Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
If you’re like many who work out for fitness and health reasons, you favor training some bodyparts over others, especially when you haven’t much time to spare. So often, many of the smaller body-parts — calves or abs, anyone? — simply do not get the resistance they require to develop in balance, proportion and strength to the rest of your body.
If that’s the case with you on occasion, the answer to the dilemma may be staggered sets. A training technique rooted in the late ’40s and early ’50s, staggered sets represent a time-efficient method for training a major muscle group and lesser unrelated group or groups in the same workout.
In the simplest form of a staggered set, you might train chest and forearms, or front thighs and biceps. For the thigh-bi workout, you would do a set of squats followed immediately with a set of dumbbell curls. You’d rest and then repeat the double sequence two more times. Your next staggered set would consist of a different thigh-biceps exercise grouping (e.g., leg extensions and cable curls), which would be cycled three times. You would continue in this manner until you’d completed four or five staggered sets of exercise pairs.
What Staggered Sets Can Do for You
The theory supporting this approach points out that your major bodypart receives adequate rest while you’re training the second, unrelated bodypart. With staggered sets, the keynote is efficiency. Additionally, because each bodypart receives adequate intra-sets rest, you can train all bodyparts, large and small, with near-equal intensity. As well, this approach keeps your heart rate elevated so that you burn additional fat and improve your cardiovascular endurance at the same time. And for some of us, it may even salve the conscience for short-changing a smaller bodypart’s training demands.
What This Staggered Set Can Do for You
Depending on the source, staggered sets can be configured in any number of ways. One authority suggests a ratio of 3:1 per staggered set. This variation calls for doing three sets of the same exercise for a major bodypart, resting adequately between each set. You would then follow with one set for a smaller, unrelated bodypart. You would change the exercises for the second, third, fourth and so on staggered set, following the sets and reps pattern established in Staggered Set 1.
Another source recommends utilizing a three-exercise staggered set: You would train two large bodyparts (e.g., chest and front thighs), each with one exercise, and finish with a smaller bodypart exercise, say for arms, abs or calves. Of course, this approach is more suitable for someone who has unfettered access to equipment and is willing to train in off-peak hours.
Oxygen’s staggered set creates a blend of exercises that move from top to bottom of your body, and, though you could do this workout in the gym, it can just as easily be done at home, providing you have some dumbbells and a workout bench.
With this workout, you will train your back, abdominals and calves across four staggered sets. The limited rest time between staggered sets keeps your respiration and heart rates elevated, leading to greater fat-burning value than you’d get from a more traditional weight workout without compromising your strength. Think of the workout comprising mini-circuits. Further, a number of the exercises are done unilaterally, which allows you to bring maximum effort to the working muscle. (Take a look at the chart below: All the information for doing the workout, reps, sets, rest, etc. can be found there.)
Staggered Set 1
Single-Arm Dumbbell Row [left side]
Muscles targeted: Middle back, lats, biceps
Grab a dumbbell in your left hand, and bend at the waist until you can support your upper torso by leaning on the bench pad with your right hand. The left arm should hang straight from the shoulder.
Pull the dumbbell up toward your waist, making sure to move your elbow rearward, not out to the side. Pause briefly when the dumbbell reaches waist height, squeezing the lat for one or two seconds, then slowly return the dumbbell to the starting position. Repeat.
Dumbbell Bench Crunch
Muscles targeted: Rectus abdominis (your six-pack)
Lie down lengthwise on the bench, with your feet planted firmly on the floor on either side of you. Grasping a dumbbell along the center shaft, extend your arms directly over your chest.
Slowly raise your shoulder blades off the bench, shortening the distance between your sternum and pelvis (i.e., crunch your abs). Pause briefly, contracting the abdominal muscles for a couple of seconds and then slowly return to the flat position. Repeat.
Standing One-Leg Calf Raise [left side]
Muscles targeted: Gastrocnemius
Grasp a dumbbell and let it hang at arm’s length alongside your left thigh. Position the ball of your left foot so that the heel hangs over the edge of a stair step or box, and wrap your right ankle around your left Achilles tendon. Use your free arm to provide balance by grasping the handrail or bench.
Raise your entire body up onto the ball of your foot as high as possible. Pause briefly at the top, and slowly lower yourself until your heel floats past the ball of the foot. Repeat.
Staggered Set 2
Single-Arm Dumbbell Row [right side]
Muscles targeted: Middle back, lats, biceps
Assume a mirror image of the setup of Staggered Set 1, so as to train the latissimus muscle on your right side.
Leg Raise Off the End of a Bench
Muscles targeted: Rectus abdominis, with lower abs emphasis
Lying flat on bench, grasp the head end of the bench with your hands. (Alternatively, you can extend your arms toward your feet grasping the sides of the bench if this position is more comfortable than hands behind the head.)
Contract your abs and slowly raise your legs as high as possible without lifting your hips off the bench. Pause briefly at the top before slowly returning your legs to the bottom position.
Tip: To ensure thorough muscle-fiber activation, do not allow your legs to touch the bench once you have started churning out the repetitions, ensuring that you maintain a bit of tension in the abdominals throughout the set.
Standing One-Leg Calf Raise [right side]
Muscles targeted: Gastrocnemius
Assume a mirror image of the setup of Staggered Set 1, so as to train the right calf muscle.
Staggered Set 3
Cross-Bench Dumbbell Pullover
Muscles targeted: Primarily lats, secondarily chest
Position your upper back across a bench (head extended slightly beyond the edge of the bench), and your feet flat on the floor (your knees should be bent 90 degrees). Your pelvic girdle should be lower than your shoulders.
Grasp one of the ends of the dumbbell by placing your palms against the plate so that your thumbs wrap around the center post. This is the safest way to grasp the dumbbell in this exercise (see inset).
Extend your arms directly over your head, keeping your elbows slightly bent (do not lock out the elbow joints). From this position, lower the dumbbell in an arc behind your head until the dumbbell clears the plane of your head. Pause briefly, then slowly (while keeping the bend in our elbows) bring the dumbbell back to starting position. Repeat.
Muscles targeted: Core
Lie prone on the floor. Lock your entire torso and raise yourself up onto your toes and elbows/forearms. Your goal is to hold this position for 60 seconds (or as long as possible).
Tip: Keep your body tight. Avoid lowering or raising your hips — no sagging!
Single-Leg Seated Calf Raise [left side]
Muscle targeted: Soleus (calf muscle beneath the gastrocnemius)
Sit on a bench adjacent to a stair step (or in front of a stack of weight plates about 7 inches high). Place the ball of your left foot on the edge of a step, allowing your heel to hang over the end. Your knee should form a 90-degree angle (which allows you to train the soleus portion of the calf muscle group).
Place a dumbbell on your knee, supporting it with your hands. You can position the dumbbell on the plate end or by resting the center post across the knee, which may provide a better balance option.
Slowly move your foot upward onto the ball of your foot as high as possible. Pause and squeeze the muscle at the top briefly before lowering the heel as much as possible below the level of the ball of the foot. Repeat.
Staggered Set 4
Dumbbell Reverse Flye
Muscle targeted: Posterior shoulders, upper back, and several rotator cuff muscles
Grasp a pair of dumbbells and bend at the waist until the torso forms 90 degrees or so. Allow the dumbbells to hang straight down.
Keeping a slight bend in the elbows, move your arms out to the sides until they reach shoulder height. Squeeze your shoulder blades together briefly, before controlling the dumbbells down toward the starting position.
Tip: To maximize results, avoid the tendency to jerk the torso upward to start a rep. Momentum here is our enemy.
Oblique Crunch [alternating sides]
Muscle targeted: External oblique
Lie flat on your back, bending the knees until your feet are flat on the floor. Interlace your fingers behind your head.
Simultaneously raise your right shoulder off the floor while twisting your torso toward the left hip in a crunching motion. Return to the starting position and then raise your left shoulder off the floor while twisting your torso toward the right hip. Return to the starting position. That’s one complete repetition.
Tip: Do not use your interlaced fingers to pull your head off the ground. This can lead to neck injury. Simply keep your elbows pointed out to the sides.
Single-Leg Seated Calf Raise [right side]
Muscle targeted: Soleus (calf muscle below the gastrocnemius)
Assume a mirror image of the setup of Staggered Set 3, so as to train the right soleus calf muscle.
(Photography by Cory Sorenson)