3 ways to build muscle in less time
There will be days where you can’t even spend a full hour in the gym. Responsibilities pull for your attention, important events fill up your calendar, and annoying meetings seemed to be scheduled at the most inconvenient hours. Here’s are 3 scientific ways to condense your workouts while still building muscle.
Are Supersets Effective?
Supersets are when you pair 1 exercise with another exercise back to back generally with no formal rest between exercises until both exercises are completed.
For example, you could do a set of dumbbell bench press, then do a set of bent over dumbbell rows. Once the rows are completed, you would rest as appropriate before starting the superset again.
Can Supersets Build Muscle Mass?
This allows you to finish the same amount of sets you typically would in almost half the time. What’s even better is that if done correctly, total performance isn’t hindered compared to traditional sets (1).
If this sounds great, there’s more good news. One study showed that despite doing the same number of sets in less time, the superset group actually completed more volume load (reps x sets x weight) (1). This indicates that not only are supersets a great time saver, but also enhance performance and muscle growth compared to traditional sets.
Keep in mind that the the superset group experienced more fatigue, so we should still be careful about how many supersets we do.
Who Should Use Supersets?
I recommend you do lots of supersets when crunched for time while using them more frugally during normal workouts as excessive fatigue can limit volume on subsequent exercises and subsequent workouts later in the week.
If you really want to save time you can pair three exercises in a row, called a Triset. This requires careful considerations to avoid impacting performance, and triset workouts can be pretty tough, but save ridiculous amounts of time. We use these in our Time Saver workouts, letting us perform 23 sets in 35 minutes.
Types of Supersets: Agonist-Antagonist, Separated, Grouped, Compound
Agonist-Antagonist Supersets pair exercises that do opposite contractions. Think a chest press paired with a row or a leg curl paired with a leg extension.
According the research, these seem to be the best kind of supersets. They show similar or even improved performance compared to traditional sets (2,3). This is likely because while one muscle group works, the other one gets to rest. Add to this the additional rest you take after a superset, giving each muscle group a sufficient recovery period all while slicing your workout time nearly in half.
It is also speculated that agonist-antagonist supersets enhance performance because training one side of the body prepares the other side for performance.
Pairs 2 exercises that aren’t necessarily opposite contractions. Think squats paired with biceps curls or leg curls paired with skull crushers.
Although not as promising as agonist-antagonist supersets, separated sets are still a great way to save time and also throw in additional body parts which you would otherwise have skipped (4).
Grouped Supersets (a.k.a. Compound Sets)
Pairs 2 exercises that train the same muscle. Think bench press paired with the pec deck or the leg press paired with the leg extension.
These do save time but are not optimal for performance as muscles don’t get sufficient rest periods to maximize on growth (5). But hitting the same muscle with 2 exercises leads to higher muscle activation compared to separated supersets at the expense of more muscle damage (4). This is not surprising given that you are in essence taking the muscle closer to failure.
Grouped supersets should be used conservatively but can be useful for those who follow “bro splits” training each body part one a week. In this case the muscle damage is less relevant. You can then take advantage of the additional muscle activation for lagging body parts.
Our Time Saver workout uses a smart combination of agonist-antagonist supersets and separated supersets into trisets so give you the maximal benefit of the set types above.
How Drop Sets Work
Drop sets are another great way to save time without sacrificing your gains. In a drop set, you take a set to failure, then quickly reduce the load, and immediately do another set. You then repeat this process 2-4 times.
Can Drop Sets Build Muscle?
When volume load is matched, drop sets have comparable muscle building effects as traditional sets, but can be done in less time (6). They’re great for adding volume to your workout without adding significant time.
Why drop sets work so well in a shorter amount of time can speculatively be attributed to:
- All muscle fibers recruited: The more muscle fibers you train, the better.
- Proper fatiguing of muscle fibers: It allows your muscles to continue to produce force without rest because load is immediately dropped.
- More metabolic stress: This is the “pump” making your muscle fibers more responsive to lighter weights.
- Growth of type 1 muscle fibers: These don’t have much potential to grow as they are adapted to endurance. However, drop sets induce “endurance like” training that can cause growth of type 1 fibers.
How Many Drop Sets Per Workout?
Why not just replace all traditional sets with them? Unfortunately, drop sets are highly taxing. Training to failure has been shown to hinder recovery and considering drop sets are multiple bouts of lifting to failure with no rest, they should be used conservatively (7).
Replacing all your traditional sets with drop sets can be detrimental to recovery and affect your remaining sets along with weekly volume.
I suggest using them when you’re short on time or at the end of a workout on a couple of exercises at most.
As far as the best way to do a drop set, a research paper by Brad Schoenfeld and Jozo Grgic shows a drop set including 3 drops with a reduction in about 20% of weight per drop seems to be most ideal.
This can be done in either compound or isolation movements, but practically speaking, isolation movements are safer. For compound movement drop sets, you need to be experienced in the exercise and have a training partner assisting you in the drops.
What are Rest Pause Sets?
Rest pause is another great time saving technique. Rest pause is done by taking a set to failure, then taking a short break of 30 seconds or less before doing more sets with the same weight to failure until a total number of reps is completed. I like to base my total number of reps on double the amount of reps I completed the first set.
So at a certain weight, if I was able to perform 12 reps to failure (the “starter set”), in the remainder sets (called “mini sets”) I would aim to complete 12 more for a total of 24. Here’s an example of how that would look like:
- Starter set: 12 reps (to failure)
- 30 seconds rest
- Mini set 1: 6 reps (to failure)
- 30 seconds rest
- Mini set 2: 3 reps (to failure)
- 30 seconds rest
- Mini set 3: 2 reps (to failure)
- 30 seconds rest
- Mini set 4: 1 rep
- 180 second rest before next exercise
It is thought that the above can have a similar impact on muscle growth as 3-5 traditional sets, but more research is needed to confirm this.
Rest Pause for Strength
Rest pause takes a bit longer than drop sets because of short breaks between bouts, but it’s likely better for strength gains because it allows you to use a heavier weight for longer, increasing mechanical tension (the main driver of muscle growth).
Rest Pause vs Straight Sets
Compared to traditional sets, this study showed rest pause is better for lower body muscle growth and endurance while strength was the same between groups (8). The study controlled volume so both groups did the same number of reps at a given percentage of their 1 rep max. Unfortunately, effort was not matched so the rest pause group went to failure while the traditional group likely didn’t.
Is Rest Pause Training Effective?
At the very least, rest pause can get nearly the same or potentially better muscle building effects with much less time commitment. This is because it allows you to maintain high motor unit recruitment between bouts and stimulate muscle growth.
While the research only has evaluated rest pause training to failure, it is probably more beneficial to stop each 1-2 reps before failure. This way you can use rest pause training as a long-term strategy to save time. The key is to progress the set in the right way. The Dr Muscle app uses artificial intelligence to help you build muscle faster using both rest pause and traditional sets.
Do This Now to Save Time in the Gym
All in all, these intensity extending methods aren’t the end all be all in fitness. They have their drawbacks and limitations, but research has shown us with pretty much all of them you can expect two wonderful things:
- They’ll likely enhance muscle growth when strategically used within your daily training.
- They without a doubt are great ways to match the same muscle building effects of traditional sets with a big reduction in time making them all your bread and butter on days workout time is limited.
If you’re short on time, do the following:
- If you train each muscle once a week, use drop sets on the last exercise/set to fully fatigue the muscle.
- In most cases, however, you should use agonist-antagonist supersets. If you choose the right exercises, you can even do three exercises in a row using tri-sets.
- To save even more time, and potentially build even more muscle, you can use rest pause sets. If you do it right, this method can half the time you spend in the gym.
- With all of the methods above, make sure you have enough recovery time. The closer to failure you train, the more time you should allow for recovery.
- A good rule of thumb is to wait at least 48 hours between workouts if going 2-3 reps from failure and to wait 96 hours between workouts if going to failure. (9)
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