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What's a Staggered Set?
By Frank Melfa of bodybuildingbyfrank.com

Before we answer that question, let's re-define some common gym terminology. A rep is how many times you perform an exercise consecutively. For example, let's say you perform 10 pushups consecutively. That is one set of 10 repetitions, or one set of pushups. A set could be anywhere from one repetition, to two, three, four, five.... As long as they are done consecutively. If you perform 10 consecutive pushups, rest, and then perform another 10 reps, that's two sets of ten repetitions. The number of repetitions and sets you perform depends on your goals and fitness level.

A staggered set is when you perform a set of an exercise for one body part and immediately perform another set of an exercise for another body part. For example, perform a set of bench presses for chest and immediately perform a set of pullups for back. That is one staggered set for chest and back respectively. From here, you can perform another two to three bench press/pullup staggered sets. For example, after performing your first staggered set of bench presses and pullups without resting, repeat the process two or three more times. That would be three to four staggered sets of bench presses and pullups.

This is my favorite way to train. In addition to adding variety and intensity to my workouts, I experience cardiovascular benefits as well and I get through my workouts faster.

The essence of a staggered set is that while one body part is working, the other is resting. In the example above, while the chest is working during the set of bench presses, the back is resting and vice versa. This allows you to use maximum weights for each body part. Since the chest is resting while performing your pullups, it will be recuperated enough to perform a quality set of bench presses immediately following your set of pullups. If you move quickly from one exercise to the other, your heart will be racing for the entire workout. So not only do you experience the muscle toning and building benefits, you also experience the aerobic benefits as well. Also, you train two body parts in one workout in a shorter period of time!

Getting back to my example above, after completing those three to four staggered sets of bench presses and pullups, go to your next chest/back staggered set by choosing another exercise for chest and another for back. Let's choose dips for chest and dumbbell one-arm rows for back.

Perform a set of dips and immediately perform a set of one-arm rows. Repeat this combination another two or three more times.

Let's finish off this workout with one more combination for chest and back: flat bench flyes and seated rows.

At this point of your workout, you should be getting tired, your heart will be racing, sweat should be flowing off your body, and your muscles will be pumped to the max.. KEEP GOING! Only three or four more staggered sets to go.

Perform a set of flat bench flyes and immediately perform a set of seated rows. Finish by repeating this process another two or three more times.

In this example, nine to twelve sets are performed for both the chest and back for a total of 18 to 24 grueling sets, depending on whether you did three or four staggered sets for each chest/back combination. Now this may be an ideal workout for me because I have been doing this for many years, but it may not be realistic for you.

Let's recap it:

Staggered set combination: Staggered Sets
Bench Press & Pullups 4
Dips & Dumbbell One-Arm Row 4
Dumbbell Flyes & Seated Rows 4

How many REALISTIC Staggered Sets Should You Do?

Once again, the number of sets you perform depends on your goals and fitness level. If you are just starting out, I suggest performing only two staggered sets for each combination. For example, perform a set of bench presses and pullups and repeat only one more time. Then perform a set of dips and immediately perform a set of pullups and repeat only one more time. Then finally perform a set of flat bench flyes and immediately perform a set of seated rows and repeat only once more. Here, you're performing a total of six sets for chest and six sets for back, for a total of 12 sets.

If you have been training hard for a while and have been performing a total of 10 to 12 sets for chest or back, then give it my example a try.

Other good staggered set combinations:

  • Shoulders & Legs (either thighs or hamstrings)
  • Back & Triceps
  • Chest & Biceps
  • Shoulders & Back
Or you can choose a major body part and stagger your sets with abs or calves. For example, perform a set of shoulder presses and then immediately perform a set of crunches for abs.

For best results, prepare a list of exercises to choose from for each body part like I prepared below. This will save time during your workouts. Rather than think about what exercise to use during your workout, move quickly from one piece of equipment to the next.

Most importantly, have a contingency plan ready! If you planned to perform bench presses and all the benches are being used, choose an alternate exercise from your list. Do not wait for equipment. Waiting for equipment wastes time and interrupts your intensity. If all the flat benches are being used, then use an incline or decline bench. Better yet, perform dips.

Dips are perfect for staggered sets not to mention their effectiveness for toning and building your chest. You'll never find yourself waiting for the dip station because it's rarely ever used. You don't have to waste time adding or changing weight or looking for clamps or clips to secure the weights. You just walk over to the dip station and do it!

Similarly with pullups, a fantastic exercise to develop your back, but yet, most would rather wait to use the lat machine. The pullup station is usually accessible and often includes a variety of grips to choose from.


Prepared List of My Favorite Staggered Set Exercises

Chest

  • dips
  • flat bench presses
  • incline bench presses
  • decline bench presses
  • flyes (flat, incline, decline)
  • cable cross overs
  • cable flyes
  • pullovers
Back
  • pullups
  • pull downs
  • dumbbell one arm rows
  • bent-over rows
  • T-bar rows
  • seated rows
Shoulders
  • barbell overhead press
  • dumbbell overhead press
  • barbell upright rows
  • front raises
  • dumbbell upright rows
  • side raises
  • reverse flyes (for back of the shoulders)
Triceps
  • close grip bench
  • french curls
  • lying triceps extensions
  • pushdowns
  • single arm pushdowns
  • kick backs
Biceps
  • standing barbell curls
  • preacher curls
  • standing dumbbell curls
  • seated dumbbell curls
  • concentration curls
  • cable curls
  • machine curls
Thighs
  • squats
  • leg presses
  • leg extensions
  • hack squat
  • lunges
Hamstrings
    leg curls
  • single leg curls
  • stiff leg dead lifts (be sure you know what you are doing)
Calves
  • seated calf raises
  • standing calf raises
  • donkey calf raises
Abdominals
  • crunches
  • rope crunches
  • knee raises
  • side crunches
  • curlups
Be creative, choose different exercises for each body part and stagger away! Don't be afraid to use Dips and Pullups. I like using these two exercises because they take little set-up time. That means I don't have to change weights and wait to use the dip or pullup station. How often do you see people in your gym performing dips and pullups? Very few I bet! That's because they are hard to do. Most people can't lift their own body weight. I love doing them so much, I even attach a dumbbell around my waist (by using a weight belt) for extra intensity.

Give pullups and dips a try. They are very effective for developing your chest and back.

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