You're doing yourself a disservice if you think the only "good" training protocols are the ones that were invented last week when some coach started daydreaming while watching one of his clients work the battling ropes for the eighth time that day.
"Simple" program designs have the advantage over many of the new methods in that they've been practiced for decades by thousands of accomplished lifters. One such successful method that's often forgotten is compound set training.
What's a Compound Set?
Compound sets often get mistaken for supersets. A superset involves two exercises performed back-to-back that work separate muscle groups, like a squat followed by an overhead press. A compound set doubles down on the SAME muscle group, possibly hitting the group from different angles to achieve total exhaustion. Think cable preacher curls followed by dumbbell hammer curls.
This is a time-efficient way to train, specifically for hypertrophy, but you have to know what you're doing with compound set training to get the most out of it. It's easy to do two exercises that hit the same muscle group, but applying the right specifics can make it much more effective.
The Rules of Compound Sets
- A compound set is always done as a pair, not a group of 3 or 4 different exercises.
- You can choose different rep amounts for each exercise in the compound set; they don't need to be matching. So, exercise A can be more heavily loaded and last 6 reps, whereas exercise B can be a lighter "burnout" load and last 12 or 15 reps. Remember, the goal is geared more towards muscle exhaustion and less toward numerical performance.
- You can rest for as long as you'd like between compound sets, but remember that a set isn't complete until the end of the second exercise. The maximum amount of time you can rest between exercises is 15 seconds, which should be just about enough time for you to move to the second piece of equipment and get ready to lift it.
Four Brutal Compound Sets
1 – Dumbbell Shoulder Press (Ladder Set) and Bent-Over Reverse Flye (12-15 reps)
An overhead press pattern will engage the front and mid deltoids, and the use of dumbbells allows you to manipulate wrist and elbow position in order to avoid undue shoulder joint stress from the load being used.
A ladder set brings the target muscles to great levels of fatigue by pushing past a typical rep threshold with a heavier-than-normal load. Using a weight that's your 12 to 15 rep max, focus on sets of 2, 3, 5, and 10 reps with short 10-second breaks between each set. The video demonstrates one full ladder, which makes one set.
Following this up with a reverse flye from a bent-over position allows you to change spine position to one that's less extended while zeroing in on the rear delts in more isolation.
The pattern focuses in on a different force angle and force curve, which can also give the shoulder joint a break since it gets to train one of the deltoids by way of a pull pattern and not a press pattern.
Lastly, the rotary component of this lift targets a forgotten function of the rear delt that many lifters miss. Watching the video, you'll see that my hands and arms finish in external rotation. Making this modification to your reverse flye will pay huge dividends for rear delt development.
2 – Romanian Deadlift (8 reps) and 2 to 1 Hamstring Curl (6-8 reps per leg)
This compound set is straightforward. Starting with the bigger lift will allow you to be fresher for the heavier load. Second, since the hamstrings cross two joints, you're choosing to train the hamstrings as a hip extensor by leading off with the Romanian deadlift.
By adding Swiss ball curls as the second movement, you treat the hamstrings as a knee flexor, which tackles their second function.
Use a slower, heavier (one legged) eccentric phase, which especially serves the hamstrings since they're jam packed with fast twitch muscle fibers. Keep the hips high the entire time.
3 – Dip (Max Reps) and French Press (10-12 reps)
Dips are great for emphasizing the lateral head of the triceps, along with a major contribution from the pecs.
Following up dips with a French press takes care of the long head of the triceps, which is the part most lifters struggle to develop. The farther overhead you move your arms for triceps work, the more you’ll stimulate the long head.
High-reps work great, as heavier load can create elbow stress if the angles aren't just right.
4 – Bench Press (8–10 reps) and Pec Deck Flye (12-15 reps)
The chest and triceps work as synergists for pressing patterns, so starting off with a bench press in a horizontal pattern will expose the sternal pectoralis to plenty of good muscle damage.
Following that bench with a flye pattern using a fixed machine like the pec deck does a few interesting things. First, sitting upright (compared to doing dumbbell flyes on a flat bench) changes the angle of the stress placed on the shoulders so you don't have to endure too much overkill and can rather focus on the chest stimulation alone.
Second, the triceps don't act as synergists here but antagonists. That means even more emphasis on the chest. Third, the larger lever arm you create at the start position of the flye opens up the chest for a deep stretch, optimizing the length-tension ratio during the second half of the compound set. Many top bodybuilders will agree that the latter is a top tier directive for hypertrophy training and shouldn't be neglected.
Lastly, doing the pec deck flye creates constant tension through a different force angle. In other words, the chest doesn't get to "relax" at any point during the lift.
How to Build a Proper Compound Set
Now that you've seen some examples, you need to know how to build your own compound sets so your programming makes physiological sense. Here are three things to keep in mind:
1 – Many Major Muscles Have More Than One Head
Muscles like the deltoids, triceps, quads, hamstrings, pecs, and glutes aren't all one big muscle – they're comprised of two or more "parts." In most cases, a given exercise will involve all of those parts, depending on the angle of the lift.
Use this knowledge to your advantage by choosing exercises that emphasize one head first and a different head second. In other words, pressdowns, push-ups, and close-grip bench presses will all fatigue the lateral head of the triceps the most, while leaving the medial and long heads much less fatigued in comparison.
It makes much more sense to diversify your efforts, thus allowing your muscles to withstand more volume.
2 – Many Major Muscle Groups Cross Two Joints
Since they cross two joints, they're responsible for more than one action. Good examples of these would be the hamstrings, quads, biceps, and triceps. Making sure to train them for each action would also be a smart move.
3 – There are Two Sides to Every Rep
Each rep has a concentric (positive) and eccentric (negative) component. Using methods like tempos, negative-only reps, and making smart use of the stretch-shortening cycle can be vital for promoting hypertrophy and even adding strength through time under tension.