Article by Glenn Cranham B.Sc (Hon’s)

Set systems are ways of manipulating the short term exercise variables (sets, reps, load, rest and tempo) in order to promote a physiological adaptation and add variety to resistance training.

Many of these methods originally come from bodybuilding applications and strength and conditioning experts. However in the recent decades these have been incorporated more widely by educated personal trainers and keen gym goers alike. Cycling the training systems as well as the exercises, volume and intensity of the workouts will ensure mental and physical stimulation for clients.

  • A number of set systems have been developed and will be discussed below and in subsequent articles. Look out for the sample workouts at the end of each article and try them yourself or with your clients.

Basic sets:

Basic sets probably form the basis of the majority of resistance-based workouts. This system consists of an appropriate warm-up followed by multiple sets of the same number of repetitions performed with the same weight. For example, 3 sets of 10 repetitions (3 x 10), or 5 sets of 5 repetitions (5 x 5)

Exercise Set System Sets Reps  % of 1 RM Rest
Squats Basic 3 10 75 60 secs
Bench Press Basic 5 5 85 3 mins

Basic Set System Example

The intensity and volume of basic sets workouts can easily be manipulated by varying the load (% of 1Rep Max) and the number of sets performed per exercise. In this way, the basic set system can be seen as highly versatile, as it can be used to work towards endurance, hypertrophy, strength or power.

With basic sets as your building blocks one can then begin to introduce additional set systems. Either through neccessity in order to complete the number of sets/reps in the program (forced, decsending & cheat sets), or through design.


The superset system involves performing two different exercises back-to-back with very little (time for transition) or no rest in between. A rest is then taken and the exercises repeated for the desired number of sets & reps. This can be performed on the same muscle/muscle group, agonist/antagonist muscles (opposite muscles) or unrelated muscles.

Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Squats Super 3 10 75
Lunges (Same group)   10 65 45secs
Chest Press Super 5 5 85
Bent Over Row (agonist/antagonist)   5 85 60secs
Front Squat Super 2 15 67
Overhead Press (Unrelated)   15 67 3 mins

Superset System Example

When supersetting the same muscle, the second exercise in each superset is performed with significant muscular fatigue present. As a result the intensity of the second exercise is lower than if the muscle had been allowed to recover during a standard rest interval. This renders this type of supersetting relatively ineffective for strength training. However, completing two exercises in this manner would be good for muscular endurance and possibly hypertrophy because the volume of work is relatively high (note that a hypertrophic response would be most likely if the initial set were performed within the hypertrophy repetition range).

The second variation of supersetting consists of performing two exercises back-to-back that involve antagonistic muscle pairs or groups i.e. biceps brachii / triceps brachii or chest (push)/ back (pull). This version of supersetting allows a significant load to be placed on the target muscle during each set. This is possible because while the agonist is working the antagonist is recovering and vice versa. Therefore, this type of supersetting is ideal for strength training where the significantly long periods can be partially incorporatedf into the time taken to complete the antagonist set. In fact some studies have shown an increase in 1RM by prefatiguing the antagonist muscle.

When supersetting unrelated muscles it could be incorporated in a strength session for time efficiency, to promote an increase in cardiovascular demand or in complex supersets. In complex supersets exercises are performed alternately instead of sequentially (i.e. one rep is performed of the first exercise followed by one rep of the second exercise and this is repeated until the required number of total reps is completed). Same group, agonist/antagonist and non-related muscle/exercise pairings can all be performed in this way

Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Squats Complex Super 3 10 75
Lunges (Same group)   10 75 45secs
Bicep Curls Complex Super 2 15 67
Tricep Kickbacks (agonist/antagonist)   15 67 60secs
Front Squat Complex Super 5 5 85
Overhead Press (Unrelated)   5 85 3 mins

Complex Superset Example

This variation of supersets is very useful when attempting to perform large amounts of work in relatively short amounts of time for example, or when attempting to improve cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance within the same workout.  However due to the multiple transitions between exercises it’s best done with exercises that can use the same mode and load of resistance.

From a commercial point of view all three types of supersetting can prove useful to the trainer who only has limited time with certain clients. The lack of rest intervals means that the work element of the session can be completed in less time than usual. Or more volume can be incorporated into a session.

Tri-Sets & Giant Sets:

Supersetting can be extended to incorporate three (a tri-set) or more exercises (a giant set) for the target muscle group. These can be useful when trying to work the different heads of a muscle i.e the pectorals by using Incline Press, Flat Bench Press & Decline press. Or where a muscle is it’s own antagonist i.e the deltoids by using Front Raise, Lateral Raise and Rear Delt Flys.

A giant set to work the whole lower body could be Back Squats, Leg Extensions, Leg Curls and Glute Bridges. Or for the whole back (pulling) it could be Wide Grip Pull Ups, Seated Row, Upright Row and Back Extensions. However consider the effect on the Biceps which are working as a synergist to 3 of these exercises.

The greater the number of exercises employed utilising one muscle or group, the greater the degree of fatigue experienced and the greater the muscular endurance demanded. This can be particularly useful when trying to develop muscular endurance whilst saving time. Consider the effect of this giant set on the lower body- Back Squat, Alternating Lunges, Front Squat and Reverse Lunges.

Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Incline Press Tri (multi-head) 3 10 75
Flat Bench Press     10 75
Decline Press     10 75 90secs
Front Raise Tri (agonist/compound/antagonist) 2 15 67
Lateral Raise     15 67
Rear Delt Flys     15 67 1 min
Back Squat Giant (endurance) 2 12 72
Alternating Lunges     12 72
Front Squat     12 72
Reverse Lunges     12 72 1 min

Tri-sets System Example



These systems involve the use of isolation exercises to preferentially fatigue a muscle whilst eliminating synergistic (helper muscle) weaknesses. Consider the following example:

In the bench press, the agonist (prime mover) is the pectoralis major, with the main synergist being the triceps brachii. In the majority of clients the triceps will fail before the stronger pectoral muscles. By employing either pre or post exhaust isolation exercise it is possible to “bypass” the weak synergist and permit greater fatigue of the target muscle – in this example pectoralis major.

This system can be performed as a pre-exhaust by completing  the desired number of sets of the isolation exercise, then move on to perform sets of the compound exercise (normal rest intervals apply). For post-exhaust perform the compound sets first and then the isolation sets.


Perform 1 set of the isolation exercise immediately followed by the compound exercise (this is an example of a pre-exhaust superset). Reverse the compound and isolation exercises for a post-exhaust protocol. Rest between supersets and repeat as required

Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Squats Post-Exhaust 3 10 75 45secs
Leg Extensions   3 10 75 45secs
Cable Chest Flys Pre-Exhaust Superset 2 15 67
Cable Chest Press     15 67 60secs

Pre/Post-exhaust System Example

Both methods result in the agonist/prime mover doing more work than if regular sets were employed. As with supersetting the same muscle group this system is better utilised for hypertrophy and endurance training.


Circuit Training:

Circuit training is another method of combining exercises with little or no rest. Due to the high number of variations this will be discussed in a subsequent article. However it is appropriate to discuss one method of circuit training below.


Peripheral Heart Action (PHA):

Peripheral heart action (PHA) is a resistance based workout that is aerobically demanding and aims to keep the heart rate elevated for the duration of the session. PHA is essentially a gym-based circuit during which a series of exercises are performed sequentially, often interspersed with aerobic exercises. PHA workouts are simple to design and effective for increasing muscular hypertrophy, tone and endurance while simultaneously delivering aerobic fitness benefits.

Exercise selection is vital when designing PHA workouts. Compound exercises should be used in an alternating circuit as multiple muscle groups need to be employed during each exercise in order to place a high circulatory demand on the body.

As with circuits there are several variations of PHA.


PHA – guidelines and example
Grouping Upper body push Leg compound Upper body


1 Bench press Squats Chins / pull-ups
2 Dips Lunges Bent over row
3 Chest press Bent leg deadlift Lat pulldown
4 Military press Leg press Machine row


Aerobic Exercises

Cross trainer Treadmill Rowing machine Exercise cycle

 PHA guidelines and examples.


There are several variations of the PHA concept and it is relatively straightforward for the trainer to experiment and find what works well for each individual client. Using the examples from the table above, numerous variations of PHA can be devised. Some examples are listed below:

The trainer uses all four (or more) groups of exercises listed above and performs them all in sequence with an aerobic exercise between each resistance grouping.

The trainer performs all four groups of exercises in sequence without any aerobic component. Multiple sets can be performed of each grouping if appropriate i.e. 2 laps of the group 1 exercises followed by 2 x group 2 and so on.

A very popular and effective version of PHA training is the 3×3 workout popularized by NFL strength coach Matt Brzycki. Simply select a compound leg exercise, a compound upper body push exercise and a compound upper body pull exercise. (e.g. squats, military press, chins). Select 12-15 rep maximum loading for each exercise and after a thorough and appropriate warm up, perform as a non-stop circuit for three circuits. Subsequent workouts should utilize a different three exercises e.g. deadlifts, bench press and seated rows.

Once the athlete could perform the 3×3 circuit without undue fatigue, or more quickly than previously performed,  loads would be increased by 5 to 10% to illicit a further training response.

Brzycki coined the phrase “metabolic conditioning” from the results he gained referring to the fact that fitness improvements weren’t just cardiovascular, anaerobic or muscular endurance in nature but all three.

I like to use the following workout with my fitter clients for metabolic conditioning and fat loss. Please give it a try yourself.

Exercise Set System Sets Reps % 1RM Rest
Dynamic stretch, Warm up 5 mins CV


      4-5 RPE  
Rowing 40/20secs work/rest (W/R) CV Intervals 1 6 9-10 RPE
Cleans PHA Circuit 3 10 75
Bench Press     10 75
Squats     10 75
Bent Over Rows     10 75 1 min
Crosstrainer 20/10secs W/R Tabatta Intervals 1 10 9-10 RPE  
Front Squats PHA Circuit 3 10 75  
Dips (assisted/weighted)     10 75  
Split Squats     10 75
Wide Grip Pull Ups (assisted/weighted)     10   60secs
CV 15mins @75% MHR Steady State CV        
Cool Down & Stretch          

PHA Metabolic Conditioning Workout


This workout certainly burns a high number number of calories and creates a huge demand on both the cardiovascular and muscular system. The steady state cardiovascular at the end of the workout is to extend the afterburn or Excess Post Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). Some researchers suggest this could last for up to 48-72 hours post session, although many critics argue that the effect of EPOC has been exagerrated.

Excluding the basic sets, all the set systems discussed so far have looked at various methods of combining exercises whilst reducing rest periods.

Generically these systems are good when trying to incorporate higher volumes of work within a time restricted session.

Please review each system for the individual strengths and weakness’ of that system.