Do you need to spice up your training?
Or are you struggling with getting in an effective workout for strength & muscle building in a short time frame?
Try out giant sets!
Giant sets can be a good way to stimulate a new challenge to your muscles, push for a high level of mechanical tension, and drive some high blood flow into the region, possibly encouraging more sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
So what are giant sets? Giant sets vs circuits?
Using the right terminology is important when we talk about this stuff, especially when we start to bring in research because terms are defined to mean certain things. In general, a circuit is a series of exercises done in a row where you don’t repeat them until you’ve gone through all of them. For example,
A1. Goblet Squat 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A2. Push Up 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A3. Sliding Leg Curl 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A4. Inverted Row 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
Then rest 60 seconds and start over for 2-3 sets total
Full body circuits (like shown) are a great way to be able to keep working other parts of your body while the muscle group that was just worked gets to rest. These are a common thing that we like to prescribe in our training plans.
While the example above is great, it’s not the only kind of circuit. As we stated above, technically a circuit is any time you string a few movements in a row before repeating. There are tons of kinds of circuits because of these, such as just lower body ones, just upper body ones, core circuits, etc. One type of circuit that we want to focus on today that we think is really under appreciated is the giant set.
A giant set is where we group together a few different movements (at least three) in a sequence that each use the same muscle group. This can be done a number of different ways.
The exercises may all be compound movements that use the same muscle group, for example this pec focused one:
A1. Incline Bench Press 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A2. Flat Bench Press 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A3. Decline Bench Press 10 reps, rest 120 seconds
In contrast, these may all be isolation movements that use the same muscle group, for example this series that focuses on the triceps:
A1. Seated overhead tricep extensions 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A2. Dumbbell Skull crushers 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A3. Rope hand pressdowns 10 reps, rest 120 seconds
As well, these can be a combination of both compound and isolation type movements, such as this quad focused series:
A1. Back Squats 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A2. Reverse Lunges 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A3. Leg Extensions 10 reps, rest 120 seconds
When doing the combination style, some people will follow the order above, where the more isolation type movements are first, whereas others will put the isolation type movements first, such as this bicep focused series:
A1. Supinated curls 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A2. Narrow Grip Neutral Grip Pulldowns 10 reps, rest 30 seconds
A3. Overhand Narrow Grip Rows 10 reps, rest 120 seconds
You could make an argument either way as which is superior, which we will be in fact doing in an upcoming exercise order youtube video – so make sure to subscribe to stay up to date for it!
Why use them?
When deciding if you should ever use any kind of method in your training, it’s beneficial to evaluate what benefit you’d get from implementing it over “standard” training. In the case of giant sets, we want to know why it would be more beneficial than just doing the same work as regular sets and reps. While there is a lot of anecdote we can go on, we like to pull from research where possible to guide us.
There isn’t a ton of research specifically on giant sets. In fact, there was only one study that we could find directly discussing it. A paper from Olivia et al. 2013 that looked to implement giant sets for back development.
The study was relatively straight forward in that they had one group who used giant sets to train over time and saw that it led to improvements in muscle strength, muscle mass, and fat loss. It’s great to see that, but having more information, such as comparing it to other training styles, would allow better recommendations. If we open our research search slightly, there are a few other papers that we can draw on to tell us if giant sets are worth our time, or a giant waste of it.
A paper from Merrigan 2019 looked at long term results (12 weeks) from using either compound sets or traditional sets and the impact on muscle strength, endurance, and hypertrophy of the quads. For those who don’t know, a compound set is like a giant set, except only two exercises; for example, in the study the participants performed smith machine back squats and then leg press to target their quads. These were performed back to back, then rested and repeated. In contrast, the other group rested between each set of the movement.
In their study, they found no significant difference between the groups, with both making good increases in muscle mass and strength. The compound sets did etch out the traditional sets slightly, but it wasn’t significant.
What this study tells us is that utilizing compound sets, and likely giant sets, is at least not inferior to traditional sets.
Another study that we can look at builds on this by now comparing compound sets and supersets. Essentially the study did a similar format as the prior for one group, performing two movements back to back that used the same muscle group, and compared it to performing two movements back to back, but not using the same muscle groups.
The movements that were performed were bench press, pec deck, leg press, and knee extensions. The compound group performed bench press and pec deck back to back, and leg press and knee extensions back to back, whereas the superset group did leg press and pec deck, and then bench press and knee extensions.
The findings were that the compound sets resulted in more EMG (how active the muscle was) and more creatine kinase (how much muscle damage occurred) than the supersets. Now this study wasn’t longitudinal, it was just one session, so we always need to hold a bit of a reserve.
What I think we can take from this is that if you’re looking to create a higher demanding stimulus and you have two options – compound set or superset – the compound set will do the bigger job. This doesn’t inherently make it better, which we will highlight at the end.
If we change our direction slightly and look to compare Giant sets with another training technique that’s somewhat similar, we can draw a bit more research as well.
Drop sets, where we perform multiple sets in a row with minimal to no rest, is a good comparison as it draws on a similar concept of extending a stimulus to a muscle beyond just the single set of an exercise as we standardly do.
The specific drop set study we wanted to look at is one from Ozaki et al. 2018. Here the authors had 3 groups, one that trained with high load (80% 1RM), one that trained with low load (30% 1RM), and one that did drop sets at progressively decreasing loads. They then compared results across doing this for 2-3 days per week for 8 weeks.
The results showed no significant difference for strength or size. However, an important note we can take from this study is the time it took for the trainees to finish the sessions. The high and low load groups would have taken significantly more time to complete the sessions than the drop set group who would have likely finished it in half or less time.
While this study was long term, we do want to limit how much we draw from it as it was on untrained lifters, and also only shows a small piece of the puzzle that is training. You’re not going to find people who will do just one drop set and that’s it for training – particularly those who enjoy training. In reality it’s usually going to be done as the way to end a stimulus for a muscle group, or as the last movement at the end of the day. That’s where we particularly want to draw from it.
How to practically use them?
Well if we reflect on the research we have, I think there are two main ways to practically use giant sets.
As a novel stimulus for someone who has stalled and done other forms of training regularly for a consistent and long term basis.
For instance, if you’ve been training for 3 years or longer, regularly trained with weights, made good progress, used a good intelligent program through the time and have stalled for a few months and want to try something new.
In this case, the person is probably best to implement the giant sets for each major muscle group 1-2 times per week towards the end of a session after getting in their primary work.
This is actually something I have done recently, where I perform one giant set at the end of each my sessions for a different muscle group each day (Day 1 Lats, Day 2 Quads, Day 3 Pecs, Day 4 Hamstrings, Day 5 Shoulders). I’ve been a dedicated trainee for over a dozen years and wanted to try something new and see the effects. I don’t expect magic, but it at least is different and fun.
2. When short on time or not going to be able to train much in the coming days.
The research we looked at showed us that you can get a lot done in a short time frame with this style of training and it can result in pretty good effects. It will likely result in more fatigue and more soreness, so if you need to train again that day or perform well in some sort of event in the coming days, you’d be better off with a different option. If you’re in this situation, you could pick 3-4 movements and cycle through them to hammer your muscle group you’re focusing on and move on.
These are the two main scenarios where we see it shine. Outside of these, you’re probably better to use a different method. It’s not something you should probably do for a significant length of time, for instance I’ll only have it in my rotation for 4 weeks, then move on.
If you’re interested in trying it out, give one of the examples above a try – but don’t push too hard as you’d be surprised how fatiguing it can be!
Olivia T, Vladimir P, Marius U. Back muscles strength development by means of increase and decrease of effort load during giant sets in bodybuilding for masses. Ovidius university annals, series physical education and sport/science, movement and health. 2013;XIII(1):38-45.
Merrigan JJ, Jones MT, White JB. A comparison of compound set and traditional set resistance training in women: changes in muscle strength, endurance, quantity, and architecture. Journal of science in sport and exercise. 2019;1:264-272.
Brenantano MA, Umpierre D, Santos LP, et al. Muscle damage and muscle activity induced by strength training super-sets in physically active men. J Strength Cond Res. 2017;31(7):1847-1858.
Ozaki H, Kubota A, Natsume T, et al. Effects of drop sets with resistance training on increases in muscle CSA, strength, and endurance: a pilot study. J Sports Sci. 2018;36(6):691-696.