Structuring Your Workouts: Paired, Super, and Compound Sets

The way that you structure your workout can have as dramatic an effect on your results as the exercises you pick. By structuring your workouts so that two exercises are paired together in an alternating format, you can often benefit more than you would by doing each exercise alone with a longer rest period in-between each.

There is some “method to the madness” though! You shouldn’t necessarily pair any two exercises together and hope for the best.  In today’s article, let’s take a look at why one might decide to format their workouts in this paired-alternating way and discuss three different kinds of exercise pairing formats and their benefits.


“Sets”…what are they?

If you’re new to exercising or following a resistance training program, a “set” is a grouping of repetitions you perform of a certain exercise.   For example, let’s say this is your workout for today:

Looking at the squat exercise, you would do 30 deadlifts in three chunks: 10 reps, rest, 10 reps, rest, 10 reps.

Another way you might see it written is 4×6.

Unless stated otherwise, you would typically perform all sets for an exercise before moving onto the next.  So, after completing 3×10 for the squats, you’d move onto 3×8 shoulder presses.

To be clear, there is nothing wrong with completing your workouts this way!  In fact, this is format is ideal for certain goals and conditions.

But, it is not ideal for all goals and levels of training.  This is where unrelated paired sets, supersets, and compound sets come in!


1. Unrelated Paired Sets for Efficiency & Active Rests

To preface: in the world of strength and conditioning, they’re just called “pair sets,” but for the sake of clarity we’re going to call them “unrelated paired sets.”

The word “unrelated” refers to the muscle groups or body regions the two exercises you are pairing focus on.  Let’s take our workout example from above!  We could form an unrelated paired set between the squats and the shoulder presses.

They are considered an unrelated paired set because the squats primarily work the quads (thigh muscles) and shoulder presses work the deltoids (shoulder muscles).

So, why would you want to form an unrelated paired set?

When you do unrelated paired sets, you are able to do two things:

  1. Cut out the rest time in-between each set because while you’re doing one exercise, you are allowing the other muscle region to rest
  2. Increase metabolic demand by decreasing overall rest time

Ultimately, you can really shorten the duration of your entire workout by formatting paired sets into them!  Here’s how the squat and shoulder unrelated paired set would look:


As we mentioned, you want unrelated paired sets to be of exercises that work different body regions or muscles groups!  Here are some to get you started:

  • lunges and bicep curls
  • deadlifts and tricep dips
  • push-ups and squats

If you are squeezing in a workout when your schedule is packed, adding paired sets can allow you to get the benefit of completing the same amount of exercises, reps, and sets in less time…with more “burn!”


2. Supersets for Building Strength

Supersets alternate working opposing muscle groups of the same body region.  They are a good way to build strength while getting more out of every minute of your workout. Similar to unrelated paired sets, they also allow for some “active rest” of a muscle group and minimize overall rest time.

Again, let’s apply a superset to our example workout:

In the bolded example above, dumbbell rows work the muscles of the back whereas pushups work the muscles of the chest.

Examples of pairs of muscle groups or types of movements for supersets include:

  • biceps and triceps
  • hamstrings and quads
  • horizontal pushing and pulling movements
  • vertical pushing and pulling movements


3. Compound Sets to Increase Metabolic Demand

Now for the most challenging of the three: compound sets.  For these, select two exercises that work the same muscle group.

Unlike unrelated paired sets and supersets, you will not get a rest in-between sets!  The result is even greater metabolic demand and the stimulation of the body’s hormonal response to begin rebuilding stressed muscle.

Let’s apply compound sets to our example workout:

As you might imagine, compound sets can be very tiring especially if you are doing exercises that involve heavy weights. If you are new to exercise, we recommend starting with unrelated paired sets and working towards superset first!


Pairing exercises in different ways sets you up for greater benefits and lets you get more out of every workout. You will find that pairings can help you change up your routine so that your workouts always stay new, different, and interesting. You can build strength, build endurance and work toward the body that you want. By creatively pairing and changing up the structure of your routine, you can get an extra benefit from every exercise and a more thorough and challenging workout.


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