Coauthor – Merrick Lincoln, DPT
Save Time, Build Muscle
Is there a way to gain size and strength without spending hours in the gym? Yep. Compound sets will get you there. Take a look at these.
Build Size and Strength Without the Time Suck
Building size and strength isn’t something you can rush, but certain training tweaks can help you get more done in less time. That’s where compound sets come in.
What are they? There are disagreements on what a compound set actually is, but like a superset, it involves two back-to-back exercises. But rather than working separate muscle groups (like a traditional superset), you train the SAME muscle group, like a chest dip followed by a chest flye.
These sets are perfect if you’re short on time and big on building muscle.
Compound sets aren’t easy. Unlike circuits – which tend to stimulate systemic fatigue more than muscle growth and strength – compound sets should be loaded more aggressively.
We’ll get into the details on how to program them in just a bit. But first, here are some killer compound sets to try:
1. Romanian Deadlift and Leg Curl or GHD
For complete hamstring training, use a compound set that targets the hamstrings while they work as hip extensors AND knee flexors. That means doing two different exercises.
First, do a set of Romanian deadlifts with a moderately heavy load. Then, immediately after, hit leg curls. Or, if you’re strong, do GHD (glute ham developer) curls to hammer the hammies as knee flexors.
Since the three hamstring muscles that act as hip extensors are already fatigued from the RDL, the GHD will bias the biceps femoris short head. The end result? Thorough hamstring training for size and resilience.
Why do this combo? Anatomy, bro.
The RDL is a staple for building the hammies. However, remember their functional anatomy. They’re made up of four muscles. On the inside of the posterior thigh, you’ve got semimembranosus and semitendinosus. On the outside, the biceps femoris long head and biceps femoris short head.
While the first three hamstring muscles cross the hip and knee, the biceps femoris short head only crosses the knee joint. So, it isn’t effectively trained by the RDL alone. And that’s why this combo is gold.
2. Leg Press and Leg Extension
Banish the bird legs with this compound set that loads all parts of the quads. Hit the leg press for a heavy 8-10 reps. Then, go for 15-20 on leg extensions. This is a boatload of metabolic stress and tension.
We favor the leg press over the squat when using compound sets. It adds stability and allows you to really hammer your quads when you place your feet low on the platform.
While you could hit leg extensions before the leg press, this “pre-fatigue” strategy will likely compromise the number of reps you’re able to do on the leg press (6), which is the “meat and potatoes” of this pairing. So, do it first.
Why do this combo? To load the quads, bro.
Squats and leg presses target the vastus medialis (what bodybuilders call the “teardrop” muscle above the inside of the knee), and the vastus lateralis or outer quad muscle (4,5). Leg extensions, on the other hand, hit the rectus femoris harder (4, 5).
So since all three superficial quadriceps muscles are important for big legs and knee health, it makes sense to train the leg press (or squat) along with leg extensions.
3. One-Arm Row and Seated Plate Raise
Thinking shrugs are the key to trap growth is like thinking a single vegetable a day will get you healthy. Nutrition isn’t that simple, and neither are your traps. Overhead plate raises and horizontal pulls are the best of the best for well-defined traps, especially when you compound-set them.
Start with your row, then go right into the plate raise to really build the width and size of your upper back/traps. Stick to heavier loads and lower reps for the one-arm row, then create lots of tension with 20-plus reps for the plate raises.
Why do this combo? To nail your WHOLE trapezius, bro.
The lower traps are sometimes thought of as the anti-upper traps. The upper traps shrug the shoulders up, while the lower pull them down. However, the upper and lower traps work together during overhead lifting by helping the serratus anterior to upwardly rotate the shoulder blades.
The plate trap raise is one of the best exercises for training upper and lower traps as upward rotators. Start by grabbing a plate in both hands with thumbs pointing up, then raise the plate as high over your head as you can by squeezing the mid-back between your shoulders. Continue squeezing your mid-back, maintaining constant tension, as you lower the plate with control in front of your body.
When it comes to horizontal pulling, it’s hard to think of a better exercise than the single-arm row. This classic trains lats, rhomboids, delts, teres, and many of their synergists, which aid in stability.
4. Single-Arm Rollout Push-Up and Pigeon Press
For building the chest, most lifters are drawn to bench pressing. That’s fine, but this compound set amps up the tension in a totally different way.
Do 6-8 reps with the rollout, then shoot for 12-20 reps on the pigeon press. Take a two-minute rest before going again to keep your energy output high for each set. Not only will your chest get some work, but your core will be put to the test.
Why do this combo? Total-body tension, bro.
The rollout press is easier than a single-arm push-up, yet harder than a ring flye. One arm moves away from the midline of your body, creating more torque. The other stabilizes and presses with 80 percent (or more) of the weight distribution.
The end result? You hit the pecs while engaging the core and lower body. The key is to not let your body drift so far on the “rolling” side that you lose leverage in your push-up with the opposing arm.
Follow that up with the kneeling pigeon press to create a combo that blows up the chest fairly quickly.
5. Dip and Dumbbell Flye Press
Pair a dip with a flye press and your chest will get a ton of mechanical stress at different angles and lengths.
With the dip, don’t worry about “targeting” different regions of the chest or hitting the triceps. You may compromise your potential to add load or get adequate volume. The tension produced from both exercises will fully stimulate the chest.
The flye press is superior for working the pecs in a stretched position. It’s a good one if the conventional bench press causes joint irritation. The eccentric (lowering) portion of the movement is a flye, and the concentric (lifting) part is a press.
Unlike a normal flye where the tension is lost about mid-way to the top, this version allows you to do the concentric portion like a press so you can load with heavier weights and keep more tension.
Why do this combo? Volume and isolation, bro.
The chest is best developed with combinations of volume and isolation since it can take a lot of muscle damage.
With this combo, bodyweight dips will be hard enough as you battle the stress from the flye press. It’ll be challenging enough to get 12 reps with just your body weight, but if you can load the dip with good form, go for it.
6. Sled Drag to Push
Do the less complex exercise first. Why? If you’re going to do compound sets with the sled, it’s more convenient to leave the same weight on it, but most people can push more than they can backward-sled drag.
So hit the quads with a challenging weight for the backward sled drag, then use that same weight for a challenging sled push. Think of the backward sled drag like a pre-fatigue set for the quads before the push, which hits the quads again along with glutes and calves.
Why do this combo? Metabolic stress, bro.
Pre-fatigue training facilitates similar load volume as traditional set structures with a “strong trend” for increased blood lactate. (3) Lactate is an indicator of metabolic stress, which, during resistance training, is mechanistically related to building muscle.
If whole-body blood lactate trends higher for pre-fatigue set structures, the target muscles will experience an increase in metabolic stress.
Compound Sets: Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Is there a way to mess this up?
Definitely. Compound sets are great, but don’t overdo them. One study showed that participants who did 5 sets of a 10RM bench press paired with a 10RM incline bench ended up having to reduce volume load (total reps x weight) compared with the same exercises they did as traditional sets.
Surprisingly, muscle swelling (the “pump”) was superior for traditional sets as well. The take-home message? The programming variables for compound sets are extremely important. Exercise selection, load, volume, and rest intervals are key.
Q: What exercises are best?
Pairing two multi-joint, free-weight exercises in a compound set may not be ideal. Ideally, one or both in a compound set should be machine-based or single-joint. The first exercise should be the most technically demanding, so do it while you’re fresh. Load it moderately heavy in the 6-10 rep range.
Then immediately move to the second exercise to “burn out” the target muscles with 12-20 reps. Rest after a set of both exercises. Give yourself long enough to fully recover. Wait a solid 2-3 minutes between each compound set.
Q: How many compound sets per muscle?
Beginners might start with 2 or 3 compound sets per muscle group, which yields 4 or 6 hard sets. Advanced lifters often do 4 or more compound sets, which results in a much higher set volume.
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