Playing with sets for optimum muscle mass building.
A lot of people do the same exercise, for the same number of reps, for straight sets…forever.
They do this, and wonder why they are not making the same progress as they once did. One big reason is because their muscles have adapted to the way they have been training.
Muscles do that when they get used to certain stimuli. It’s what makes them great, but it’s also what makes them
Not only does messing with set design allow you to break that stagnation, but it offers additional advantages for stimulating muscle hypertrophy.
For the sake of clarity, let’s just determine what I’m referring to when I say set.
A set is a number of repetitions of an exercise or exercises performed continuously until the next rest period.
You can manipulate sets in a number of ways. To start with I’ll cover some of the more classic sets that bodybuilders have gained a lot of success with over the years.
If you get through those and it’s nothing new to you then fear not, there will be more.
On the other hand, if you are totally new to resistance training or you are recovering from injury, then I would not attempt these sets until you have a solid base of straight set training under your belt.
For a green lifter, the point where you should start messing with sets is an individual thing. There’s no template that suits everyone. These are the bodybuilding basics.
However, if you record your progress from the start, you will see very clearly when your progress in your current program starts to stall.
The Classic Bodybuilding Sets – Adding Exercises
One of the first things to do when you want to push your gains, when you’re experiencing what you think is a plateau, stagnation, or whatever, is to add exercises to the set.
These sets are basically two or more exercises performed back to back with no rest in between.
The main benefit of doing this is of course the increased training volume without adding too much additional time to the total workout.
Again, you’ve probably heard of them before, but read on anyway because there’s some useful tips for getting the most out of them.
Supersets – Increasing Muscle Mass
When you lift a weight, you are using the agonist muscle in concentric and eccentric contraction, which is the shortening and lengthening of the muscle, respectively, under load.
The simplest example of this is the bicep curl. The biceps are the agonist in the curl movement and must contract concentrically and eccentrically in order to complete both the positive and negative portion of each repetition.
The agonist is often called the prime mover, as it is the primary muscle utilized in the exercise.
An antagonist is simple the muscle that must work in an opposing way to allow the contraction of the prime mover.
In the case of the bicep curl, the triceps work antagonistically. They actually relax to allow themselves to lengthen so that the biceps muscles can perform concentric contractions.
On the eccentric contraction, as the biceps extend under load, the triceps must contract to allow it.
Superset training is where you train both muscles (or muscle groups) in their agonist-antagonist pairs.
The superset is a number of reps of an exercise which uses the agonist, immediately followed by a number of reps using what was the antagonist, but switching it to become the agonist.
It is only once both have been completed that the set is over and the rest interval between sets begins.
A basic bicep-tricep superset might be:
- 12 x barbell bicep curls, followed immediately by
- 12 x cable tricep pull-downs
People often pick an agonist-antagonist pair and do three or four supersets on them. Basically about the same number of exercises they would do in straight set fashion on the single muscle group.
Doing this for one pair per workout is a great way to add an extra muscle group without the addition of much more time, i.e. just the time it takes to complete the extra reps.
Superset training is not just a time saver which allows for more volume though. The first muscle to be trained in the pair actually becomes a weaker antagonist for the second muscle.
That might seem like a bad thing but it’s beneficial to your muscle gains, because a weaker antagonist allows for a stronger contraction of the agonist.
Biceps and triceps are a beautiful example of this because there are two bicep muscles and three tricep muscles. By training biceps first in the superset, it allows for the stronger triceps to get maximal contractions, thereby increasing the resistance or number of reps you can lift.
Another agonist-antagonist muscle pair example is the chest and back. Both muscle groups are fairly large and so superset training the pecs and lats for example will cover a lot of ground, plus provide that hypertrophy benefit from added volume and second exercise power.
Guys often perform cable rows before hitting the benchpress so that they can maximize the pectoral activation.
Recommended frequency: superset training is demanding but it’s not as intense as some of the set variations I’m going to get to. However, there are some things to think about.
It may not be optimal, for example to perform biceps-triceps and then chest-back the following day. Reason being, the chest-back superset will actually utilize the triceps and biceps quite heavily anyway. If they are fatigued from the day before, they might be limiting factors in your chest and back exercises.
With all that in mind, I would give both muscle groups two days rest before you hit them again. This means you can focus on other muscles on the days between.
The most common muscle group pairings are:
- Chest and Back
- Biceps and Triceps
- Quads and Hamstrings
- Shoulders and Lats
People find different combinations to work. Some focus on supersets for a limited period of time, while others add them in to their program on a regular but less intense basis.
Personally, I like to add a couple supersets in to my training per week, with one upper body and one lower body pairing.
Compound Sets – Increasing Muscle Mass
Compound sets are also two back-to-back exercises with no rest in between but both are done on the same muscle group, rather than agonist-antagonist pairs like in supersets.
You can either:
- Use the same part of the muscle group in both exercises; or
- Target two different sections of the muscle group
A tactic often used is to perform a multi-joint lift (aka compound movement) and then immediately follow it with an isolation exercise.
- Bench press with dumbbell fly
- Shoulder press with lateral raise
- Squats with leg extensions
Other methods used include:
- Barbell exercises followed by dumbbell exercises
- Free weight exercises followed by machine exercises
A benefit of doing compound sets is of course the added volume without much added time. Much like supersets.
When you are trying to hit a particular muscle group harder to stimulate a greater growth response in the days following, there aren’t many better exercises than compound sets and tri-sets and giant sets (I’ll get to those in a bit).
Compound sets are more intensive than supersets thought because you are focusing the entire set on one muscle group, sometimes on one muscle.
There’s only one way to make up for the added energy you expend and that is in the recovery process.
These sets are therefore best used only occasionally and/or for short stretches. The longer you use them for, the more at risk you are of over-training.
I will stop using compound sets at the first sign of unusually high tiredness over the course of a couple of regular days.
Also, you should consider adding time to the rest interval between workouts of the same muscle group. Some people wait up to a week before training the same muscle group again after they have hit it with compound sets. Others only need 3 days rest but for them it is still an increase.
Find your pattern.
Tri-Sets and Giant Sets – Increasing Muscle Mass
Compound sets aren’t limited to two exercises like supersets are. Tri-sets and Giant sets are basically just bigger compound sets.
At the risk of stating the obvious, tri-sets are sets where you perform three exercises on the trot with no rest intervals in between them.
What’s cool about tri-sets is that you can do three sets and hit an entire small muscle group, without the need to add on some straight set exercises afterwards.
Your triceps are a great example because there are three of them and you can perform a nice, quick transition between the exercises to hit the long-head, lateral head and medial head of the group.
Giant sets are four or more exercises performed on the bounce. They are perhaps better suited to the larger muscle group, but can be performed on smaller groups provided lifting form doesn’t suffer.
In fact, that piece of advice goes for any of the compound set variations. If your form starts to slip during any part of the set then I would suggest that your rep counts are too high, or you are simply not ready for that intensity of exercise yet.
Make sure you can cope with the intra-set endurance required before you attempt trisets and giant sets. If you are used to hitting straight sets on the shoulders, for example, then jumping into giant sets might not work out for the best because you don’t have the stamina to really get the most out of it.
Increasing Exercise Intensity
The increasing exercise intensity and set volume from two exercise compound sets up to giant sets would be best approached in congruence with your experience level.
This will help you to avoid over-training, injury and program failure, as you will be confident in your strength and skill, despite the sets still pushing you physically.
As you stuff more exercises into your compound sets, your frequency and period of training them should be less and shorter respectively.
Not only will this reduce the likelihood of overtraining, fatigue and failure, but it will help you recover better and in fact grow more from the training stimulus.
Basically, the more energy you put into the process, the longer your body needs to recover and overcompensate afterwards.
One muscle group particularly suited to giant set training is the abdominal muscles. There are many variations of exercises, utilizing bodyweight, free-weights, cables and other machines that can target different sections of the abs.
Also, due to to almost constant use of our core, the abdominal muscles are used to being engaged frequently and for extended periods. Thus they have a high recovery rate, between both sets and workouts.
Giants sets are therefore a great way to work the core deeply and stimulate maximum growth by interrupting that fast recovery time with back-to-back exercises.
Things to Bear in Mind – Increasing Muscle Mass
Additional volume and intensity means additional stress. Supersets and all variations of compound sets should be used infrequently and for short periods of time to get the maximum adaptations from them.
There are a few ways to work them into your program, and over time you will become accustomed to what works for you.
Some people add one or two set variations into every workout for a period of time, targeting different muscle groups each session. This works because no one muscle group becomes overly fatigued over the course of a few weeks.
For example, if Monday is your chest day and arms day, then you could probably do a superset for your arms and a compound set for your chest. On the other hand, you could do straight sets on your chest and then tri-set your triceps to really finish them off. The following week, you could tri-set your chest and straight set your triceps.
This would allow both to recover adequately for the next chest/arms day the following week.
Another possibility is using set variations to bring a lagging muscle group up to the same standard as the rest of your physique.
This can either be done by compound/super-setting that muscle group every week for a few weeks and training the rest as normal.
A strategy that has worked well for me is adding a workout for that muscle group within the week’s program and using set variations then.
For example: if I feel a muscle group is lagging, such as my back, then I will simply add another back workout to my weekly program so that there is only 2/3 days between each back workout.
Supersets are great for this because you can superset your back with your chest on chest day and then carry out back day as normal a few days later.
To take it to the next level, you could dedicate an additional workout to the lagging muscle group – the back in this case – and do compound sets on that additional day while training it as normal on the regular back day.
Again, it will take some experimentation to see whether this is actually beneficial to your muscle growth response, or whether it fatigues you more and ends up being detrimental.
The more you focus on one muscle group, the more you have to be wary about the length of time you train for, both within the session and on a week by week basis.
Experience, fitness level, diet, sleep and general activity level in your life will dictate much of what you can achieve, and there is no point in me saying ‘do this for 4 weeks for the best results’ because no program fits all.
Somebody who has a very physical job, for instance, should not be attempting multiple giant sets per week unless they are mitigating the energy usage elsewhere with nutrition and additional hours of sleep.
What I’m saying is: as you invest more energy into your program, another factor of your life must give some back to retain the balance and prevent you from experiencing the negative effects of over-training.