While a straightforward weight lifting program is more than ideal, training methods such as supersets, drop sets, and pyramids have the ability to inject your workouts with the oomph needed to overcome muscle-building stalls and banish boredom.
I’m a big proponent of compound lifts. I believe you can get a great workout, and a great physique to boot, with a basic full-body lifting program.
Most of the extras mentioned in this article, however, are best done with isolation exercises, as compound lifts can be too taxing when done in quick succession, as you will see below.
No matter how great a compound-focused program can be, there will be times when our workouts just need something a little extra. Whether due to stagnation of workout motivation or lack of muscle development, adding in these extras can turn everything around.
Supersets are 2 exercises done, one right after the other, in quick succession. Instead of doing 3 sets of dumbbell curls and then moving on to 3 sets of triceps dips, you would do 1 set of curls followed by 1 set of dips, with no rest in between. And continue to alternate between the two until all sets are completed.
Supersets can be done in 3 different ways:
Antagonist Superset – Working 2 muscle groups that are opposite of each other, e.g., biceps with triceps, quadriceps with hamstrings, etc.
Antagonist supersets are popular for their time-saving benefit. Say you did the earlier example and performed one set of biceps curls. Instead of resting after that set, you would perform a set of triceps dips during your regular biceps rest period. Filling in that rest time with work gets you out of the gym faster.
Single Muscle Group Superset – Supersetting 2 exercises for the same muscle group.
Unlike antagonist supersets, these supersets place extra stress on one particular muscle group. It is meant to be done quickly, without rest in between the two exercises. These supersets are perfect for those looking to add more size when stalls occur, or those just looking to challenge themselves.
Staggered Superset – 2 exercises done for 2 completely different muscle groups, e.g., lateral raises for the shoulders, followed by leg extensions for the quads.
Staggered supersets are great for getting more work done, while saving valuable gym time. While the exercises are still done consecutively, a staggered superset is not as taxing as the others –assuming you’re performing isolations. However, if you perform 2 compound lifts for your staggered superset, be prepared for more intensity.
As the name implies, tri-sets involve 3 exercises done within the same group.
Tri-sets can consist of any exercises you want. There’s really no right or wrong way to go about this one. But do pay attention to the amount of weight used for each exercise, as it’s more intense performing 3 exercises consecutively, within the same set.
Giant sets are sets consisting of 4+ exercises.
These can be done more as a circuit, continuing to go from exercise to exercise without rest. In this case, it is a great idea to reduce the weight you are used to using for a single exercise.
Drop sets are performed with 1 exercise.
Drop sets begin with an exercise for X amount of reps with X amount of weight. Immediately following the first set, without rest, drop the amount of weight by 5-10% and go again for as many reps as possible (AMRAP). Then, drop the weight again and go for AMRAP, and so on, until you’ve reached the lowest weight you want, or are able, to use.
Drop sets fatigue the muscles like nothing else. These are great for overcoming muscle-building stalls, or just adding a different dimension to your workouts.
Pyramids are another weight training add-on that will up the ante of your workouts a bit.
Pyramids are performed much in the way an actual pyramid looks. Begin at the bottom level of the virtual “pyramid” with your starting weight. Then increase in increments of your choice until you reach the top weight you are aiming to use. Once at the top weight, perform the same amount of sets, decreasing in the same increments, until you reach the bottom weight again.
Pyramids can be done partially as well, in which case, you would work from your bottom weight up to the top, and finish there.
Pre-exhausing muscle groups means performing an isolation exercise that targets a specific area prior to the main lift, e.g., doing leg extensions to fatigue the quads before performing squats.
This method is often used for a few reasons:
- When you don’t have the usual gym equipment normally available to you, due to traveling and whatnot, and can’t go as heavy as you’d like.
- When you have a dominant muscle that keeps taking over during a compound lift, e.g., front delts or triceps taking more of the load than they should during the bench press, to the detriment of the pecs. In this case, pre-exhausting the front delts and/or the triceps will force the pecs to do more work during the bench press.
- To stimulate certain muscle groups before a compound lift, e.g., doing a glute-focused exercise before squats. The issue of glutes not responding, or not contributing to completing the squat, is a common problem. Pre-exhausting wakes up those sleepy muscles, letting them know it’s time to get to work.
Who Benefits From These Extras?
Beginners should stick to a basic lifting program to start. When first starting out, you shouldn’t need anything beyond compound lifts. Because your body isn’t accustomed to lifting weights, it will change no matter what. In fact, you’ll make changes faster by using compound lifts. Trying to implement these extras will only waste your time.
I can’t tell you how much time I wasted on isolation lifts when I first started out. It wasn’t until I switched to a full-body, compound-focused program, that I saw the muscle growth I was aiming for.
Intermediate & Advanced Trainees
This is really for those that have been training for a while. Folks who want to amp up the intensity, bring up lagging body parts, or just get in and out of the gym faster will really benefit more from these training methods.
The longer we train (years), the harder it is to make changes to our physiques. When your body is placed under any amount of physical stress, it is going to do everything in its power to keep up, and meet that challenge. When this adaptation occurs, muscle growth and strength increase. Then it’s time to give your body a new challenge.
Well, as our training progresses over the years, this adaptation slows, making it more difficult to gain muscle as quickly as we used to. It’s then that all the little extras we can get our hands on are most beneficial. While they may not be miracles, they can definitely help break a plateau, though not without effort.
Killing It in the Gym
Now that you know how these training methods work, you can work them into your program. Keep track of your workouts to find out which of these methods work best for you, as you might respond better to one over another. Whether you try supersets, pyramids, or everything in between, you will definitely see and feel a difference in the gym, and in the mirror.