Paired sets and tri-sets have been the backbone of my program design for personal trainers system because they’re a perfect training strategy for anyone who wants to get the most out of their workout time and maximize strength gains.
Whereas there is no rest between exercises within a superset or circuit, you rest strategically between exercises when doing a paired sets and tri-sets. Here are my general workout guidelines for Paired-Sets and Tri-Sets:
- Perform all sets of a given set of exercises before moving on to the next paired set.
- Rest 1 minute between exercises within a paired set.
- Rest 30 seconds between exercises within a tri-set.
- Rest 1-2 minutes after completing each round of a paired set or tri-set.
- Adjust the prescribed rest periods a bit according to your fitness level. Need more rest? Take it.
The Problem with Program Design from Strength Coaches
Most of the well-known strength coaches who are educating trainers on program design either own their own sports training facility or work in the collegiate setting or for a professional sports team. In all of these situations, these strength coach gets to dictate everything that goes on in their weight-room. Yet, a large portion of the trainers who are learning from them are training clients in a busy gym where they’re navigating around other members who could care less about you or your client.
In other words, personal trainers are learning program design from people who don’t do what they do because they’re not working in our same environment.
I can always tell when a strength coach who is teaching trainers has never actually trained clients inside a busy gym because they promote workout programming that simply won’t work in the busy membership gym setting.
A glaring example of this is how they put together paired sets and tri sets. For example:
Bad Paired Set Example for a Busy Gym
1a. Barbell Squat
1b. Lat Pulldown
Bad Tri Set Example for a Busy Gym
1a. Barbell Bench Press
1b. Barbell Romanian Deadlift
1c. Cable Anti-Rotation (Pallof) Press
On paper, both of the above groupings look good because they consist of basic, proven exercises involving movements patterns that compliments one another well. In that, the paired-set combines a lower-body knee bending exercises with an upper-body vertical pulling exercise. And, the tri-set combines an upper-body horizontal pushing exercises with a lower-body hip hinging exercise, along with an anti-rotation core exercise.
In other words, if you’re running your own facility, these are solid programming combinations. However, if you’re a trainer working with clients in a crowded gym, both of the above are bad programming because they won’t work in your environment. Here’s why:
If you’re doing the above paired set in a busy gym; when you walk away from the squat rack or from the lat pull-down, you’re almost sure to lose it to another member. The same can said be said about the tri-set as well. Not to mention, on that tri-set, you need to utilize two barbells, which you may not have access in a busy gym. And, you risk losing the bench press and the cable machine each time you transition between exercises.
2 Programming Rules for Paired-Sets and Tri-Sets
There are plenty of great exercise pairings you can choose from. However, the best paired sets and tri-sets adhere to these two simple rules:
- Exercise Groupings Must Make Logistical Sense
There’s an old saying that a good craftsperson never blames the tools. This perspective applies perfectly to our strength-training workouts because we’re not always able to use all of the exercise equipment we’d like to. In many cases, the specific thing that limits us is being in a crowded gym where almost every piece of equipment has someone on it.
That said, when doing paired sets or tri-sets, make sure your pairings meet one of these rules:
- They include exercises using the same piece of equipment.
- They include exercises pairing a piece of immobile equipment (e.g., a bench press, squat rack or machine) with exercises using mobile equipment (e.g., dumbbells, resistance bands, or body weight).
- They include exercises pairing two pieces of mobile equipment or body weight.
This approach enables you to avoid the risk of “losing” a piece of equipment while walking across the gym. It also saves time, and saves you and the other gym members a lot of frustration.
So, the following would be better versions of the above paired-set and tri-set examples because they involve the same basic movement patterns while making better logistical sense.
Good Paired Set Example for a Busy Gym
1a. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge or Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat (with rear foot on Lat pulldown seat pad)
1b. Lat Pulldown
Good Tri Set Example for a Busy Gym
1a. Push-Up (NT Loop band resisted or assisted depending or strength level)
1b. Barbell Romanian Deadlift
1c. Dumbbell Plank (Anti-rotation) Row
In the above paired-set, you remain at the lat pulldown machine, and in the above tri-set, both the push-up and the dumbbell plank row can be performed in direct proximity to the barbell. So, you’re using mobile equipment based exercises that allow you to claim your piece of real estate at the immobile equipment. That’s what makes these better, more useful options when you’re training at a crowded gym.
Perfect for Group Training!
Even if you’re not training clients in a big-box gym, designing your workout programs with the big-box gym member in mind by following at least meet one of these rules I’ve provided above. This is because, if it will work in a crowed gym, it will work anywhere.
In fact, following these rules is perfect for group training because:
- You ensure no interrupts the flow of your workout, whether it be another trainer and their client at the same private facility, or multiple athletes or clients training together in a group setting.
- Your clients can translate what they do with you on their own when they’re training by themselves at a big-box gym.
- It’s the most efficient and, therefore productive way to train. And, those who make the best use of their time get the best results.
- Group Non-Interfering Exercises
When pairing and grouping exercises, you don’t want to exhaust the same muscles on both exercises because it interferes with your recovery and performance. So, whatever muscles are being worked in the first exercise, the second exercise in your paired set should be for a different muscle group.
By choosing non-interfering exercises as your paired sets, it allows you to rest longer between sets of the same muscle group, while maximizing your overall training time by doing a set targeting a different muscle group. In other words, you’re using the second exercise to help with recovery from the first one, which means you can then work harder in subsequent sets.
By the time you get back to training the same muscle group on the following set, it’s been several minutes, leaving those muscles plenty of time to fully recover and get ready to exert maximal intensity with every set.
You’ll accomplish more work in the same amount of time, without compromising anything or requiring more rest and recuperation in between workouts.
Check out this quick clip from the Practical Program Design Mastery exercise selection module where I discuss practical examples of grouping exercises and how to avoid doing it incorrectly.