You're busy with work, family, good TV, junk TV, social life—oh, right, and training. I get it. But the truth is, we all have a life going on; it's not just you. What separates those who get that shit done from those who don't is the ability to give each item its appropriate amount of time, attention, and work.

When it comes to the training side, you'll see quite a few people pounding away for two-plus hours a day at the local gym. They may think they need that, but in all honesty, they don't. You can get in a fast and effective workout that doesn't feel like anything more than another "to do" item. How? With a protocol I call "express sets."

Express sets combine big lifts with lighter weight "complexes," which are series of movements you perform without setting the weight down. Complexes have been around for years, and they're revered in strength and conditioning circles for good reason. You get a lot of variety, and a lot of volume, in a short amount of time. They dovetail with fat loss or muscle gain and have a mysterious ability to pretty much make you better at everything.

Traditionally, complexes usually take one of two approaches: as the sole focus of a strength, endurance, or conditioning session, or as a burnout-style finisher after a different workout. Both are effective. But they're not your only choices.

By blending complexes with strength work, you can stimulate strength and power gains from big moves like barbell squats and presses, while reaping the complex's metabolic benefits.

A warning about the workouts below: You'll need to use some light weights, but it won't always feel like it. And while you'll be in and out of the gym in 30-40 minutes, there will be some long-ass minutes in there!

Express Sets for Quick Workouts and Fast Gains

How to Do Express Sets

  • Perform a heavy, multijoint movement like a squat, deadlift, row, or press. Then, perform a complex with antagonist or opposite body parts. For example, you could pair the bench press with a lower-body complex or squats with an upper-body complex
  • Keep a traditional strength and power rep protocol for the major movement, such as a 1-6 rep range. However, don't use your 3-rep max for a set of 3! For the complex, use higher reps. One big advantage of this approach is that it allows you to get solid strength work from lighter weights. So be conservative with weight selection, especially your first few times through.
  • The complex portion of the set should be 3-6 movements done back to back.
  • Don't perform more than 2-3 grip-intensive movements in a row in the complex. If you try, you'll quickly figure out why I advised against it.
  • Rest no more than 15 seconds between the major movement and complex portion, but extend the rest period after the complex to 90-120 seconds. This will allow you to get quality reps in the big movement, while still getting the fat-loss and conditioning benefits of the complex.
  • Utilize more than one form of training tool! In my article "The Right Way to Combine Barbell and Kettlebell Training," I provide multiple ideas of how to mix barbells and kettlebells, which I think go together perfectly. Mix them with bodyweight moves, and you'll get even greater benefits in terms of skill acquisition, motor control, and quality movement.
  • Get creative! Start with the templates below, but change them to fit your needs as you get comfortable. Prioritize your known weaknesses in the big movement, for example. If your pull-ups suck and you want them to get better, put them in the front of the set with a lower-body complex afterward.
Back Squat Express Set
Paired set: 5 rounds. Perform the big movement, followed by 1 round of the dumbbell complex. Then rest 90-120 sec.
Barbell Squat
With 1 round of the complex immediately after each set.
5 sets, 3 reps
Upper Body Complex
Perform 1 set of each movement without setting the weights down.
Front Dumbbell Raise
5 sets, 8-10 reps
Cuban Press
5 sets, 8-10 reps
Push Press
Perform with dumbbells.
5 sets, 8-10 reps
Side Lateral Raise
5 sets, 8-10 reps
Weighted Pull-up Express Set
Paired set: 5 rounds. Perform the big movement, followed with 1 round of the dumbbell complex. Then rest 90-120 sec.
5 sets, 1 reps
Kettlebell Complex
Perform one set of each movement without setting the weights down.
One-Arm Kettlebell Swings
Or perform with both arms.
5 sets, 5-10 reps
Goblet Squat
5 sets, 5-10 reps
One-Arm Kettlebell Push Press
5 sets, 5-10 reps (per arm)
Dumbbell Lunges
Alternating, perform with kettlebell.
5 sets, 5-10 reps (per leg)

How to Program Express Sets

You could definitely use express sets on a day when you know you need to be in and out of the gym quickly, but they can also be a way to build a training block. Here's how it could look:

Express Set 3-Day Plan

  • Day 1: Heavy Squat Variation with Upper-Body Complex
  • Day 2: Off
  • Day 3: Heavy Press Variation with Lower-Body Complex
  • Day 4: Off
  • Day 5: Heavy Row or Deadlift Variation with Upper-Body Complex

Express Set 4-Day Plan

  • Day 1: Heavy Squat Variation with Upper-Body Complex
  • Day 2: Heavy Overhead Press Variation with Lower-Body Complex
  • Day 3: Off
  • Day 4: Heavy Row or Deadlift Variation with Upper-Body Complex
  • Day 5: Heavy Bench Press Variation with Lower-Body Complex

If time allows and you'd like to really focus on muscle gain, add in more detail-focused movement after your express set. For example, you could do 3-6 sets of 8-12 reps of lateral raises after a pressing-focused express set.

Time's up. No more excuses for not having time to train hard and heavy. Get to work.

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About the Author

Ryan Taylor, CSCS

Ryan Taylor, CSCS

Ryan Taylor is the owner of Training by Taylor, a Chicago-based business serving clients both in person and online.

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