Pairing Exercises with the Big Lifts

Squat. Bench. Deadlift. Press. Chin-Up.  Push-Up.  Row.

Only some of the best exercises ever, right?  They demand that you engage many muscles, they allow you to use heavy loads, and they have a badass factor that keeps the haters hatin’.  Let’s just put ’em all together in a beautiful barbell smorgasbord of awesomeness, right?

Not so fast.

The big barbell lifts are highly effective, and it’s likely that they should be a large part of your training.  Problem is, a training free-for-all every time you hit the gym is a sure recipe for two things.  You run the risk of getting injured, and you run the risk of having really awful lifts.  Those may change in significance depending on how prioritize things.

Our life-hacker inspired, high-efficiency, do-more-with-less culture is teaching that the only way to ‘do’ things is by turning towards getting more done in shorter periods of time.  That’s why we eat up the media bastardized Tabata protocol, HIIT training, HIT training, and counting very lite weights as ‘strength’ training.

When it comes to barbell lifting, I recommend lifting fast, but living life in the slow lane.  Let’s avoid pairing or super-setting exercises with ‘main lifts’, shall we?  They’re great on their own, but together:


The ‘big’ bilateral barbell lifts have increased metabolic demands, increased spinal stabilization demands, and increased neural load.  It’s for these very reasons that strength coaches, the functional exercise, and CrossFit communities love them.  It’s also for these very reasons that they can tucker you out when you combine them in training.

If you’re pairing exercises, especially when pushing the tempo, the useable load will drastically decrease.  Let’s be honest, there’s nothing sexy about going light, and pairing two or more ‘big’ lifts shouldn’t be a distraction from the fact that you’re basically doing cardio.

Maybe that’s your goal; you want a conditioning effect.  Fortunately for you, there are better forms of cardio.  Sprint up a hill, swing a kettlebell, push a sled, jump in the alligator exhibit at the local zoo and try to make that sucker tap out.  There are more effective and safer options than doing 30 Olympic lifts in a row and naming it after a girl.  Don’t compromise strength gains for the sake of doing a randomized concoction of exercises you made up for the day.

Too many of us look at cardio simply as a means of tiring ourselves out.  If your goal is to feel exhausted after your workout, do all the pairing you want.  Hell, pull some max deadlifts, do 100 chin-ups, and run a marathon.  (Give it a cute name, too.)  But, if your goal is to see better results, let’s avoid using workouts as an exhaustion device.  Pairing big lifts is a sure-fire recipe to feel tired without getting a lot of work done.

If you’ve been pairing the big lifts, there ain’t nothing wrong with that.  In fact, I do that with certain variations for many of my clients. In their cases, we’re not looking at rapid strength development as much as we’re looking at movement quality and gradual strength development.  They might alternate between a split squat and a TRX row, not bench pressing and squatting.

Maybe you’ve been doing this.  It’s okay:



If you’re following the principle of Progressive Overload, you’ll find yourself adding weight, reps, or sets as you become more capable with certain exercises.  (If you don’t follow this principle, you should be.)  You’ll still get stronger, even if you’re pairing lifts.

It will just happen slower.

We’re not a culture that readily accepts ‘slow’, and while you and I know better than the 7 Day Detox and 6 minute abs, we demand progress.  You’ll be stronger by reducing the number of high-neural load exercise pairings, and focusing on developing strength with high-effectivness, high-efficiency exercises.

This can be from simple changes.  Opt for a push-up over a bench press if your main exercise is a deadlift.  Opt for a single arm cable row rather than a bent over barbell row if you’re squatting.  The major idea is that one exercise is hard while the other one is easy less hard.

Did this just break your heart?  Blow your mind?  Let me know with a comment!

If you’re accustomed to pairing all of your big lifts or have a question about the finer points of program design, drop a question below and we’ll figure out what’s most appropriate for your training.

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