Training

How Staggered Sets Can Benefit Your Training

Work two diverse areas together for serious gains.

by
Traps-Exercise-Cable-Face-Pull
Per Bernal / M+F Magazine

Even the most driven lifter has to admit that there’s a lot of idleness in a work­out. All those rests between sets are lost opportunities to stimulate growth. Of course, you don’t want to take away from the muscles you’re resting, but you can work an unrelated muscle during that downtime. By hitting two body parts in the period that you’d normally work one, you can multitask your way to greater gains.

MUSCLE MULTITASKING

As a name, “staggered sets” is lame. “Diverse attack” would be clearer (and cooler), but “staggered” means you can work a smaller body part by alternating its sets with only some of the sets of a bigger body part. Smaller usually means calves, abs, and forearms, though it might also mean biceps, triceps, or deltoids. You can train abs with any other body part. Because you don’t want your grip lessened when doing, say, pulldowns, forearms should be worked only with legs; for similar reasons, calves can be worked with anything but legs. Any staggered work for biceps, triceps, or deltoids should also not rob strength from the bigger body part. So you can stagger in pushdowns with legs but not with chest presses (which also work triceps).

In addition, cardio can be staggered into your weight training. Do 10­ to 15­-minute sessions of high­ intensity cardio between body parts. For example, work quads, hit the StepMill for 10 minutes, work hams, hit the treadmill for 10 minutes, work calves, and finish off with 10 minutes of elliptical. Instead of 30 minutes of continuous tedium, you’ve broken it into more palatable pieces and kept your enthusiasm, focus, and intensity elevated. And such up­tempo intervals are better for burning fat than longer, lower tempo work.

There are three ways to do staggered sets:

  1. Unrelated Supersets
    Alternate a set for a bigger body part, like the back, with one for a smaller, unrelated body part, like calves. You probably won’t want to do as many sets for the smaller body part, so simply skip supersetting one or two exercises. For example, if you do 16 sets and four exercises for the back, you’ll do 12 sets and three exercises for calves.
  2. Asymmetrical Combos
    Do one set for the smaller body part for every two or more sets for the larger body one set for abs between every two sets for arms, and after 12 sets for bi’s and 12 for tri’s, you’ll also have cranked out 12 for abs. This is the classic method of staggering.
  3. Between Exercises
    Perform one set for a smaller body part between exercises for larger body parts. For example, throw in a wrist curl set after completing every leg exercise, and over the course of a workout consisting of four exercises for quads and three for hams, you’ll squeeze in seven sets for forearms, almost without noticing.

FAST, BUT NOT FURIOUS

As with other types of multitasking, staggered sets save time. By filling in some of your rest periods with work, you can reduce the length of workouts. But perhaps the greater advantage is the reduction in tedium. Face it, some exercises are boring. Most of us would rather be doing heavy incline presses than knocking out another high-­rep set of leg raises. This is why too many of us focus more on the former than the latter. By staggering work for calves, abs, and forearms as well as cardio, you don’t have to slog through a focused routine for those areas. In essence, you trick yourself into doing the work you might have been tempted to skimp on or skip.

There are potential pitfalls to staggering. First, if done incorrectly it can rob valuable recovery time and strength from one or both areas. To prevent this, stick to our prescriptions for staggering calves with upper­-body muscles, forearms with lower­ body muscles, and abs and cardio with anything. Staggering can also reduce your focus. But this often depends on the workout. If you’re pyramiding up to a personal best in the squat, don’t crank out sets of hanging leg raises between every two sets.

Finally, whenever you pair two different exercises, there may be logistical issues. It can be difficult to keep dibs on two gym stations. With staggering, this is compounded by the fact that you may be doing multiple sets of one exercise before one set of another, and, because you’re working diverse body parts, the stations may be far apart. Sometimes you can do both in the same spot. Other times, because you won’t have a lot of time to wait, prepare to change it up. If you were staggering in standing calf raises but someone has staked a claim on the machine during your absence, switch to a different calf exercise.

STAGGERED SETS BASICS

  • Train a smaller body part during rest periods while working a bigger body part.
  • Make certain the smaller body part isn’t stressed during compound exercises for the larger body part.
  • Abs, calves, forearms, and cardio are the best candidates for staggered sets.

STAGGERED SETS TIP SHEET

  • The classic method of staggering is to alternate one set for the smaller body part between every two or more sets for the larger body part.
  • Try to plan combinations that you can do in the same area. For example, dumbbell yes and crunches can be done on the same bench.
  • Don’t stagger if you need the rest period to recover from an exhausting set.

BACK / CALVES ROUTINE

  • Front Pulldown | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-12
    • superset with Standing Calf Raise | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-15
  • Barbell Row | SETS: 3 | REPS: 8-10
  • Calf Press | SETS: 1-2 | REPS: 12-15
  • One-Arm Dumbbell Row | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12
  • Calf Press | SETS: 1-2 | REPS: 12-15
  • Low-Cable Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10-12
    • superset with Seated Calf Raise | SETS: 4 | REPS: 12-15

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