You train hard. With all the hustle and bustle of, say, building a huge set of guns, sometimes a muscle group or two can be inadvertently left by the wayside. For example, your calves might inadvertently find themselves at the bottom of the totem pole for no good reason — with time constraints or even a lack of patience cited as the culprit.
What course of action do you have for the stubborn (or simply underloved) muscle groups in your program?
Enter staggered sets; a solution to the time-management problem many lifters face. Staggered sets weave the exercises you already love with those that might need more attention. Here’s how to use staggered sets to bring up lagging body parts.
Guide to Staggered Sets
- Staggered Sets Explained
- Types of Staggered Sets
- Benefits of Staggered Sets
- How To Program Staggered Sets
- Staggered Sets Examples
- Frequently Asked Questions
A superset is a commonly-employed tool in the resistance training repertoire. The staggered set leverages the logistical advantages of supersets, but “staggers” them throughout many different exercises, or potentially even a full workout.
When you’ve got your program written out, think of which area you’re looking to bring up to par (usually a smaller muscle). From there, you can simply weave exercises that target that muscle group into the workout as a whole — think one long, extended superset. Seems simple enough.
For example, If your calves are the target, choose a calf exercise to superset with another exercise in your program. Train one set of each exercise before resting as normal, and continue this process throughout the entirety of your workout or until your calves have gotten their fill of training stimulus. Here’s a demonstration:
If you’re really in a bind and time is short, the staggered exercise can also take the place of your normal rest period entirely. Instead of performing each exercise back to back before resting as normal, eliminate the rest period completely.
As long as the movements you stagger don’t work the same muscles, you shouldn’t notice any interference.
There are a few angles you can take while designing your staggered sets. You can employ a synergistic, upper-lower, or anterior-posterior strategy for your workouts.
Synergistic Staggered Sets
A synergistic staggered set will attempt to use the fatigue accumulated by the primary exercise of your day to enhance the challenge of the staggered exercise. For instance, training the forearms may not be something you dedicate time to during your workout.
You can stagger some forearm work over the course of your regular arm workout to get a huge blast of synergized gains.
A great example here would be the hammer curl and wrist curl — the hammer curls will smoke one part of the forearm while the wrist curls keep that fire burning during the staggered set.
Upper-Lower Staggered Sets
One of the smartest ways to get the volume needed on your staggered sets is to separate the two working areas as much as possible. Ensuring that the fatigue incurred by the first exercise has a minimal impact on the second can be accomplished by simply using an upper-lower pairing.
Push day offers some great choices here, such as a dumbbell shoulder press staggered with calf raises. Although you may start to get tired from so much continuous exercise, the fatigue from your shoulders will have a nearly-imperceivable impact on how you hit your calves.
Anterior-Posterior Staggered Sets
You can also arrange your staggered sets in a back-to-front manner. Using an anterior-posterior staggered set will pair a push or pull exercise with a smaller muscle group on the opposite side of your body.
Staggered sets are great at helping you tap into areas of your body that might be neglected. The continuous movement can be a boost to your overall work capacity, caloric expenditure, and staggered sets make for extremely time-efficient workouts overall.
You’ll Hit More Muscles
The primary benefit of staggered sets is that they allow you to pack in more training in nearly the same amount of time as a traditional workout.
Your training time is a commodity and workouts can sometimes seem like a race against the clock. If this applies to you, staggered sets are one of the quickest solutions to your time constraints.
Improves Your Work Capacity
Employing staggered sets inherently has you perform more training volume throughout the workout, but they also cause you to move more in general for longer periods of time.
Although the staggered exercise is normally a bit smaller in magnitude (it’s not as heavy or as technically complicated, for the most part), a lack of rest will start to build up your durability.
They’re Extremely Time Efficient
If you’re keen on following strict training guidelines for sets, repetitions, and rest periods for every single exercise, you may be setting yourself up for a pretty long workout.
Once you start to add in staggered sets, the amount of time it takes to perform the same amount of training drops dramatically. The only time-related consideration you’ll need to account for is the actual amount of time it takes to perform the exercise itself.
You’ll still rest the normal amount of time between staggered sets, but instead of a full exercise worth of time added to your workout, it’s simply the few seconds of work it takes to complete the additional set.
Your second option would be to completely forgo resting and use the staggered set as the rest period itself — jam-packing your day with plenty of sweat-inducing movement.
There are a few things to keep in mind before you implement staggered sets. You’ll want to account for any major gaps in your training program, avoid as much interference as possible, and be mindful of your limits.
Know Your Gaps
The first thing you’ll need to address is which muscle group you’re actually interested in staggering. With each program, there tends to be only a handful of muscle groups and goals that you can reasonably prioritize before time starts to add up.
Potential gaps in overall muscular development or even simply program-based priorities will help you see where you can sneak in an additional muscle group to train throughout your day.
Commonly, the odds and ends are muscle groups such as forearms, calves, rear delts, traps, or even abs will serve as fantastic options for sneaky staggering. Choose your preferred muscle and plug it in.
Even if you’re trying to work hard and stimulate each muscle group within the staggered set as much as you can, there may be instances where certain pairings could actually make both movements less effective.
For instance, training your forearms may negatively impact your grip strength on certain back exercises. A lat pulldown might be hard to hold onto as your sets progress if you’re regularly weaving in wrist curls. Make sure you can always complete the set and repetition goal of each pairing.
Know Your Limits
Although staggered sets can be used across an entire workout, be mindful of the energy demand.
You might make gains to your work capacity or muscular endurance, but you may not want these qualities to override your intended goals; muscular hypertrophy or maximal strength come to mind.
Start slow and add more staggered sets gradually as you notice improvements, instead of risking your cardiovascular fitness limiting the quality of your hypertrophy training.
Although straightforward in theory, seeing a few examples of staggered sets written out can be helpful in understanding how to implement them into your own programs.
Synergistic — Arms and Forearms
An arm day is a great launching point for forearm growth because your forearms are always involved in arm exercises, but you can also choose your exercises to ensure a synergistic effect without any potential interference.
Use free weights early in your session to train the forearms alongside your biceps, employing staggered sets later in the workout.
Although the arm work should still stimulate your forearms from squeezing any of the implements, you’re at less of a risk of dropping your weights due to fatigue if you work with machines or cables.
- Alternating Dumbbell Biceps Curl: 3 x 10
- Straight-Bar Triceps Pushdown: 3 x 10 staggered with Barbell Forearm Curl: 3 x 15
- Machine Preacher Curl: 2 x 10 staggered with Barbell Forearm Extension: 2 x 15
- Machine Triceps Extension: 2 x 12 staggered with Dumbbell Timed Hold: 2 x max time
Upper-Lower — Shoulders and Calves
As the target muscles are located quite far from one another, you can stagger as much shoulder and calf work as you wish over the course of your workout.
It’s a good idea to rotate your staggered exercises to help create a comprehensive stimulus, capturing as many gains as you can before the session comes to a close.
- Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3 x 10 staggered with Seated Dumbbell Calf Raise: 3 x AMRAP
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 15 staggered with Single-Leg Standing Calf Raise: 3 x 15
- Dumbbell Reverse Fly: 3 x 15 staggered with Donkey Calf Raise: 3 x 15
Anterior-Posterior — Chest and Rear Delts
Anterior-posterior staggered sets are also extremely easy to implement as they are antagonistic to each other. In simple terms, this means the muscles in the first movement will counteract those in the second.
Pairing movements in this manner may improve your lifting execution, and can also feel quite good on the joint in question as blood is forced in from both sides.
Chest and rear delts are a great combination here because many chest and upper back movements can be fluidly transitioned between with almost no downtime. A chest flye and rear delt raise are fundamentally the same motion, just in reverse.
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 x 10 staggered with Chest-Supported Dumbbell Reverse Fly: 3 x 12
- Machine Pec Fly: 3 x 15 staggered with Machine Reverse Fly: 3 x 15
- Cable Low-To-High Pec Fly: 2 x 12 staggered with Cable Reverse Fly: 2 x 15
Most people have a pet (or stubborn) muscle group that seems to need more attention than the rest of their physique. A staggered set can be the perfect way to get some much-needed additional (or even baseline) volume in where you otherwise may not be able.
Bringing up your lagging muscle groups can be as simple as condensing more work into a shorter period of time; leaning into the success of supersets and sprinkling their benefits throughout your program.
Work towards developing a staggering physique of your own by targeting those hard-to-reach places with some crafty staggered sets.
Staggered sets are a great tool to help tune up your routines. Here are some frequently asked questions that may help you with implementing them in your own training.
Who should use staggered sets?
Staggered sets can be used by anyone with a lagging muscle group they want to bring up. Particularly, it can be used most effectively within bodybuilding style workouts as strength workouts might be negatively impacted by the added work or cardiovascular challenge.
How do I progress staggered sets?
Staggered sets can be progressed by adding additional exercises or sets throughout the workout for the muscle group you’re targeting. For example, you can start by staggering in 2–3 sets of exercises and add an additional one per week.
Staggered sets can also be progressively overloaded in the same manner as any other exercise, focusing on greater load or repetitions per set as you get stronger.
Will staggered sets get me strong?
Staggered sets will help you develop a baseline of strength and muscle, especially for the underdeveloped or lagging muscle groups. However, the best way to train for absolute strength will be to prioritize getting stronger through a periodized program with adequate rest and specific exercises.
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