Over the years I’ve received a ton of questions on the popular internet programs: Starting Strength (SS – a classic) or Stronglifts 5×5 — Starting Strength with more volume…
These two resistance training programs have seemingly taken over the interwebz. In part, for their simple equipment requirements and linear progression model.
The latter (5×5) can even result in a decent amount of hypertrophy based on the number of effective reps it can achieve.
Twin Pairing Training (TPT) is my response to create a simple signature exercise routine similar in premise, but with infinitely more flexibility in it’s execution.
Meaning: I think this is a better program for some reasons I’ll detail below.
Are They Too Simple?
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.“~Albert Einstein
Everyone seems to forget about the last part. Occam’s razor is similar in principle.
I applaud simplicity but recognize that you can only break things down so far.
Beginners, are buying into the idea of simple, when they default to these programs without recognizing they may be too simple.
They are missing certain practical components of the training process that I think you should learn.
Is strength all that matters?
I do share some of the sentiment that strength training is very important.
It’s right up there under ‘movement’ on my list in terms of general physical qualities that are important.
However, that doesn’t mean you want to train it all the time, or shouldn’t spend time focusing on other objectives.
What if your goal is fat loss? Athletic Performance Improvements? Maintenance? What about velocity training?
I’ve never worked with a 60 year old who turned to me and said, “you know what I wish I had? A bigger bench press...”
That’s right fitness world, most people just want to be reasonably fit and reasonably healthy so as to support their real life objectives…
Will having a 600 pound deadlift will make you that much better at looking after your kids or doing your job, than a 300 pound deadlift? It’s all relative…
If you want to get good a powerlifting down the road, these are decent starting points, but they cannot be applied to many other goals. Twin Pairing Training can…
Is barbell training all there is?
The lifts you find in both SS and SL5x5 are staples in most of the programs I design, but not exclusively.
A power rack, a barbell, a bench, and some plates is a doable investment if you have the space or belong to a gym.
What if you don’t have those things? Do dumbbells, or kettlebells, or bands, or machines have zero value? Doubtful…
Not only that, a set of bands, a chin up bar, or a suspension trainer and a pair of adjustable dumbbells is a lot more affordable and just as valuable a starting point for the beginner.
Especially the beginner that has no significant interest in powerlifting. This isn’t to imply that barbell deadlifts, squats or bench press have no value.
Rather a barbell is just a tool like any other tool and using a variety of tools is generally better if possible, than relying on only one. Twin Pairing Training can be done with a variety of equipment…
Where is the back training?
In a decade of coaching, here’s one thing I’ve seen a ton: Weak Back Muscles.
It’s just modern society, more time spent on phones, computers, etc…
Both of these predominantly feature only a deadlift for training the back, which leaves a lot of other muscles out of the equation. It’s more of a hip hinge lower body pull.
None of the mid-back is trained well with this and that’s where most people in modern society are weak.
Yes, I’ve heard that they have been updated to include some chin-ups and maybe bent-over rows, but they should have been included from the get go. Twin Pairing Training has an upper body pull every day you train, always has…
Where long do these popular workouts take?
A lack of time is the number one reason people give when asked why they don’t exercise.
Straight sets are not time efficient. Especially straight sets in low rep ranges where long rest durations are required for safety and effectiveness.
You end up doing a whole lot of nothing while you rest. Why not make better use of that time?
For 5 rep strength exercises, you should rest 2-5 minutes between efforts. That means each exercise for 3-5 sets, takes 6-20 minutes to complete.
Three exercises done with single sets can easily eat up a lot of time, especially if you include the warm up sets you should be doing before you get to the 3-5 work sets.
Paired set training makes use of the rest interval by pairing a non-competing movement (muscle groups), which improves the time efficiency by about a third.
If your quads are doing a lot of work, your upper back isn’t that taxed, so it can be worked during the rest interval. Likewise, if your hamstrings and hips are doing a lot of work
Meaning you can get 4 exercises done at the same 3-5 sets of 5 reps, in substantially less time.
This doesn’t mean that paired sets are always superior, but for beginners they are. Twin Pairing Training is literally named for two paired sets of training…
Where is the variety?
Yes, there is an easy argument to be made, that if you want to get good at something you have to do it regularly.
If you want to get good at bench press, deadlifts, and squats, you have to do them. You can still do these within the Twin Pairing Training system….
This is called ‘specialization.’ Specialization comes with risks. Specialization at powerlifting, makes you good at powerlifting.
It also doesn’t provide a lot of movement variability if all you do is train the same 3 things all the time. What about other movements? What about other positions you may find yourself in more regularly?
Good programs eventually work their way around this by adding variety/accessory movements to these 3 movements. Twin Pairing Training does that immediately to familiarize you with the process…
You need some variety with training, and it’s best to get into a routine of mixing exercises up (every 1-2 months) to keep your joints feeling fresh and to prevent too much specialization.
*Unless of course you want to compete in powerlifting.
Where is the dose of reality?
Both of these programs are designed with what’s called a linear progression strategy.
Meaning, you start with the empty barbell, then you add your lowest number of plate weight to the barbell and you keep doing that each week until you can’t.
Then you deload (cut the weight) and continue under the same progression. The idea of adding 5 or 10 lbs to the bar each week (really regardless of your true ability).
Good in theory but there are three issues with this in the long-term:
- It isn’t how the body really responds to training. *Why get used to expecting linear progress, when biological systems don’t normally make progress like this?
- There is a lot of fussing around with light, negligible weights at first, and then again after each deload.
- It slows your development and draws out the training process for a lot longer than it needs to be. *It is not unusual for people to stick with this same basic training pattern for a year or more.
It’s better to understand that progress in training is no linear. It’s a decent progression strategy for the very first time you’ve ever trained in your life.
But it needn’t be repeated beyond that because it gets harder and harder to duplicate the initial success. That becomes frustrating when you’re an intermediate trainee.
Why fuss with weights that aren’t reasonably challenging and keep technique in check?
These programs recommend it because the designers believe it helps solidify technique. In my experience the right amount of weight is far better at accomplishing this.
People fall back into pre-existing bad habits when they use non-challenging light weights that don’t present the right balance to the movement.
You see this with bodyweight training all the time. Ask someone to squat without weight, and it doesn’t often look that great. Get them to hold a 25 lbs dumbbell at their chest and repeat. Suddenly the squat looks perfect.
Load can improve technique when applied properly.
Lastly, why wait a year or more to get results you could have in 4-8 months?
If it takes me 8 weeks to go from a 45 lbs empty barbell to 135 lbs barbell and 135 lbs still isn’t a challenging load, did I just waste 8 weeks of my time?
Twin Pairing training cuts through all that fluff…
Twin Pairing Training
The main premise of my basic routine is an equally simple: 4 exercises total.
- Two different workouts (for improved variety, but not too much variety)
- Each workout has two paired sets (Notated as Set A and Set B)
- Each paired set consists of two non-competing resistance training lifts (Notated as A1/A2, or B1/B2)
- These paired sets are more efficient than straight sets because you are doing work in a non-fatigued area, when you’d normally be resting.
Here’s the basic template:
A1) Squat (*Knee Dominant Bilateral Lift)
A2) Vertical Pull
B1) Hip Dominant (*Typically Single Leg…)
B2) Vertical Push
A1) Deadlift (*Hip Dominant Bilateral Lift)
A2) Horizontal Push
B1) Knee Dominant (Typically Single Leg…)
B2) Horizontal Pull
What Exercises Are Those?
You probably noticed that I don’t explicitly state what each exercise should be. This is more of a of a framework, than a workout program, which makes it more flexible to use for longer.
I’m stealing this terminology from the world of computer programming:
Right now I’m writing a blog post using the framework WordPress. Which really just makes the base computer programming language PHP easier to work with.
Computer science majors can correct me if I’m wrong…
A framework sorts out all the nitty gritty details that are common to every website, so you don’t constantly have to write new code from scratch.
There are just certain things that all websites have in common, like a home page, or a contact page, or a WYSIWYG — think Microsoft Word online that allows me to publish my writing with all the neat formatting you see after I publish.
Using a fitness framework gives you a lot more flexibility for building your fitness programs, while shortening the time it takes to create each program.
You can take this framework and:
- Use any tool you want to add progressive overload with, including barbells, bands, dumbbells, kettlebells, bodyweight, etc…etc…
- Add more volume for aesthetics or muscular endurance (i.e. 4×6-8 for aesthetics or 3×15 for endurance, instead of 3×5 or 5×5)
- Mix in a greater variety of movements, even compound movements than just the big 3
- Still have time to add accessory or isolation movements to work on weak areas (either for aesthetics or function)
- Layer in some conditioning for improved fat loss, heart/general health, or simply improved cardiovascular endurance.
This is one of my little secrets but I’ll discuss my concept of fitness frameworks a little more in-depth below if you care.
Using the Framework
This framework could also be called a template. The idea is plug and play exercises that fit the criteria you have to create something a little more specific and therefore useless.
Therefore it relies on movement concepts more than specific exercises. Meaning exercises that loosely meet the criteria so as to not impact the paired exercise.
The bilateral lower knee dominant exercise (AKA lower body push) could just as soon be a leg press if you preferred or a squat. You could easily mix in unilateral lunges, single leg squats, single leg leg press, or step ups instead.
The vertical pull might be a lat pulldown or a chin up or a pull up.
The hip dominant exercise could be a deadlift, but it might be nice to put it on day 2 (if there is a day 2 in your approach). It could also be a single leg deadlift or a glute bridge variation or a leg curl variation.
The vertical press could be just as much an incline press, as it is a military press. A wall push up or a landmine press can also be used.
The horizontal press could be bench press, or machine press, or push ups.
The horizontal pull could be dumbbell rows, or inverted rows, suspension trainer rows, or barbell rows.
See what I’m getting at?
Concepts Not Exercises
As opposed to telling you that you need this specific piece of equipment and you have to adhere to this specific schedule.
We know the best exercise is the exercise you actually do. We also know the best schedule is the one you’ll stick to.
One potential drawback to this system is that a variety of equipment is better. Or at least possessing equipment that makes it easy for you to change the loads between pairs.
For example, a good pair of quick adjustable dumbbells. An easy work around is bodyweight and/or bands combined with whatever external load capacity you have.
For example a more time efficient, slightly higher volume beginner program in the spirit of SS or SL, might be:
A1) Barbell Back Squat (3 sets of 6-8 reps)
A2) Chin Ups (3 sets of max reps)
B1) Barbell Single Leg Hinge (3 sets of 6-8 reps)
B2) Wall Push Ups (3 sets of max reps)
A1) Deadlift (3 sets of 6-8 reps)
A2) Band Resisted Push Ups (3 sets of 6-12 reps)
B1) BB Reverse Lunge (3 sets of 6-8 reps)
B2) Suspension Trainer Row (3 sets of max reps)
Same, Same, But Different
Is it exactly SS or SL5x5?
Of course not, but for most beginners doing this for 2 months and then swapping out the exercises and/or changing the rep ranges will be a lot more engaging and rewarding.
You’ll notice a lot of the upper body work became bodyweight or reliant on other equipment. If you can afford a power rack for SS/SL5x5, then a a chin up bar likely comes with it.
Trust me spend a little extra on a full rack, rather than a flimsy half rack.
Of course won’t be able to bench press without a bench.
All of these things are required for SS and SL5x5 anyway, so if you can afford all of that. A suspension trainer is only ~$50 more…
That’s only one example of how this program can work though, that’s the beauty of using a framework as opposed to a strict program.
Why It’s Better Than a Strict Exercise Program
When you use concepts as the base of your program design, it promotes flexibility. You can swap things out easily and you still have a good program available to you.
Kind of like how each wordpress site is a little bit different, but the system I see is exactly the same as the system everybody else sees when they write a blog post.
Can’t get your arms straight above your head to do a proper military press, cool, just do an incline bench press instead, problem solved. Similar training effect with a similar movement pattern but more specific to your needs.
You don’t have a barbell just laying around at home? Cool, do a dumbbell loaded squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press and row…
Yes, this takes a little more time to process and figure out than being told exactly what to do. But it by forcing you to think just a little bit more, you get more out of it.
That’s the problem with one-dimensional exercise specific programs you grab off the internet — I know there is irony to this statement… — is that it’s really easy to hit a roadblock very quickly.
What do you do then?
Exactly, and that is a very real problem that people run into. I may as well prepare you to deal with a common problem (equipment limitations or unique ability) by working it into the system.
My beginner twin pairing training program might not be quite as simple as some other routines you’re likely to find floating around, but it’s not significantly more complicated either.
Plus knowledge is power, so boom!!, I just made you a training jedi in less than a few thousand words.
How Does the Twin Pairing Training Framework Progress?
I’m glad you asked…
Programs like SS or SL5x5 follow a linear progression model.
Meaning, start with ‘X’ weight, in their case the recommendation is usually an empty barbell (~45 lbs or 20kg).
From there, every time you do an exercise (or workout), the progression idea is simple. Add a little weight. Usually 5 or 10 lbs (2 or 5 kg) because that’s easy to do on barbells if you have 2.5 lbs (1kg) or 5 lbs (2 kg) plates.
If you only have 10 lbs (5kg) plates, then you’ll progress faster, but you’ll also hit your limits faster because you’re making 20 lbs (10kg) jumps.
You keep adding weight like this each time to train an exercise so long as you can do all the prescribed repetitions. So if it’s 3×5, you should be able to do 3 sets of 5 with the weight, before you’re allowed to add more weight.
Then usually the recommendation is that once you get stuck for more than 2 weeks, you should deload.
*From memory, those programs recommend that you cut the load you were just using in half — if you worked up to 185 lbs, start the process again with ~90-95 lbs.
Then follow the same slow linear progression model again until you stall (or plateau) once more.
You could repeat this indefinitely but depending on the numbers you achieve, both programs will recommend you move on to a more advanced program.
You can do the same here thing with twin pairing training, and that may be a worthwhile objective for your first attempt. After your first time through, switch to a cyclical progression model (described below).
Big jumps work fine for bilateral barbell training. However, if you’re going to use another piece of equipment, any isolation exercises or single limb training. Then it’s more appropriate to think in percentages.
Think about adding 2-5% more load, rather than a fixed jump, or whatever the smallest jumps you can, given the equipment you have at your disposal.
The Caveats For My Linear Progression Approach…
Unlike SS or SL5x5, I see no real need to start with an empty barbell or the lightest load you have at your disposal (whatever that may be).
Your first 2 weeks even with my linear system, should be spent determining a load that is challenging but permits ideal technique. Then you attempt the linear progression.
That means, pick a weight you think you can conservatively lift 6-8 times.
If your male, go 10% lighter. If you’re female, grab something 10% heavier.
The 6-8 rep range is the most ideal rep range for the beginner in my experience (not 5). It provides the right balance of strength and work capacity.
Using a range (6-8 or 10-12) instead of a specific (like 6 or 8) helps beginners figure the training process more easily and quickly. If I told you 6, would you always stop at 6? Probably…
A buffer zone range makes you more likely to find your sweet spot. Then with some time under your belt you can switch to more exact numbers. By then you’ll know what weights to use for what lifts and for how many reps.
You’re not there yet, so…
In week 1 – I recommend 2 sets of 6-8 reps per exercise
Once you complete set #1 for 8 reps, if you think you can lift more, add a little more (remember 2-5% bump).
If you can still do at least 8 reps, prepare to add load in the next workout.
If you can’t complete set #2, with at least 6 reps, do not add load next workout.
If you can do at least 6 reps, awesome, you’ve determined the right load to use pretty quickly!
Next workout you’ll still attempt to add 2-5% as progressive overload on set #1.
In week 2 – I recommend 3 sets of 6-8 reps
If you’ve determined the optimal load already (and most people won’t during the first session) then you should add a little load to set #1 this time.
If you haven’t found that limit yet, add the same amount of load to the last load you used (in the last workout).
Then follow the same linear progression model.
If you can do at least 8, add a little more load for set #2. If you’re between 6-8 reps, stick with that weight. If you only lift it less than 6 times, it’s too heavy, take some weight off for set #3.
This is called ‘autoregulation.’ It’s more productive to adjust each set based on performance, rather than than keeping the same weight for each set (as SS or SL5x5 recommend).
It takes into account how you actually feel on any given training day because that’s not linear and will depend on sleep, nutrition and stress.
In week 3 – I recommend 4 sets of 6-8 reps
Hold at 4 sets until your first linear progression stalls.
It’s possible you still haven’t determined the right load to be using even at this point, so keep following that set-to-set linear progression approach until you figure it out.
Once you’ve got a good handle on the “right” load to use (with some minor tweaks from set to set of course).
Now you’ll attempt to add 2-5% on average to each session until you get stuck around the same weight for 2 weeks in a row.
From here I do not recommend cutting the weight in half as a deload and starting the process again. Research suggests that cutting the volume and maintaining the intensity is a better strategy.
If you want to deload and keep the same exercises. Cut the volume back to 2 sets and progress to 3 and then 4 again.
However, a better approach in my opinion is to deload the volume (halve the volume to 2 sets) and change the exercises (perhaps even the rep ranges). This is the basis of my more cyclical progression model (again detailed below).
Additional Thoughts on Linear Progressions…
What matters for progressive overload is the general trend of adding load (or reps), not necessarily adding load every set or every workout.
Birds Eye view.
Sometimes you have to gauge a stall. Is it really a stall? Or have you been excessively stressed, short on sleep and eating too little?
Always keep this in mind before you prematurely deload.
Second, you may have noticed I start each progression with low volume (2 sets) training.
It serves two purposes:
- It’s a better way to deload
- It prevents excessive delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Extreme muscle soreness from training sucks, so the easiest recommendation I can make is to ramp up the volume anytime you start a new cycle of training (i.e. you change exercises rep ranges).
There are other ways to manage it, but this is probably the easiest for a beginner.
Please note that you shouldn’t be working anywhere close to absolute failure as a beginner.
All sets should be terminated early if you hit technical failure — the difference is explained in that article on absolute failure.
However, something near technical failure will yield the best results for a beginner. Maybe a rep or two shy of that.
Technique trumps hitting the right amount of failure, so if you feel you’re form has become anything less than perfect or ‘ideal’ stop the set. That’s a good rule of thumb for novices.
The Cyclical Progression Model
Three exercises done over and over and over again makes Jack a dull boy.
It also leaves holes in your development. There are over 650 muscles in your body, 3 exercises can’t train them all. Heck, 4 or 8 likely won’t train them all.
Simplistic training approaches work wonders for beginners but eventually you’ll need some variety and you’ll need to triage.
Muscles are 3-D. Meaning although a squat and a lunge train pretty much the same muscles, they do so ever so differently. Mixing in movements that are similar but different plugs a lot of holes. It ensures that parts of muscles don’t get overlooked.
The lunge requires more balance, so the stabilizers in the hips are trained to a more significant degree than they would be in a squat. Stabilizers help maintain joint integrity and health.
Triage basically means taking care of the most important big things first, then focusing on secondary or tertiary elements.
For example, training grip might be a tertiary element because you’ll get a lot of initial grip developing with a deadlift or lunge at first anyway.
Why bother worrying about it until it becomes a limiting factor? So you craft exercise programs based on importance and cycle in things as needed.
To keep things interesting, I recommend cycling exercises for twin pairing training every time you stall. Or adopting a pre-planned routine of mixing your training up every month or two whether you stall or not.
A quick suggestion for rep ranges to cycle through:
- 2-4 sets of 6-8 as a good base cycle of training
- 2-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions is a good way to give your joints a bit of break and develop a little more work capacity
- 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps would be where I go next, more applicable to strength, but you just gave your joints a bit of a break
- 2-3 sets of 10-12 (or 12+) reps, give the joints a bit of a break and build more endurance for a change
Repeat and you have a solid 4-8 months worth of training under your belt.
How Much Should You Rest Between Sets?
Short answer: As much as you feel you need to.
It’s more of an intermediate-advanced strategy, to use strict rest intervals.
The more I learn about reset intervals the more I think self selection is adequate enough.
Except maybe when you aren’t resting enough for heavy weight training (≤5 reps, up to 5+ minutes before attempting the same exercise).
I usually say get a minimum of 120 seconds (2 minutes) between doing the same exercise.
Maybe go a bit shorter if you have fat loss or muscular endurance fit your objectives. A little bit longer (3-5 minutes) if you’re ≤5 reps intensity.
If I do A1 in let’s say 16-20 seconds (8 reps at 2 seconds a repetition), then I can rest 50 seconds or so before I do A2, which takes another 20 seconds or so, then rest another 50 seconds, then I have a total of 2 minutes rest from exercise A1, before I try to do A1 again.
However, you should shoot for a rough minimum in most cases.
For strength (4-6 reps reps) you’re probably looking at about 80-90 seconds between A1 and A2 and 80-90 seconds before going back to A1, more than enough time to load plates or grab heavier stuff to lift.
For endurance, I could make a better argument for straight sets for intermediates but that’s neither here nor there.
If you do your max push-ups, rest the time it takes you to pick up the weight for your max goblet squats, then rest the time it takes for you to put the weight down and get back to the floor. If you want.
Just keep an eye on technique quality, if it deteriorates in later sets, you’re not resting enough.
One, Two or Three Times a Week?
Twin pairing training at first glance, looks like it sets up only for training 3x a week.
That’s ideal if you can manage it, but even more ideal is to establish a schedule you can actually stick to.
If you can only train 1x a week, take Workout #1 and do that only until you stall (look at the guidelines above). Then attempt something with more of a Workout #2 structure and repeat.
If you can train 2x a week, then you simply do each workout each week. Take a least a day off in between.
If you can train 3x a week, you’re going to cycle every other day
- Monday – Workout 1
- Wednesday – Workout 2
- Friday – Workout 1
- Monday – Workout 2
- Wednesday – Workout 1
- Friday – Workout 2
It’s a 2 week cycle before it repeats itself, but it packs a little more training into each week. Remember that any non-consecutive training days will due. If you want like Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, or Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, go for it…
- Pick 4 or 8 exercises that meet your scheduling needs and equipment constraints based on the exercise selection concepts above
- Alternate between A1 and A2, getting as much rest as you need doing the same exercise, until all your sets and reps are completed for that pairing
- Then move onto the B1 and B2, using the exact same alternating approach
- Start with a base/foundational set and rep scheme of 2-4 sets of 6-8 (progress from 2 sets to 4 sets over 3 training sessions)
- Try a linear progression approach your first time through, then switch to a cyclical progression approach.
- Aim to do resistance training on non-consecutive days only
- Try to use movements that minimize impact on one another, for instance if you’re doing a deadlift, don’t choose and upper body exercise that also challenges your grip — that’s why I almost always pair a press with a lower body hinge/deadlift/hip dominant move.
- I recommend a 5-10 minute warm up at a minimum, but because I don’t have much space in this post, and I have a lot of empathy watching how most people warm up, I’ll have to write another article detailing a basic warm up routine…
- Fill off days with ESD training if you want, I’d recommend some, or you can put 10-20 minutes at the end of one of these routines if you prefer
Also published on Medium.