This is how most people train:
And this is how some of my clients and I train:
I’ll use my flawless logic to explain why I train using agonist-antagonist paired sets and why you should probably do the same.
For those of you who need some verbal diarrhea instead of an infographic to understand things:
Agonist-antagonist paired set is a way of training where you perform a set of an exercise (e.g. bench press) immediately followed by a set of another exercise that trains the opposing muscle groups (e.g. cable row). Only then do you take a rest before performing the next paired set.
In the interest of not letting this post snowball into a 5,000-word novella, let’s dive into the research and see what advantages it has over traditional straight-set training.
A 2017 study looked at the bench press and seated row performance during paired-set and traditional-set (i.e. straight-set) training. Here’s what they did:
Once the study was over the researchers told the subjects piss off we’re done here thank you die soon we need to assess the findings. And assess they did.
First, unsurprisingly, they found that the paired-set group completed the workout in roughly half the time of the traditional-set group. I said “unsurprisingly” because structuring training in paired sets has been found to be an efficient way to train in previous studies too:
I know you might be wondering, and I know you’re not, but my workouts went from lasting an hour and a half to like an hour and ten minutes once I started training in a paired-set fashion. Twenty additional minutes to be a good little consumer of TikTok. Life’s good.
Another thing the researchers found was that paired-set training increased performance. The paired-set group performed more total volume (repetitions × weight). In case you’re wondering, it’s a good thing because training volume is a big part of muscle growth. Anyfuckingway, more volume:
This makes sense because you actually get more rest when training in a paired set fashion:
If you perform straight sets, the working muscles rest only during the rest interval before the next set. Let’s say two minutes. With paired sets, not only do you get those same two minutes of rest but also a few seconds to move from one exercise to another and then as many as it takes to complete the second exercise.
In this study, under paired-set training, the rest interval between like sets was 50 seconds longer compared to straight-set training. Thus, improved performance. Although this effect is not always shown in research. Some studies do find the performance-enhancing effect, some don’t.
- As Eric Helms, a coach and an athlete noted, previous studies on paired-set training fall into two categories: 1) Studies that report similar performance outcomes in a more time-efficient manner or 2) studies that show increased volume in a more time-efficient manner compared to straight-set training. So worst-case scenario, you’ll save a shit-ton of time. Best-case, you’ll save a shit-ton of time and improve muscle and strength gain.
- So I highly recommend pairing upper body pushing and pulling exercises (e.g. bench press with cable row), leg extension with leg curls, and bicep curl with tricep extension. You could even pair the upper body with lower body exercises as long as those two exercises don’t require a lot of cardiovascular demand. Pairing a Bulgarian split squat with a barbell bench press would probably be a horrendously stupid pair.
- Another horrendously stupid thing to do would be to train in a paired set manner during the peak time in the gym. Having two pieces of equipment all to yourself might be interpreted by others as an invitation to kung fu kicking you in the motherfucking kidneys.
- If you’re a metaphorical doughnut-consuming couch potato a.k.a your cardio fitness sucks balls at the moment a.k.a you just started your fitness journey, maybe start with straight-set training. Or take longer rest periods between paired sets or even an extra minute of rest between the exercises.
If you don’t want to deal with programming your workouts, jump on board for the Train With Me program. It’s a 3, 6, or 12-month progressive strength training 1:1 online coaching in which I’ll teach you how to train with a proper technique, volume, and proximity to failure so that you can enjoy your time in the gym without the need to figure it out all for yourself.
Originally published by me on Medium on November 15, 2022