Have your workouts lost their sizzle? One way to increase the effectiveness of your workout program is to change how you do your sets. Sets are not just about number of reps—there are many setting alternatives out there, and a lot of confusion about which does what. To get you started with a few of the best alternatives, RealJock turned to Devin Wicks, (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach), a director of fitness operations at UC Berkeley and specialty strength coach for some of the University's elite sports teams. For this piece, he chose three winners—compound sets, pyramids, and triple sets—and offered some caveats for one popular contender: negative sets.
Compound sets involve alternating two exercises for muscle groups in different parts of the body, going through your workout using one muscle group's lifting time as another's recovery. For example, you might do a set of squats to work your legs, immediately followed by a set of bench presses to work your chest. Then, right away start your second squat set, followed by your second bench press, and so on. When doing compound sets, you take very little or no rest between sets, because one muscle group is recovering while the other works. This means you don't stop working and your heart rate stays up throughout the set, which gives you a secondary cardio benefit.
- Benefits: You can get in and out of the gym fast—compound sets are great for guys in a hurry. Compound sets also keep your heart rate up, so you add cardio intensity, and fat-burning advantages to your standard lifting program.
- Limitations: If you're lifting extremely heavy weights and few repetitions (once you're down around three to five reps), you need longer recoveries than this kind of setting allows, so you'll need to rest and won't get the cardio benefit. Order of your exercises is also important—you don't want to do opposing muscle groups back-to-back—for instance, no biceps followed by triceps. Opposing muscle groups support each other when you lift, so even if one muscle is primary, its opposing muscles also work. Lift opposing muscles back-to-back and they don't get enough recovery, which means you risk overtraining. To avoid this problem, choose arrangements that have unrelated muscle groups following each other to allow for maximum recovery. For example: shoulders followed by abs; chest followed by biceps; or legs followed by triceps.
To do pyramids, you change your resistance and repetitions over several sets. You can do these ascending or descending, as desired. To do ascending pyramids, you do a number of sets of an exercise, increasing the weight on each set while reducing the number of repetitions (many men already incorporate this type of pyramids into their strength training). To do reverse or descending pyramids, you decrease weight as you increase reps in successive sets. Either way, the recovery between sets stays constant. Wicks prefers reverse pyramids. He says the greatest strength gains come from starting with heavy weight and fewer reps, and lightening the weight as you increase the reps going into successive sets.
- Benefits: You can get fairly significant strength gains using pyramids. In a pyramid, you train for both power and endurance, working through all training phases of each muscle worked. This is why, Wicks says, in general it's better to go from heavy to light, so that you go as hard as you can on your first power set, and then use everything you've got left to get through your successive endurance sets. By hitting your rep max on every set, even though you change the weights and reps, you use up all of your fuel supplies and make your muscles reach true fatigue.
- Limitations: Pyramids can be confusing; you may find it hard to keep track of what you're doing. Just remember that in general you want to be increasing your total volume lifted even as you change the amounts in your individual sets and reps. To make sure you do this, multiply the amount of weight lifted on each rep in a given set by the number of reps in that set, then total the numbers from the different sets. The total amount should be near what you would lift if you multiplied weight times reps times number of sets in a non-pyramidal program. You want to gradually increase this amount, in small jumps; no matter what, this number should not go down when distributed across a pyramidal as opposed to a standard lifting program.
The greatest strength gains in a particular muscle will come from presenting it with a variety of stimuli in a relatively short time period. One way to do this is to fatigue each muscle using a different exercise for each set while keeping the number of reps constant for that muscle group. If you generally do the standard three sets for an exercise, you will instead use a different exercise for each set (hence, triple set). So, for each major muscle group, pick a series of exercises corresponding to the number of sets you want to do (even if this is more than 3—go ahead, do a quadruple set if you'd like). For each exercise, set an amount of weight or resistance such that you reach fatigue in the same number of reps. An example of a triple set might be: bench press / dumbbell flys / cable crosses. All attack the chest, but in different ways. If you have more sets than the number of exercises you feel like you want to do, you may use an exercise more than once. Just remember, the key to the triple set is to take the muscle to fatigue in a different way with each set.
- Benefits: Serious strength gains, particularly for guys on a plateau. As Wicks puts it, "With all other factors being equal, changing training stimulus helps to increase strength."
- Limitations: Setup and take-down may prove problematic. Particularly if you're in a crowded gym, it can be tough to get set up for three different exercises without wasting a lot of time and making people mad. To minimize this problem, try to choose exercises that can all be done near to each other or with minimal setup.
Negatives are based on the idea that you have greater strength in the eccentric phase of an exercise than in the concentric phase. The eccentric phase occurs when the muscle is lengthening, but still contracting (for example, lowering the dumbbell in a bicep curl)—as opposed to the concentric phase, which is all contraction (curling the dumbbell up). This is easy to test mentally. It's the difference between the amount of weight you can lift upward in a bicep curl versus the amount of weight you could lower if the weight were put in your hand at the top of your bicep curl. A negative set requires assistance in the concentric phase—in the case of the bicep curl example, you would use your other hand to help you raise a colossal amount of weight in a curl, and then lower it unassisted.
- Benefits: This is a training system that will give you some strength gains, but scientific studies thus far are unclear on how substantial those will be.
- Limitations: There are some risks of overuse and strain injuries. As Wicks puts it, "Given that there are inherent risks with negative training, and that there are better training systems that will provide greater strength gains over time, negative training is not the optimal program for someone lifting for the long haul." As an occasional supplement to a well-balanced workout, negatives may give you some small, marginal gains.
Use the Set Life forum for questions and answers about these set variation programs.