Whether you’re a trainer or just your average gym-goer, programming can be confusing and difficult. Exercise systems exist in all shapes and forms from P90X and Insanity to the Westside Conjugate Method to bodypart splits to circuit training and everything else in between.
My favorite saying is this:
You can’t ride two horses with one ass.
It’s true. Training for multiple goals at one time can prevent you from reaching any goals at all. If you try to become strong, flexible, lean, muscular, and an aerobic phenom all at the same time, your methods will begin to compete with each other. The carbohydrate demands of your aerobic training may interfere with your quest to get lean and if you become too jack3d in your upper body, running might become pretty uncomfortable.
Of course, there are always exceptions to this (and they’re all Rich Froning).
High Skill-level Over Many Qualities
This guy rides, like, 8 horses with one ass.
He has literally reached the pinnacle of Multi-Horse-Ass-Riding, otherwise known as fitness. He is literally the Fittest Man on Earth.
I’ve heard that he trains six times a day. According to Wikipedia, he “eats a lot of peanut butter and drinks whole milk.” He would definitely be in Dan John’s Second Quadrant, he’s good at a lot of things (fitness-wise). He owns a gym and, on top of everything, seems like a pretty nice dude.
But you are not Rich Froning. You do not have the time, energy, or supplement company sponsorships to train six times per day and compete in the CrossFit games. You also aren’t an NFL player (just so we aren’t picking on Rich Froning). No offense, reader.
However, until you reach the top of the fitness mountain, it is absolutely possible to become stronger, leaner, and better conditioned, all at the same time.
When I program for “fitness,” I often apply a Lift Weights Faster mentality. We get more work done in less time with moderately heavy weights. Complexes, intervals, combos, timed-circuits. They’re all deadly (not literally, unless you perform your landmine movements with actual landmines) and can help you lean out pretty quickly.
These things are great for finishers, or for standalone workouts, but they typically work best when added to an intelligently programmed strength routine. (20-rep squats are a great way to burn the legs out, but they won’t make you very strong performing them week to week.)
But for incredibly busy folks, what happens when we need to build strength and stay lean at the same time? What if you can’t add short workouts on top of strength work?
What if you are a novice and unfamiliar with many exercises? Are complexes the best way to learn?
What if you need to build strength and muscle for health, body composition, or injury prevention reasons?
Complexes, intervals, combos, timed-circuits. They’re awesome. But they aren’t the whole picture. And the stronger you are, the better they’ll work.
Here’s how to move quickly in the gym, develop total body strength, and build muscle, all at the same time.
Tri-sets are three exercises done back-to-back with little rest between them and are my preferred method of programming for a few reasons. They address some of the most common problems that we see with exercise programs today: too much rest, not enough weight, and boredom.
- We’re always moving. Even with heavy(er) weights, we don’t need to take too much rest between exercises. This forces us to sweat and the short rest helps stimulate important things like growth hormone.
- We can maintain intensity. Even without rest, utilizing only three exercises prevents overlap of muscle groups, which keeps us fresher to perform each movement with high intensity. This ensures that we’re using the correct fuel (creatine phosphate and glycogen) and can stimulate things like testosterone.
- It’s simple. Three exercises is enough to keep us entertained and not bored, but isn’t enough to confuse us. This is especially helpful for trainers working with small or large groups. The last thing you want is clients constantly forgetting what exercises they’re doing when the focus should be on technique and intensity.
I like to set these up in a few different ways, but I always like to utilize a “total-body” approach, where the emphasis is on hitting as many muscles as possible across the three exercises. The first is a pyramid scheme:
- First movement – 3-8 reps (more strength focused, perfect for total body lifts like Olympic stuff, deadlifts and squats)
- Second movement – 6-12 reps (moving toward traditional hypertrophy-type training, perfect for half-body lifts like single-leg, presses, and pulls)
- Third movement – 8+ reps (pump or injury prevention work, perfect for smaller lifts like curls, extensions, external rotations, or band walks)
If we take this and apply a total-body scheme, it might look like this:
- Trap bar deadlift x6
- Half-kneeling landmine press x8/arm
- Band pullaparts x10
As we can see, the reps pyramid up while the intensity of the exercise pyramids down. The third movement is what some might see as a filler, but it might not be that way for a beginner. The push exercise interferes minimally with the larger, full-body movement and you’ll probably rest after the pullaparts before you trap bar again anyway. This allows us to maintain perfect technique and the right intensity with every exercise.
A second way to set-up a tri-set is “sets-across.” Here, we leave the reps in a similar range and keep our focus on form and intensity. Here’s an example:
- Split squat x10/side
- Inverted rows x10
- Tall-kneeling pallof press x10/side
As you can see, we keep the reps similar, but choose exercises that have minimal overlap, providing us with an opportunity to maintain form and intensity.
Maybe I’ve used the words “form” and “intensity” too much, but when we’re looking to learn new exercises, build muscle, burn fat, and become better conditioned all at the same time, technique and intensity are the name of the game.
Additionally, here are a few of my “rules to live by” when it comes to programming tri-sets:
- Most obviously, don’t group exercises together that address the same muscle groups (e.g. deadlift, power clean, box jump) – your intensity and form will suffer, leaving you more prone to injury and less prone to results.
- Bilateral lower body exercises pair well with pushing exercises (minimal muscular overlap).
- Don’t program core and bilateral lower body together, it will hinder your ability to learn and your overall performance.
- Watch out for grip – grouping the trap bar, inverted rows, and farmers walks together might seem bad-ass, but you also won’t be able to hold onto the trap bar by the second round.
- I don’t like to pair rowing and bilateral lower body movements. A tired back is a rounded back, every time.
- Finally, here are the exercise groupings that I use: squat (bi- & unilateral), hip hinge (bi- and unilateral), horizontal push, horizontal pull, vertical push, vertical pull, carry, upper body corrective, lower body corrective, anti-extension core, anti-lateral-flexion core, anti-rotation core, explosive lower body, explosive upper body, and mobility.
Not everyone can be Rich Froning. Not everyone is willing and able to dedicate the same amount of time to training multiple qualities over multiple workouts each day.
And for beginners, this probably isn’t the best approach anyway. You’d never recover from six workouts per day, so you need to learn new exercises, build muscle, stimulate the metabolism, and become better conditioned more efficiently.
Once you reach elite athletic status, you won’t be able to ride two horses with one ass for very long. You’ll need to address the different qualities of your sport at different times. And if you’re looking to reach the top of a strength & power or endurance-based sport, you’ll probably need to focus almost all of your training economy on improving that quality!
But lucky for the rest of us, it is only the top of the performance pyramid where you need to pick one horse for your ass. Until then, use these tri-sets to get stronger, move better, gain some muscle, lose some fat, and look better naked.
But don’t ride horses naked. That’s not a good look for anybody.