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What Is A Paired Set?

What is a paired set? How does it differ from traditional sets or supersets? Here's what you need to know ...
What Is A Paired Set?

My Twin Pairing Training (TPT) system utilizes a time efficient way to get more work done, in less time.

It's called a Paired Set. Hence the name of the system.

It's also a foreign less-well-known training concept for a lot of people, so I decided I should do a deeper dive into the specifics.

A paired set is 2 non-competing exercises paired together and executed back and forth as sort of a mini-circuit but specific to moderate to higher intensity resistance training. With as much rest as is needed to keep the recovery adequate and work quality high.

It is typically notated in exercise programming like so:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Squat 2 30s 10s
A2 Angled Suspension Trainer Row 2 30s 10s

Note that one exercise is the lower body, and the other is the upper body. This is generally how I prefer to use them but you're not limited to this scheme.

The only important distinction for this term is that the two exercises you are choosing to use don't train the same muscle groups.

This has many advantages; The most prominent of which are:

  • It increases your training density
  • It shortens the workout time
  • It maximizes training volume
  • It makes better use of the time you'd otherwise just be resting sitting around on your phone waiting to do the same exercise that second, third, fourth or fifth time
  • Training different areas of the body simultaneously won't lead to any dramatic interference effects or hinder training progress
  • It might be more metabolic by extension and improve aerobic conditioning better than single-set lifting too

Not to be Confused with Supersets

Sometimes you see something similar online described as a Superset, but that terminology can get confusing because that word also refers to combining exercises that work the same muscle groups consecutively.

You see this term used far more often in bodybuilding circles.

Supersets are circuit-like sequences of resistance training exercises done in succession with rest intervals, but it can be any old exercises, even ones that train the same muscle groups.

Meaning the word superset might also refer to a sequence of training that hits the same muscle groups. For instance, a common pec superset might be:

  • Bench press
  • Push ups
  • Dumbbell Chest Flies.

All of those exercises mostly work the same muscles of the chest, front shoulders and triceps…

The term paired set is more specific and comes from a different world: the research community. I use it to distinguish this approach from that common bodybuilding approach.

The research world often even adds complexity to the mix using the term ‘Agonist-Antagonist‘ Paired Set to describe paired sets that specifically train opposing muscle groups like the chest and back … whatever ... tomato … tamato …

I’ll keep using the term superset for sets that work the same muscle groups…

Paired sets are supersets where you exclusively use two non-competing exercises within the same set. This is essential for taking advantage of the rest period you’d normally have to take with traditional sets and making better use out of it.

Translation: It shortens your workout, while also getting more stuff done.

Don't Waste Your Rest Time

Let's use a common 3 exercise workout example from a program like starting strength (SS for short):

Order Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Back Squat 3 5 180-300s
B Bench Press 3 5 180-300s
C Deadlift 1 5 180-300s

As you can see in that table this notation indicates that you Squat for one set, rest the allotted time which is pretty long in this example (3-5 minutes) because you're working with pretty high intensity low rep range. Then you squat again, rest, squat, that last time until you hit the required workload.

Then you do the same for the bench press, and then the deadlift — which is only 1 set in this case, but that doesn't account for warm-up sets and isn't really the point.

The point is that’s a lot of time spent doing straight sets that a lot of people spend either loading plates on barbells or sitting around shootin’ the shit.

That's 6-10 minutes of rest time between only 3 sets of a given exercise that you could utilize to train a non-competing exercise. Meaning 12-20 minutes of doing nothing just to complete only 2 exercises?

That's valuable time that you could just fill with a second exercise, to get in and out of the gym faster.

In doing so, you can also add a fourth exercise to the mix, instead of just three and we can even bump up the deadlift volume and still finish before the straight set example above.

For example:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Back Squat 3 5 90-150s
A2 Bent Over Dumbbell Row 3 5 90-150s
B1 Deadlift 3 5 90-150s
B2 Dumbbell Floor Press 3 5 90-150s

The effect being nearly the equivalent of the 2 straight sets from the previous example, but with 5 extra work sets completed in what amounts to the same amount of time.

We could even make SS dramatically faster to execute with the following:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1 Back Squat 3 5 90-150s
A2 Bench Press 3 5 90-150s
B Deadlift 1 5 180-300s

Notice the rest interval changes ...

We can effectively halve the previous rest recommendations because you're doing a set of Bench Press between sets of Back Squat. We can shorten the rest recommendation because 90s x 2 = 180s of rest and 150s x 2 = 300s (a similar 180-300s recommendation) of rest between back squat efforts, not including the time it took you to do the bench press. Meaning you may end up with with even more total rest between efforts, which is often a good thing.

I just saved you 6-10 minutes. You end up get some 33% more work done, in 33% less time, all with a very similar training effect. At least for most beginners and intermediate lifters.

I’ll do a write up about the science behind all this at a future date, because there is actually fair bit of it, for the sciency I-need-proof-types like me.

Otherwise you’ll have your doubts.

Potential Drawbacks

The biggest problem with this technique is choosing exercises that won't limit the exercise it's paired with. e.g. don't do a squat and a split squat as a pairing, they are almost the same exercise.

The best way to avoid that is to train opposing muscle and movement actions. e.g. push and pull together, flex and extend, or better yet, upper body to lower body where there is very little risk of overlap.

Here are some simple pitfalls to avoid or consider:

  • Don't do grip intensive exercises in both pairings (i.e. a barbell deadlift and a row is a bad pairing)
  • Don't do isolation exercises with a compound movement that overlap muscle groups, especially a large one (i.e. don't do chest flies and bench press together)
  • Be mindful of truly full-body lifts (i.e. a muscle up is simultaneously a push and pull, so pair it with a lower body exercise)
  • Be wary of integrating atypical exercises (i.e. a pullover trains the lats yes, but also the triceps, so pairing it with a push is not ideal)
  • Olympic Lift Variations are hard to utilize with this method (i.e. you're probably better off just doing them as an exclusively "A" lift, but if you have to, anterior core work, usually pairs well)
  • Choose your equipment (or your gym) wisely.

There may be some equipment limitations for some people in some settings. You wouldn't want to pair a barbell bench press and a barbell squat together if you only had one power-rack or one barbell. But you might be able to get away with one barbell stripping weights off a deadlift during the rest interval and using a floor press.

And hoarding two barbells, or a power-rack and bench press rack at some gyms will probably get you more than a few dirty looks. It's not very good gym etiquette, unless you have a training partner and the two of you are switching back and forth between well. It can work in an empty gym though.

As a general rule of thumb, use two different forms of equipment together for optimal results. e.g. I'll often mix a chain or plate loaded push-up with a barbell or I'll use a kettlebell or dumbbell with a barbell or machine.

It's also my experience that this approach doesn't work as well for muscular endurance goals. It's generally better to train that with a grease the groove approach if you can. If not, do single sets with short rest intervals. You simply can't accomplish that effect with paired sets, the rest intervals get too long. By the time you're done the second exercise at 15+ reps, the rest interval for the other exercise is probably too long.

And look, this approach probably won’t make you elite powerlifter strong any time soon either.

That said I use this approach a lot with many of my clients, and for what it's worth a lot of my male clients can still deadlift ~2x their bodyweight, squat ~1.5x their bodyweight, bench press ~1.25x their bodyweight and bang out 8+ solid chin ups.

In other words, none of them are herculean strong but they are STRONG ENOUGH. I make modifications for athletic populations.

I get the same or similar results that other traditional basic single set routines get for most beginners and intermediate trainees. This demographic is most people, like 80% of the population. And the get the same or similar results in less time!

Here's one easy tweak to my TPT system for athletic or intermediate and beyond clients with strength or powerlifting goals. That's to do the first exercise as a single set to train the most important lift(s).

Like so:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Back Squat 6 3 >300s
B1 Dumbbell Floor Press 3 6-8 ~90-120s
B2 Barbell Hip Hinge 3 6-8 ~90-120s
... ... ... ... ...

Maybe the first two exercises in rare situations, depending on the training goals of that phase. Like so:

Order Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A Back Squat 6 3 >300s
B Bench Press 4 3 240-360s
C1 Bent Over Dumbbell Row 3 8 60-90s
C2 Dumbbell Skull Crushers 3 8 60-90s
... ... ... ... ...

But beyond that, you can easily use paired sets on the rest of your accessory work – the C pairing, a D pairing, maybe even E or F pairings – and still save yourself loads of time.

Will It Work For You?

Before I get trolled on some of this, let it be known that a program featuring exclusively paired sets will apply best to beginners and intermediates, or people with hypertrophy goals.

I honestly see very little reason to use traditional single sets with this population if I can help it. The biggest restriction is generally equipment but you can do a lot with whatever external resistance you have access to, paired with a bodyweight (callisthenics) exercise.

If you have Powerlifting or Olympic lifting goals, you can certainly use the single starting set idea, followed by paired sets later in the workout. I usually opt for the A, B1, B2 ... approach for a lot of athletes too, especially in the off-season.

No routine works forever. Although this system was designed specifically for making easy modifications that prolong its usefulness. Once you start approaching powerlifter strong, you’ll probably need to use some traditional sets for the lifts you really want to improve. I won't deny that.

By then you'll need a more specialized, advanced powerlifting framework program like 5/3/1 or Westside or something along those lines.

I still think the paired set approach is ideal for the first 1-2 years. Especially for any base or foundation phases of programming. Like most new programs it will feel harder at first because you're not used to it. People with low work capacity might hate too many paired sets but they are the exception in my programming not the rule.

Then you'll get used to it, and you'll wonder why you weren't doing this ages ago!

That said you can easily take yourself to an advanced level of lifting with this approach along with the additional benefits you won't find in programs that don't feature paired sets:

  • A seemingly better cardiovascular response with this style of training*
  • Forces you to think more clearly about complementary exercises. The program tends to end up more balanced because you purposefully program complementary exercises as pairings.
  • Frees up time to work on smaller areas that get very little love like wrist, grip, hip flexor and calf work.
  • It’s less time-dependent to execute. It's obviously faster to execute due to paired sets vs traditional straight sets (the latter can take FOREVER …)
*About a 10% increase in Heart Rate according to research. With minimal to no degradation in strength or hypertrophy response. This could quite possibly mean that you can get away with doing less aerobic or heart specific training, but the jury is still out on that…and I still think SOME aerobic work is good for your health.

Try it, see how it goes, and please, report back and leave a comment.