5 Reasons to Stop Performing Combo-Exercises

Calvin Huynh
Written By: Calvin Huynh
September 7th, 2018
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
10.9K Reads
5 Reasons to Stop Performing Combo-Exercises
You might think you're getting more work in & in less time by performing combo exercises, but you'd be wrong. Learn how these moves are limiting your gains.

It’s disappointing to see so many trainers do this.

Look, there’s a time and place for innovation, but a lot of times innovation gets taken too far.

Combining exercises is often a terrible application for innovation. By combining exercises, I’m talking about things like thrusters, lunging + curling, or doing a kb swing followed by an upright row.

It’s one thing for average Joes to be making this mistake, but it’s appalling to see trainers with a laundry list of credentials commit this blasphemous act in training daily.

These combination exercises are usually prescribed by a coach who:

  • A. Doesn’t truly understand basic principles of exercise.
  • B. Is poorly attempting to reap more benefits from one set.
  • C. Is trying to look extra flashy to appear cool or get more clients.
  • D. All of the above.

A lot of times, it would just be more beneficial to do each individual movement in separate sets.

Here’s why:

1. You Can’t Provide Even Stimulation

Take the thruster as an example, an exercise made famous by CrossFit which is essentially a combination between a squat and an overhead press. A weight you are able to press smoothly will be too light to squat. If you do a set of thrusters, your shoulders will fatigue before your legs. As the set goes on, the pressing portion of the exercise starts to look ugly just to give your legs a chance at the same amount of stimulation.

I already know there’s going to be some CrossFit fanatics saying that they can feel even stimulation in the legs and shoulders after a set of thrusters.

Athlete Performing an Olympic Combo Lift

This is a terrible argument for combination exercises because if you’re able to feel even stimulation in the shoulders and legs after a set of thrusters, then your legs are way too WEAK!

Think about it, your lower body is capable of recruiting more muscle fibers than your delts, and should be able to handle far more load and volume.

Funny enough to fix this imbalance is simple. Just start squatting more often without combining it with a press, or a curl, or anything!

2. Combination Exercises Suck for Building Strength

Being strong makes life better and it’s more than just for cool Instagram PR’s.

Building strength is also vital for recruiting more muscle fibers, reinforcing joint stability, increasing bone density, and retaining muscle when dieting.

Related: 3 Scientifically Backed Tips to Help You Increase Strength

Strength is the amount of force you can generate to overcome resistance. Building strength has three non-negotiable principles that these combo exercise enthusiasts seem to forget.

  • You need to actually train with heavy loads to get stronger. This means 70-95% of 1RM.
  • Strength is a skill. It requires motor learning which is comprised of your lifting technique, intramuscular coordination, intermuscular coordination, and power which is how fast you can generate force.
  • The skill of strength is developed through specific repetition.

All of these principles are sacrificed when you combine exercises. With two movements in each repetition, you can’t use optimal loads to build strength in either movement pattern.

Lunging combined with curling will never get your legs strong because if you can curl a weight, it means it’s too light for your legs. And if you’re lunging in between each curl, you can’t maximize your bicep’s potential workload either.

Motor learning is also sacrificed. Your neural resources are now split instead of focused. Coordination is compromised, technique suffers, and power doesn’t get developed.

And because motor learning requires specific repetition, it only makes sense to do one movement at a time. Nothing will get you better at squatting then JUST squatting. And as far as repetitions go, you’re able to get a higher quantity of repetitions when doing exclusively one movement per set because you’re not fatigued from 2 exercises.

Athlete Focusing on Squat Strength

3. Not Good for Building Muscle

When you combine exercises, your muscle building efforts are about as effective as eating soup with a fork. Sure, you can technically do it, but it’s just inefficient.

There are a few principles that make hypertrophy optimal that you’d be a fool to give up for the sake of combining exercises.

  • Maximum type ll muscle fiber recruitment: Recruiting the most fast-twitched muscle fibers
  • Time under tension: How long a muscle is under strain.
  • Mind Muscle Connection: The ability to mindfully direct and increase a muscle’s contraction.

Type ll muscle fibers have the most potential for growth. They’re better recruited with heavier loads. You can’t do this when your neural resources are split into two different exercises during the same set as mentioned above.

On top of all this, by doing something like a lateral raise followed by a curl, you’ll immediately lose time under tension with each rep while making the mind muscle connection more difficult. You’re now forced to switch focus from your delts to your biceps and immediately back.

These are all reasons why you never see bodybuilders and physique competitors ever do combo exercises.

4. The Aerobic System Gets in the Way

When you’re trying to get jacked out of your mind, the last thing you want is your set to be cut short because your lifting feels like an uphill sprint.

When you combine exercises like a row with a lunge, the aerobic system is going to interfere as blood rushes back and forth from your upper body to your lower body. This makes it harder to recover between sets and takes up unnecessary time during your workout while muscles aren’t sufficiently stimulated.

Exhausted from Cardio of Combo Exercises

5. Does Combining Really Save Time?

After all the points I made, there will still be people who will defend combo exercises claiming they’re time efficient.

Not exactly true.

Let me paint a comparison for you. Assume two people with the same 1 rep max on fronts squats (225) and barbell overhead presses (135).

Person A thinks he’ll get better results by combining the two. He decides to do barbell thrusters for 3 sets of 8. Person A must use no more than about 85lbs because his overhead press max is capped at 135, must take into account how the squat component makes the set longer, and consider that his aerobic system will drain him.

Related: 6 Strength Training Tips for the Average Lifter

Person B on the other hand decides to just do front squats for 3 sets of 8 using 175lbs supersetted with overhead presses for 3 sets of 8 using 105bs. He can use optimal loads for his sets because each set has it’s own focus without limitations.

After considering Person A needing longer rest periods and Person B needing to change the weight on the barbell between exercises, the total time should be practically the same, but results are drastically different.

Person A’s legs aren’t sufficiently stimulated while his shoulders still didn’t get as much total work as Person B.

Person B’s legs got optimal work, shoulders got optimal work, and his movements were practiced with higher quality without interference from his heartrate skyrocketing through the roof.

Combination exercises aren’t time efficient, they’re more like time wasters.

When to Kill Two Birds with One Stone

Combo exercises are way overrated and overused, but there are a few instances in which they can be an option.

  • To get a strategic pump: The most valid use for combo exercises is to achieve lots of metabolic stress, but the exercises must be very strategically chosen to hit generally the same muscles so time under tension isn’t lost while both exercises being capable of the same load. Some good choices are farmers walk + shrug, front raises + lateral raises, reverse lunge + staggered stance rdl, or supinated curl + hammer curl.
  • In a flow based sequence to warm up: This is fine as you’re simply getting mobile and activating muscles while there is no concern for high stimulation.
  • As a finisher: Another option is to use it as a finisher to end off your workout where you don’t mind the aerobic system interfering and you’ve already completed all significant strength/hypertrophy work. (Even as a finisher, I would still argue there are better options involving one movement per set like bodyweight circuits, supersets, jump roping, or Tabata sprints on a bike.)

Multitasking is Overrated

This toxic trend of combining exercises is not talked about enough. Trainers and lifters need to stop mindlessly combining exercises. These exercises look flashy and seem like they save time, but they just negate all time-tested training principles resulting in poor use of time.

If you think you look innovative doing them, just stop. All the good coaches can see right through the circus act of combination exercises. They’re unnecessary and for the most part will be inferior to just doing one movement pattern at a time.

The man trying to chase two prizes at once comes home empty handed. The same goes for exercises. Do two exercises separately and maximize each benefit at a time, but getting greedy trying to do both in the same set is a recipe for limited progress.