Painting: Svetlin Velinov

Think of a giant set like this. You’ve got dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and pepperoni. The prospect of eating each individually, cold and uncooked, is not very appetizing. But stack them together, apply heat, and you can bake the perfect cheat meal—pizza. This is the logic of giant sets, which combine four or more exercises into what is, in effect, one extended set. The sum is greater than the parts. “Going giant” has long been a way of upping workout intensity, but for some bodybuilders it’s more. It’s a training philosophy. For extended periods, you can cook up consistent gains by making giant sets the main dish of your routines.

GOING GIANT 

First, let’s define some terms. A superset consists of a set of two exercises paired together, performed without rest. A tri-set is the same thing but with three exercises, while a giant set consists of four or more exercises. Those lifts can be for the same bodypart (such as quadriceps) or neighboring bodyparts (quads, hams, glutes). Generally, the more exercises you do, the more diverse they should be. A lower body giant set might consist of leg extensions, front squats, leg presses, leg curls, and lunges, thus combining isolation exercises (leg extensions, leg curls) with compound exercises (front squats, leg presses, lunges), all while hitting quads, hams, and glutes in the same sequence.

Why are giant sets performed so rarely? Done correctly with no pause between subsets, they’re exhausting and painful. And, when not done correctly, it’s difficult to keep your intensity up throughout an array of disparate lifts. What’s more, it can be a logistical nightmare to jump from station to station without rest in a crowded gym. While you’re doing leg extensions or squats, someone might jump on the leg press and someone else might hog the only leg curl machine. If done at all, most trainers use giants as an occasional means of turning up the heat.

But enough whining. Some bodybuilders, most notably Milos Sarcev, constructed routines made up of only giant sets. Sarcev postulated that such exercise medleys were the most effective vehicles to drive glycogen and protein to muscles. Yes, they’re painful, but in a good way. Hard work works. When I was with FLEX magazine, I followed three pro bodybuilders trained by Sarcev as they plowed through a pre-contest barrage consisting of a six-exercise chest giant set (three times), a seven-exercise back giant set (three times), and an eight-exercise shoulder giant set (twice). Number of sets: 55. Number of dashes to the locker room to puke: 2.

Giant sets are similar to circuit training. The difference is circuits work the entire body. As with circuit training, we don’t recommend “going giant” as a long-term strategy. But as occasional means of cranking up intensity or for periods of 3-6 weeks, giants can shock you into greater gains.

giant sets
Painting: Boris Vallejo

GIANT SET BASICS

• Do giant sets occasionally to up intensity or for extended periods of 3-6 weeks to boost growth.

• Spend as little time as possible between exercises. Go from one to the next without rest.

• Rest for 2-4 minutes between giant sets.

• To determine how much work to do, count each subset as a set. So, our sample back workout has five sets. Run through it three or four times for 15-20 total sets.

• To maintain your focus for 40+ reps, push each exercise to failure. In this way, you’ll fail every 10 or so reps.

GIANT SET TIP SHEET

• Unless you have access to a sparsely-populated gym, line up your equipment ahead of time, minimizing the distance from one exercise to the next.

• Rotating through the exercises with at least one partner will also help you keep dibs on equipment.

• Abs are an excellent giant set target. Even if you do only straight sets for every other bodypart, you can benefit from working your ab exercises in a rotation.

• When possible, choose a wide diversity of exercises. For this reason, biceps (stressed with primarily types of curls) are not a great giant set muscle. In contrast, back (with a plethora of machine and free-weight rows and pulldowns) is an excellent candidate.

• Choose bilateral (two-sided exercises) over unilateral (one-sided) in order to progress quickly from one exercise to the next.

GIANT SET BACK WORKOUT

Pullup     6-12

Seated Cable Row     10-12

Front Pulldown   10-12  

Inverted Row     10-15

Straight-arm Pulldown     10-15