Alternating Sets – How To and Why [2023]

Last Updated on December 13, 2022 by Patrick

Looking for a New Tactic That Will Get You Shredded?

Have you heard about alternating sets?

Some people say that this is the secret to getting shredded, but is it really true?

Read on to find out.

What Is An Alternating Set?

In weight training, an alternating set is a set of two exercises combined into one set.

This may sound just like a superset, and in many ways it’s a very similar concept.

If you’re not familiar with supersets, they work something like this:

Exercise A -> Exercise B -> Rest -> Exercise A -> Exercise B -> Rest -> Etc.

You can alternate a chest exercise and shoulder press for example to hit different body parts at the same time!
A Basic Superset

This allows you to achieve one of two things:

  1. You can target two disparate muscle groups and essentially work them both out at the same time, saving time in your workout and increasing the overall level of intensity by keeping your heart rate higher for longer.

For example, you could superset pullups and squats like so:

Supersetting pullups and squats lets you hit two muscle groups at the same time
  • You can target one muscle group and perform two different exercises that each work smaller subgroups of muscles in the same area. This allows you to achieve muscular overload much more easily and get a more thorough a complete workout of particular muscle groups.

For example, you could superset deadlifts and squats like so:

Supersetting Deadlifts and Squats lets you double down on your leg workout

Using supersets is a great strategy to save time and increase the intensity of your workout, but they also have their downsides.

First, the overall reduction of rest time in your routine means you won’t have the energy to lift as heavy on either of the two exercises.

Second, overdoing it on the weight or intensity can cause your form to suffer.

If you’re not smart about the way you do your supersets, you may end up getting a much less effective workout than if you’d just stuck with heavier, regular sets with more rest time.

The aim of using alternating sets is to achieve similar goals to supersets, while alleviating some of the drawbacks.

An Alternating set looks something like this:

Exercise A -> Short Rest -> Exercise B -> Short Rest -> Exercise A -> Etc.

A Basic Alternating Set

As you can see, an alternating set gives you a short period of rest between two alternating exercises. This allows you to maintain a higher level of intensity compared to a standard set pattern (though not as high as a superset) without totally killing your ability to lift heavy, or with proper form.

This makes the alternating set a good middle ground between supersets and standard sets, though without the main benefit of either.

Compared to supersets, you don’t get the same level of intensity or the time savings of fully combining two exercises into one.

Compared to standard sets, you won’t be able to lift as heavy while maintaining proper form. If you target different muscle groups with your alternating sets however, you can get pretty close since you’re getting a very similar amount of rest between hitting each set of muscle groups.

Check this out to see what I mean:

Standard Set

A Standard Bench Press Set

Total rest time between bench press sets: 2 min

Alternating Set

Alternating Bench Press and Leg Press Allows you to reduce rest time between exercises

Total rest time between bench press sets: 2 min (Plus the time it takes you to do your calf raise set)

As you can see, the time spent resting is the same in either scenario. You could even argue that your chest is getting some extra rest while you’re doing your calf raises.

The difference is that your overall level of exertion is higher when performing an alternating set because the rest periods are segmented. This can lead you to maintaining a higher level of intensity over a longer period of time when compared to standard sets.

What Does This All Mean For You?

Should you use alternating sets?

As with so many things fitness related, it depends what your goals and priorities are.

Maintaining a higher level of exertion will generally result in more calories being burned. If you are trying to lose bodyfat, this can be a very effective tactic.

Heart rate vs calories burned –

Lifting weights is one of the most effective methods to burn body fat and it can certainly be argued that alternating sets makes weightlifting even more effective for this purpose. At least over a given time period. A higher level of intensity, over a longer period of time means more calories burned and more fat shredded after all.
Realistically, how much a difference does it make? I would argue that alternating sets are more effective for shorter periods of exercise, but the difference is minimal if time is less of a factor.

What do I mean by this?

Simply put, doing 30 minutes of alternating sets of bench press and calf raises is more effective than doing 30 minutes of just bench press alone. (At least when it comes to intensity over time)

On the other hand,  what if you compare that to 30 minutes of standard bench press immediately followed by 30 minutes of standard calf raises? That’s a very similar amount of actual work being done, just over a longer period of time.

So, to answer the question:

Are Alternating Sets the Superior Method for Weight Loss?

Over a short period of time? I’d say yes.

If you only have 30 minutes, alternating sets is an effective method to get more work done in a shorter amount of time without making some of the sacrifices you might make with supersets.

What if you’re planning to spend all day working out anyways? Take your time and hit each muscle group thoroughly and with the maximum amount of weight that you can without sacrificing form.

What if I’m Not Trying to Lose Weight?

If your goal is to get bigger or stronger, the alternating set is a good option to have as well, especially if you’re short on time.

Even if you have time to spare, alternating sets can be a great tactic to more effectively work given muscle groups. Alternating sets of deadlift and squats for example will give you one hell of a leg/back workout.

Alternating sets of bicep curls and hammer curls is one of the simplest ways to increase the effectiveness of your bicep workout by recruiting more muscle fibers.

Again, if time is not much of a factor it may be more effective to hit each muscle group thoroughly and with the maximum amount of weight that you can without sacrificing form.

The Secret Benefit of Alternating Sets

Alternating sets, like supersets and dropsets and pyramid sets and every other set type out there, have pros and cons.

One thing is true about all of them though.

They can really shake up your routine. In a good way!

The #1 most important thing about any kind of exercise is consistently doing it.

Even if you find the perfect workout routine, there will be days when it just seems a little…boring. Especially if you’ve been doing it for weeks or months or years already.

Sometimes it’s important to mix things up!

Not because it’s the best, most efficient way to get in shape, but because sometimes it can be the difference between getting a good workout and telling yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

If you’re looking at your workout schedule and thinking “Leg day again. Squat, lunge, press just like last week. Been there done that, maybe I’ll just skip today and do it tomorrow.”

Mix it up!

Boredom is the #1 killer of gains and goals. If you don’t want to workout because it’s boring, then you probably won’t. Be honest.

Woah, science!

If I look at my workout plan and see yet another leg day coming up and I start to feel… less than thrilled. I start to think of ways to make it more interesting.

“Maybe I’ll superset my lunges and leg press so I can finish off the workout with noodle-legs!”

“Maybe I’ll dropset my squats so I won’t be able to walk tomorrow!”

“If I alternate squats and lunges, not only will I get that sweet booty pump, I’ll be finished in half the time!”

All of those thoughts are more motivating to me than “Squats, lunges, press. Oh boy, here we go again.” Yes, even the second one.

Plus, if I’m not feeling 100% and the thought of squatting 250lb just sounds exhausting, deciding to mix it up with some supersets or alternating sets means that I can still get a great workout without necessarily focusing on lifting the absolute highest amount of weight.

If you feel like your gains are starting to level off, mixing it up with different set types can even be a good method to get through plateaus!

Alternating Sets vs Straight Sets

There are a few potential advantages and disadvantages to using alternating sets instead of straight sets.

One potential advantage of alternating sets is that they can allow you to work more muscle groups in a given amount of time, since you are not spending as much time on any one exercise. This can be particularly useful if you are trying to fit a lot of exercises into a limited amount of time.

Another potential advantage of alternating sets is that they may allow you to recover more quickly between sets, since you are resting the muscles you are working while performing sets of a different exercise. This can help you maintain a higher level of intensity throughout your workout, which can lead to better results.

On the other hand, one potential disadvantage of alternating sets is that they may not allow you to work each muscle group as intensely as you could with straight sets. This is because you are spreading your efforts across multiple exercises, which can make it difficult to focus on any one muscle group and push it to its maximum potential.

Additionally, alternating sets may be more complex and require more planning than straight sets. This can make them less suitable for beginners, who may benefit more from the simplicity and straightforwardness of straight sets.

Overall, the decision of whether to use alternating sets or straight sets is a personal one and will depend on your individual goals, preferences, and experience level. Both methods can be effective for building strength and muscle, and the best approach for you will depend on your specific needs and circumstances.

Will Alternating Sets Help You Get the Body You’ve Always Wanted?

Alternating sets are a great tool to get you into the shape you want to be in.

Are they the be-all end-all?

The truth is, fitness doesn’t work that way.

There is no magic bullet, and you’re gonna have to work for it. Sorry.

Alternating sets are pretty cool though, you should totally try them sometime!

Looking for something a little different?
A roman chair, or hyperextension bench is an lesser known, yet extremely valuable piece of gear for so many reasons.
If you’re serious about getting into great shape, check out our rankings of the
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What’s Next?

It’s hard to do alternating sets without the right gear.

Check out my list of top home gym weight benches!

Rather have an all in one solution? Check here for my list of all in one home gyms!

Just getting started? Check out my list of equipment for beginners!

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