Posted February 16, 2018

Optimal Exercise Pairings for Delicious Delicious Gains

I’m a big fan of food. Great tasting food is one of life’s truly amazing pleasures, and a well cooked steak or fantastic slice of bread or vegetable dish that makes you sit up and take notice can be some of the best parts of anyone’s day. If you go out to some fancy schmancy restaurants, they’ll usually even offer something called “wine pairings” to go with your meal complete with some dude or dudette called a sommelier who’s entire job is to sell you wine that tastes awesome with whatever food you’re eating. The gist is that some wines make specific foods taste really good compared to just eating that food on its own.

Italian food? Hit up a full bodied red wine

Nachos and chicken wings? Smash up some pints of beer to wash that crispiness down.

Fish? Get a bottle of Riesling and blow your mind.

Liver and fava beans? What else but a nice chianti.

As wine pairing with food is very much a subjective art as opposed to a hard science, it leaves the door wide open to a lot of different potential combinations and stuff that can work really well for one person and turn the stomach of someone else.

For instance, you may not like wine but whisky is more of your friend. There’s different flavours of whisky based on how they’re made, ranging from so smoky you think you’re drinking a camp fire, to so peaty it’s like brushing your teeth with a handful of moss, to silky sweet like a dessert wine. Each of these kinds of flavours would work really well with different foods, or just on their own as you see fit.

Some pairings also sound really good on paper, but aren’t cut out once you try them in practice. I like bourbon, and I like coffee. However, coffee and bourbon should never cross streams. Trust me on this one.

Similarly, there are exercise pairings that seem to be additive to the individual outcomes of the exercises, as opposed to doing each on their own. Instead of looking subjectively at taste and flavour, exercise pairings can be a bit more objective in terms of anatomy involved, specific physiological outcome desired, and intensities being used.

Some common pairing combinations could fall into the following categories:

  • Agonist-Antagonist
  • Upper body – Lower body
  • Agonist-Agonist
  • pre-activation – strength
  • High threshold – active recovery
  • Stiffness – mobility

These aren’t hard and fast written in stone pairings, but are common ones that do make sense from both a goal attainment perspective and also from physiologic elements involved. Let’s break down some of this deliciousness further.


Agonist-Antagoinist Pairings

This is a very common bodybuilding training split, like training biceps and triceps in superset pairings. The major benefits to this is through actively stretching the previously worked muscle group with the currently working muscle group activity. A set of skin-stretching biceps curls can be adequately stretched and reduce the overall soreness from the previous working set as compared to just active recovery. It’s also a good way to increase the training density of a session versus scrolling your Insta feed endlessly during rest breaks.

Another concept of agonist-antagonist pairings is using opposing movements, such as a press and pull combination instead of just opposing muscles. Commonly, pressing movements should be paired with a pulling movement to help reduce the shoulder stress from the press work and to work on some degree of program balance. Often if someone has consistent shoulder issues you can look at someone’s training program and see they tend to do more pressing work than pulling work. Working in some pulling direct pairings with their press work can be a significant benefit, and in some cases doing more of a 1:2 ratio of press to pull work would be required.

Aside from the reduction in muscle stress, this can help train scapular movement that can be integral to getting effective pressing training, so it helps create the additive benefit to your pressing even within the session.


Upper Body – Lower Body Pairings

This idea is primarily about fatigue management and increasing training density during a session. If you train your upper body in a movement to relative fatigue or failure, you have a lower body that’s itching to get in the game while your upper body recovers to hit up another set. Training a set of overhead press and then going into some rear foot elevated split squats put little stress through the shoulders, allowing the increased blood flow from the RFESS set to speed oxygen and nutrient delivery into the shoulders compared to passive recovery.

This is a very beneficial pairing for anyone who is looking to maintain a higher cardiac output during their session, establish a larger work capacity or just cram in more work to a limited time frame compared to straight set work of a single movement, while maintaining a relatively high output for each movement being used.


Agonist – Agonist Pairings

This is a common bodybuilding technique that can be used a couple of ways to produce different results.

One method would involve pairing an isolation movement with a compound movement. The isolation movement performed before the compound movement would induce some fatigue related decrease in force production of the isolated muscle prior to involvement in the compound movement, meaning muscle groups not fatigued would have to work harder to pick up the slack. This can be a very beneficial approach if a lifter feels they’re dominating a movement with a specific muscle, like you’re crushing your triceps on your chest press movements, so smash a set of tricep extensions beforehand to make those tris unable to steal the show on your bench pressing.

Another version of this would be as a sort of “post-fatigue” series, where you do a heavy compound movement, then move into an isolational movement to continue hammering a specific muscle. You could do dumbbell presses and then move on to lighter lateral raises to smash the heck out of your delts more than doing either exercise by themselves.


You could also do something similar with squats or leg presses and then going into either leg extensions or leg curls. I definitely recommend this series if standing up off the toilet without the use of your hands and three friends is not appealing to you.

Another potential option for agonist-agonist pairings is to use a regressed “teaching” movement to prepare for a higher threshold movement. An overhead press requires a fair bit of upward scapular rotation, so doing a drill that helps reinforce that movement pattern prior to doing a set of overhead press is working on agonistic movements without necessarily using agonistic prime movers. In the case of upward rotation the movers are the serratus anterior, upper and lower traps, whereas the prime movers in the press are the anterior delts, triceps and upper traps.


Pre-activation – Strength

This is a pairing that I feel is highly under-utilized by a lot of strength athletes, and even general lifters who want to get more weight on the bar or run faster or jump higher.

When ever you’re doing something that requires a maximum force output, it’s beneficial to do something that involves a sort of pre-ignition to the nervous system and muscles to contract as hard and fast as possible, which transfers over to the activity you’re looking to do.

Think of it like priming an engine, or putting some lighter fluid on the barbeque. It helps to start the process much easier than on its’ own.

These can be very easy movements like a stomp, a vertical jump, a high tension plank, or even a few medicine ball throws. The goal in either case is maximum force production through maximum speed for a very small number of reps (a lot of reps breeds fatigue, which will impair maximum force production later on), and then relatively immediately going on to the strength movement.

Fred Hatfield, aka “Dr. Squat” used to use a vertical jump before deadlifting massive weights, on the concept of “Compensatory Acceleration Training,” or making muscles contract fast to contract hard against a heavy load.

Doing something like this for 2-3 reps prior to a heavy set of any max or near-max loading can have a seriously beneficial impact on force production into the bar. Often it can make a specific load feel like it’s moving faster or maybe squeak an extra 5 lbs onto the bar compared to not doing it.


High Threshold – Active Recovery

This is a common one that can take a lot of different forms. Think of something very hard to do, like max deadlifts (duh), paired with something relatively low stress to have the body do something versus just doing passive recovery. This could involve gentle walking, some mobility drill that doesn’t involve the prime mover of the movement (ankle mobility es bueno, hip static stretching es no bueno for deadlift active recovery), a breathing drill, positional hold, balance skill, whatever you want to do that doesn’t tax you too much.

Ideally, the active recovery pairing should be low enough intensity that your heart rate has returned to an almost resting level by the time the set is over, or should feel like you’re breathing easier at the end of the set than at the beginning.


Stiffness – Mobility

This is a great series to work with in people who need to develop larger ranges of motion for specific directions or actions. It can come in a lot of different forms, but typically involves creating a lot of muscle tension to stiffen a joint or portion of the body, then moving into an end range of motion for some form of mobility drill.

This is a common process for PNF style or CRAC style stretching, and can produce some pretty alarming benefits for a lot of people who have always felt like they were just too stiff to do certain things.

To put some nitroglycerine in these concepts, you could do some very heavy weighted contractions with maybe an iso hold at max contraction, then proceed into an end range stretch of that movement. Think of doing a max hip thrust, then going into a pigeon stretch with higher tension pulling deeper into the movement.

On repeated measures, the range of motion increase on a pairing style such as this can be pretty dramatic for some individuals, especially if they have a significant lack of active mobility into those end ranges.


These pairings are just ideas that seem to work, and aren’t hard and fast as the only ones that exist. Much like food and wine pairings, it can have subjective elements, primarily based on whether they produce the desired results the individual is looking for in their training. They can always be adjusted or fine tuned, but do seem to help produce better results than just a base exercise all on its own. Give some of these pairings a try in your next workout and let me know what you think.