Stop wasting time. There’s a lot of idleness in a workout. All those rests between sets are lost opportunities to stimulate growth. Of course, you don’t want to interfere with the recovery of the muscles you’re resting, but you can work an unrelated muscle during that downtime. By hitting two bodyparts in the period you’d normally work one, you can multitask your way to greater gains. This is the concept behind staggered sets. Let’s explore how to maximize its effectiveness.

MUSCLE MULTITASKING 

As a name, staggered sets is lame. “Diverse attack” would be clearer (and cooler), but “staggered” means you can work a smaller body part by alternating its sets with only some of the sets of a bigger body part. Smaller usually means calves, abs, and forearms, though it might also mean biceps, triceps, or deltoids. You can train abs with any other bodypart. Because you don’t want your grip lessened when doing, say, pulldowns, forearms should only be worked with legs; and, for similar reasons, calves can be worked with anything but legs. Any staggered work for biceps, triceps, or deltoids should also not rob strength from the bigger bodypart. So you can stagger in pushdowns with leg presses but not with bench presses (which also work triceps).

Cardio can also be staggered into your weight-training. Do 10-15 minute sessions of high-intensity cardio between bodyparts. For example, work quads, hit the stepmill for 10 minutes, work hamstrings, hit the treadmill for 10 minutes, work calves, and finish off with 10 minutes of elliptical. Instead of 30 minutes of continuous tedium, you’ve broken it into more palatable, 10-minute pieces and kept your enthusiasm, focus, and intensity elevated. And such up-tempo intervals are better for burning fat than longer, lower tempo work.

There are three ways to do staggered sets:

🔹 Unrelated Supersets Alternate a set for a bigger bodypart, like back, with one for a smaller, unrelated bodypart, like calves. You probably won’t want to do as many sets for the smaller bodypart, so simply skip supersetting one or two exercises. In this way, if you do 16 sets and four exercises for back, you do 12 sets and three exercises for calves.

🔹 Asymmetrical Combos Do one set for the smaller bodypart for every two or more sets for the larger bodypart. For example, complete one set for abs between every two sets for arms. In this way, after 12 sets for biceps and 12 for triceps, you’ll also have cranked out 12 for abs. This is the classic method of staggering.

🔹 Between Exercises Perform one set for a smaller bodypart between exercises for larger bodyparts. For example, throw in a wrist curl set after completing every leg exercise, and over the course of a workout consisting of four exercises for quads and three for hamstrings, you’ll squeeze in seven sets for forearms, almost without noticing.

ADVANTAGES

Time Saving  By filling in some of your rest periods with work, you can reduce the length of workouts or do more work in the same amount of time.

Reduced Tedium Face it, some exercises are boring. Most of us would rather be doing heavy incline presses than knocking out another set of leg raises. This is why too many of us focus more on the former than the latter. By staggering work for calves, abs, and forearms as well as cardio, you don’t have to slog through a focused routine for those areas. In essence, you trick yourself into doing the work you might’ve been tempted to skimp or skip.

POTENTIAL PITFALLS

⚠️ Reduced Strength  If done incorrectly, staggered sets can rob valuable recovery time and strength from one or both bodyparts. To prevent this, stick to our prescriptions for staggering calves with upper body muscles, forearms with lower body muscles, and abs and cardio with anything.

⚠️ Reduced Focus Staggering isn’t ideal for every exercise or workout. For example, if you’re pyramiding up to a personal best in the squat, don’t crank out sets of ab machine crunches between every two sets.

⚠️ Logistical Issues Pairing exercises for different bodyparts can be tricky because it can be difficult to keep dibs on two gym stations. With staggering, this is compounded by the fact that you may be doing multiple sets of one exercise before one set of another; and, because you’re working diverse bodyparts, the stations may be far apart. Sometimes you can do both in the same spot. Other times, prepare to change it up. For example, if you were staggering in standing calf raises but someone has staked a claim on the machine during your absence, switch to a different calf exercise.

STAGGERED SETS BASICS

🔸 Train a smaller bodypart during rest periods while working a bigger bodypart.

🔸 Make certain the smaller bodypart isn’t stressed during compound exercises for the larger bodypart.

🔸 Abs, calves, forearms, and cardio are the best candidates for staggered sets.

STAGGERED SETS TIP SHEET

🔸 The classic method of staggering is to alternate one set for the smaller bodypart between every two or more sets for the larger body part.

🔸 Try to plan combinations that you can do in the same area. For example, dumbbell bench presses and leg raises can be done on the same bench.

🔸 Don’t stagger if you need the rest period to recover from an exhausting set and focus on your next set or if you’ve reduced your between-set rest to under 40 seconds.

BACK/CALVES STAGGERED ROUTINE

Front Pulldown          4 x 10-12 reps

            Superset with

Standing Calf Raise          4 x 10-15 reps

Barbell Row          4 x 8-10 reps

Calf Press 2 x 12-15 reps

One-arm Dumbbell Row 4 x 10-12 reps  

Calf Press 2 x 12-15 reps

Low-cable Row          4 x 10-12 reps

            Superset with

Seated Calf Raise          4 x 12-15 reps