Supersets have been around in the lifting world for what seems like forever. I would argue that one of the biggest modern day proponents of this style training is Arnold Schwarzenegger (his superset arm days are still widely popular).
Factor in influential strength coaches like Charles Poliquin and YouTube personalities like Dom Mazzetti using this style training, and you have a recipe for a popular training method. Supersets have multiple benefits for an athlete, but there’s one issue that typically comes with them. The issue is that some athletes – I don’t want to use the word incorrectly here – use them inefficiently.
Supersets are an awesome tool for a lifter to keep in their arsenal, but they need a basic understanding of how to use them before doing so. Below we’ll discuss what supersets are, how they may benefit your gains (with science), and three types of supersets.
What Is a Superset Workout?
The easiest way to define a superset is: Two exercises combined into one full set, with none to little programmed rest in-between.
A superset can take multiple forms and can be left open for the imagination when it comes to combining different movements. Some forms of training actually get their roots from the superset background, such as complex and PAP training. This is where the broad term of superset can get a little misleading. Factor in multiple aspects like rest times, intensity levels, exercise selection, and it’s no wonder supersets can become somewhat confusing to newer lifters.
Science and Supersets
Science has suggested supersets to be useful for multiple reasons. While that’s not always the case, and some research has shown conflicting evidence, but there is promise and usefulness to this style training.
First, supersets may provide a metabolic benefit. Ten recreationally active men had their energy expenditure (aka energy used, or calories burned) compared when following a superset and traditional styled resistance workout. Each subject performed similar workouts with 70% of their 1-RMs on movements, but the difference was the exercise order (supersets and single sets).
Researchers found that the superset group had a higher total energy expenditure compared to the traditional group. Additionally, post-exercise oxygen consumption and blood lactate levels were higher post-workout in the superset group, which suggests these subjects to have a longer elevated energy expenditure (will burn calories longer).
Another benefit to supersetting could be a slight benefit in power output. In 2005, researchers compared 24 college leveled rugby players in two settings. One group performed a traditional bench press throw with no training intervention, while the other group performed a set, then did a set of bench pulls to hit antagonistic muscles.
They found that the superset group performing the agonist – antagonist training had a slight increase in acute power. The superset group’s power increased roughly 4.7% after their sets compared to the control group. These methods are similar to contrast training, but focused on using a relatable muscle pairing to seek power benefits (push/pull).
When it comes to hypertrophy and strength, superset research is still lacking. A review from 2010 on agonist – antagonist training suggested the need for more EMG and hypertrophy based research. There’s been evidence suggesting benefit of supersets to metabolic and power advantages, but very little on muscular hypertrophy, so take that knowledge with a grain of salt.
Yet, a lot of coaches and athletes utilize this training method to facilitate muscle growth, and with an acute increase in power, then hypertrophy could possibly come as a byproduct of a superset.
Programming Considerations for Supersets
If you’re programming supersets into your workouts, then you should consider a few training variables. These include how you construct your superset and the order in which you do so.
- Goals: A few examples of how supersets can influence goals include: if you’re trying to save time in a workout, increase muscular endurance, influence neural capacity/drive, and increase energy expenditure.
- Exercise Order: Compound, or multi-joint movements, should always come first. You don’t want to be physically/mentally fatigued for a lift that will offer the greatest benefit by doing it second in a set.
- Intensity: Pay attention to how intense you’re performing each movement. You’ll have to tweak and cater this to your level of fitness. A good way to scale your intensity is by letting the reps dictate the weight, basically, let the weight you can do for five reps dictate your set. If you’re frequently missing reps in the superset, then it’s counter intuitive.
Three Common Themes of Supersets
1. Agonist – Antagonist Sets
Possibly the most common form of supersetting is agonist antagonist style training. This is the combination of two exercises that utilize different muscle groups to avoid easily fatiguing. For example, you’ll pair a push with a pull to give your anterior/posterior muscles a rest as you finish the second exercise.
This style of training is great a few reasons. First, it cuts your workout time down. Busy individuals often reach for supersets with this style of muscle grouping to hit a certain level of training stimulus without wasting the time with one exercise at a time. Second, it’s good for maintaining a natural exercise balance while improving your muscular tenacity. If you’re doing this style training, then chances are you’ll be hitting opposing muscle groups evenly, which is useful for creating a balanced body.
2. Same/Similar Muscle Group Sets (Complex Training)
This style of training requires a little strategy and can be technically considered complex training. For these styled supersets you’re performing exercises after each other that stimulate similar muscles. For example, performing a bench press, then a light tricep pushdown. If we’re talking complex/PAP training, then you’ll perform something like a squat followed by an explosive movement.
There are also benefits that come with this style of training. For starters, if you’re using any form of complex/PAP exercise selections, then you’ll be providing the body with a stimulus a single set may not provide (ex: heavy squat to box jump may improve neural capacity). You’ll also be improving on your muscle’s endurance and hypertrophy. Similar muscle group supersets are going to tax muscles much faster, which could further stimulate muscle fiber growth.
3. Upper – Lower Sets
The final superset style pairs upper and lower body movements. These supersets are often best for those training full body, or improving their functional fitness. They can be beneficial for cutting your workout time down, improving muscle endurance in a variety of areas, and used for sports specific training. An example of this training would be doing something like a walking dumbbell lunge to a pull-up.
We mentioned multiple benefits of supersets in the categories above, but to clearly point out their suggested benefits we made a list below.
- Time Saver: If you’re crunched for time, supersets can help keep your workouts short with the same stimulus.
- Acute Power Increase: This stems from complex/PAP style training, which are subcategories of the broader term superset.
- Metabolic Benefit: Moving more in less time (with less rest) will often equate to increased energy expenditure (by higher heart rate, increase in workout intensity, etc).
- Increased Hypertrophy: A lot of coaches/athletes utilize supersets to provide an additional stimulus for for muscle growth that single sets may not do.
Supersets can be a useful tool to save you time during your workouts, and there are multiple ways to perform them. If you’d like a visual on the topic, then check out the PictureFit video below that covers somewhat similar information.
Research on the topic is a little sparse, but there have been some suggestions made about this style of training’s on the athlete’s behalf. Whether it works for hypertrophy and absolute strength will be dependent on how an athlete uses this training style.
Feature image screenshot from BroScienceLife YouTube channel.