Super Sets for Super Size
by Armand Tanny (1951)
It was tape measure night. It’s not often that advanced bodybuilders will resort to that little yellow and black annoyance as a measure of their progress. It is more a matter of feel than linear proportions to them. The advanced man can take a workout and say to himself that he either felt the workout or he didn’t. Measurements don’t mean a thing at that stage of the game. He knows that regardless of how hard he had worked a particular night there will be little apparent gain is size.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s interesting to see how much pump a muscle will take with a specialization routine. A pumped measurement is temporary and usually within a few hours the muscle will be back to normal. But it is that demand made on the muscle that the body tends to compensate for. The additional supply might be minute but a lot of a little adds up.
Anyway, the four of us, Gomez, myself, Eiferman and Walge were debating the fate of our measurements. We all agreed that an increase would naturally follow a gain in bodyweight. But with all of us having reached the weight that seemed maximum for our body types, the question arose as to how we could increase our measurements without the additional bodyweight that would kill our definition and look.
I suggested that we try the system of super set series. But with one alteration. Instead of going by the number of sets we set a time limit of 10 minutes in which we would do as many sets as possible of alternating exercises. We figured this way we could pump to the absolute maximum. It wouldn’t be wise or hardly possible to work every muscle group this way in a single workout owing to the terrific effort involved, but for the sake of experiment we decided on the biceps.
The super set series is essentially the alternating between two exercises that involve different muscle groups. This permits one to rest while you work the other. There is little or no rest between sets. It is back and forth alternately about three sets for each muscle group or six all together. Only after the completion of this series do you take somewhat of a rest before starting on the next two exercises. In this manner you can go through an entire workout as long as you limit the sets to three for each group.
Our object that night, however, was to see how much pump we could actually get out of our biceps. This meant working the triceps also. We would alternately do two exercises, the biceps curl on the incline bench and the triceps curl with a dumbbell either sitting or standing as we chose. With no rest between sets we would alternate between the two exercises doing anywhere from six to 10 reps a set. The effect was startling. At the end of the ten-minute period we had dropped way down to light dumbbells in order to keep up the grind. It would have been impossible to use the same weight we had started with. At the end of that period we waited a few minutes for the full effect to settle in and then taped our arms. Gomez, myself and Eiferman had gained almost an inch, while Walge, our 270 pounder, over an inch.
It was a matter of specialization on the upper arms and we worked as fast and hard as we could. The demand placed on the arms in that short period or time was terrific and I noticed that my arms still felt a bit oversize the following day. A system like that could be extended in time to perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, once the trainer grew to become used to it. The output is enormous, and the arms might not be too efficient for the remainder of a workout that involved pulling or pushing. It’s a good specialization course and could be handled effectively three times a week.
Where other muscle groups are concerned, this rapid-fire system will be more difficult. Since the biceps and triceps are two distinct muscle groups they fit this pattern nicely where you are out for measurement. Now, if you were to work two different exercises for the latissimus in the same alternating manner you wouldn’t gain as much in chest expansion as if you did one exercise for the pectorals and one for the lats alternately. Try the latter and see just how much expansion you will get out of your chest measurement.
Where you are doing alternating exercises as in the super set series it might be wise to follow a system of opposite motions as we did on the upper arms. In that routine one motion was flexion and the other extension. Pick out any exercise at random and try to think of an opposite motion.
Take for example the two-arm press. That is purely a pushing motion where the deltoids and triceps are involved. The opposite to this could be the two-arm chin where the lats and biceps come into play. Now each exercise involves entirely different muscle groups and permits one to rest while the other is in action.
If you are going to use this timed super set series as your pattern for work I’ll suggest an example schedule where the first and second exercises are worked alternately, then the third and fourth, and son on.
2. Abdominal Raise
3. Two Arm Press
4. Two Arm Chin
5. Deep Knee Bend
6. Leg Curl
7. Bench Press
8. Bentover Rowing Motion
9. Biceps Curl
10. Triceps Curl
For each of the above exercises there are many variations that can be used. For almost any other exercise you can think of there is one that has the opposite motion. This system has many advantages in time saved, development of endurance, and muscle growth itself. If you are taking five-minute rests between sets you are on the wrong road to speedy and maximum overall development. The only condition where long rests apply is where you are working for strength alone. In that case it is necessary to fully recuperate to have all your faculties and reserve ready for the next effort. Where you are striving for overall quality muscular growth it isn’t necessary to put out maximum nervous and muscular effort. It seems like you are but if you were to actually explode all your nervous energy on every set you’d be fatigued before the halfway mark was reached in a workout. the characteristic of excess nervous output is peculiar to some athletes. I find that when I am working along steadily on a workout with what seems to be maximum effort on each set, I am capable of putting out 50% more effort if I had to. If I was struggling along on six or seven reps on a particular exercise and suddenly determined to do ten, I could do it, but the nervous depletion would be too great. I might even keep up that pace for a few more exercises but then I would falter. On the other hand, you can’t be lazy and stop on five or six reps when you could easily have done ten. It is best to extend yourself to your muscular limit on each set but never your nervous limit unless you are striving for strength. All of the top bodybuilders I know have the capacity for nervous explosion but they seldom exercise it in a regular workout.
I have always maintained that it is advantageous to perspire through a workout. I don’t mean the kind induced by wearing rubber or heavy cloth sweat suits. These may be necessary where your gym is cold and drafty. It is a common and erroneous practice with those who are inclined to be fat to resort to these hindrances of natural ventilation with the impression that they are sweating off excess pounds. That doesn’t break down the fat cells. It merely drains the water from them which will be rapidly replenished at the first fountain. The fat itself is stored up as extra energy and unless you tap the supply with the demand created by hard work the cells themselves will remain very much alive and active.
Perspiration induced by work is best. It means the body processes are stepped up with a consequent gain or loss in weight as the case may be. In either case you are building muscle whether you are fat or thin or even highly developed. Atmospheric heat in itself is of no consequence. The warmer the better unless you are spending summer in Death Valley. If it’s Siberia in winter, which I hope it won’t ever be, sweat clothes are advisable. Many of the boys who worked out on the steaming islands of the South Pacific during the last war made remarkable gains. They gained more weight than they would have in cooler climates.
The business of keeping warm is a body function in itself and requires energy. When this is solved by ready-made atmospheric conditions it is that much additional effort saved that is applied to muscle action itself.
With the proper surrounding warmth a steady level of perspiration can be maintained as long as you work hard enough. And that is accomplished by doing many sets on every exercise. When you hit a fairly rapid pace this way, you will definitely perspire!
The question arises as to how many sets are optimum for an exercise. A lot depends on your capacity, and willingness to work. At first, three sets may be best, but as you progress and your recuperative powers increase you will be able to extend them to five. However, it is common practice now among top bodybuilders who are specializing on a part to get the fullest pump from an exercise regardless of the number of sets. They let the pump determine their set-numbers for each session. But more often their schedules are worked out in a definite number of sets because they have gauged their strength and endurance to what is best for them. In that way they won’t do too much or too little.
Every individual must figure out his own capacity. No one can do it for him.
In the mighty project of training for a physique contest I have found it best to work with a partner. They say that misery loves company. Perhaps so, but the psychological effect was always better for me. Looking forward to a ponderous, fast-paced three-hour workout alone taxes one’s already flimsy diet-weakened emotional makeup. Three hours is a long grind and by alternating with a partner a favorable pace is set and maintained.
Where the super set series is more on the order of a blitzkrieg, this way is a slightly slower and steadier march. Where you blitz your muscles you will have to travel light, that is, use a little less weight. But with time on our hands and one purpose in mind we were satisfied to slow it down somewhat.
We did five sets for most of the exercises. On the others, seven to 10 sets. Where we were doing 12 to 15 different exercises so that three hours was still going to be rather crowded.
First I’d do a set, then my partner would jump in and do his. We’d keep on each other’s tail all the way. The conversation was limited to a few scattered monosyllables. We’d go through five full sets of the particular exercise before we’d take a breather, and that was only long enough to set up the next exercise. On exercises that took too much time rigging equipment we used live resistance instead, each of us taking turns bearing down on the other.
It was a lot of work and the tendency to go stale was great, so quite often we’d split the schedule and work it every day.
We were in fine condition and five sets was not too much. Our strength varied from day to day but we never relented in our efforts. Many times we’d arrive for work entirely indisposed, wishing and looking for a reason to skip just this one. Perhaps we hadn’t fully recovered from the previous session. How nice it would be to take in a show or head for a desert weekend or have an evening of soft entertainment for the effort it took to dial the phone! But the preface to every workout was the same.
“How you feel?”
”Ready to hit it?”
“Got nothing better to do.”
“Okay, let’s try it, see how it feels.”
And we’d be deep into it again in no time.