Same goes for DB rear-foot elevated split squats (LB push) and inverted rows on rings (UB pull).

Thus, we’re getting equal amounts of training stimuli all across the entire body, not just the mirror muscles that most athletes and gym-goers hammer with tons of different exercises when left to their own devices at the expense of the upper and lower back, glutes and hamstrings.

Following this template will not only get you stronger overall, it helps in getting out of that rounded-over, internally-rotated-at-the-shoulders syndrome so prevalent among many Westerners who spend a ridiculous chunk of their time sitting hunched over a TV, computer, tablet or smart phone.

evolution of man

Another benefit of this strategy includes the built-in rest periods between the muscles involved in executing a lift.

Pairing a heavy squat variation – say, BB split squats – with a heavy hip-dominant lift like deads off blocks or hip thrusts will likely lead to a slight drop in performance, especially on subsequent sets when rest periods are kept moderate (≤ 2 minutes).

But hitting a set of weighted chins after the squats? No problemo.

3. Use Contrast Sets

While not a typical way of performing two different exercises back-to-back, contrast sets offer unique benefits in strength and power development.

With a contrast set, you’re pairing a heavy strength exercise with a lighter (power) exercise to excite the nervous system and increase performance on the latter over what it would be if the second exercise were performed on its own without the first one – a phenomenon known as post-activation potentiation.

Sound confusing? Not really.

Here’s an example:

1a) Squat x2

1b) Vertical Jump x3

And here’s another one:

1a) Bench Press x3

1b) Medicine Ball Chest Pass for Distance x5

And a third example:

1a) 10m Prowler Sprint (loaded)

1b) 10m Sprint (unloaded)

Sled sprint

Prowler sprints

When performing contrast sets, the first (strength) exercise shouldn’t last long – a good rule of thumb would be to keep it under 10 seconds. This prevents muscular fatigue and lactic acid build-up from occurring, which would be detrimental in executing the second (power) exercise.

Rest 10-20 seconds between the strength exercise and the power exercise (basically a jump, throw or sprint) as that’s enough time to “recover” from the strength effort, yet short enough to still get a transfer effect.

Note that utilizing post-activation potentiation methods should only be reserved for lifters and athletes who already possess decent levels of relative strength as beginners are too weak to get anything out of them.

Post-activation potentiation is a very underestimated and underutilized area in training, yet something that I find extremely interesting. I’ll be revisiting this topic in more detail at some point in the future.

If you enjoyed this article, please do a brother a favor by liking, commenting and sharing it with others who might dig it as well.


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Yunus Barisik

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.