If you've ever stepped foot in a weightroom, odds are you're familiar with supersets.
A superset is a training method that calls for performing a full set of an exercise to completion, then performing a set of a different exercise to completion without a break between them. After you complete one set of both exercises, you enter a rest period. The word "superset" likely comes from the mathematical usage, where it's defined as "a set that includes another set or sets."
Supersets can serve a wide-range of purposes, but they're almost always intended to make workouts more effective and more efficient. However, some outdated supersets still find their way into athletes' workouts. Examples include a Leg Machine Curl/Leg Machine Extension superset or a Crunch/Russian Twist superset. Can these exercises help you get stronger? Sure. But there are more modern, more effective exercises at your disposal that can create more powerful supersets. If you're ignoring them, you're doing yourself a disservice.
With that in mind, here are three supersets that can bring about quick gains for athletes.
1. Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press/Pull-Ups
Consider this a supercharged version of a Lat Pulldown/Shoulder Press Machine superset.
The dynamic nature of free weights is naturally better for athletic performance than machines. During a practice or game, you rarely move your body in just a single plane. You're constantly bending, turning, pushing, pulling, running, stopping, starting and jumping in various angles, speeds and directions. Due to the wide variety of movements required for athletic performance, the fact that free weights require more balance, coordination and stabilization makes them more transferable to the court or field than machines.
The Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press further amplifies the challenges that make free weights so beneficial. Unlike a Shoulder Press Machine, you simply won't be able to perform this exercise if your stability, grip strength or biomechanics aren't up to snuff.
"It's corrective in nature due to the positioning of the bell. When the bottom is up your rotator cuff and other intrinsic stabilizers of the shoulder and scapula have to work harder because the bell is trying to rotate back towards its horn and your hand. The grip component helps with a concept called irradiation and can increase neural activation through the entire system if used effectively," says Mark Pryer, a Performance Specialist at the Michael Johnson Performance Physical Therapy Clinic. That irradiation effect may be one reason why the Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press is considered one of the safest types of overhead pressing. The move can be performed from a half-kneeling or standing position.
While Lat Pulldowns aren't a terrible exercise, Pull-Ups offer more bang for your buck. Not only are they more difficult to cheat on, but they effectively recruit more muscle groups. "Pull-Ups are one of the biggest bang for your buck exercises with regards to upper-body pulling strength," Pryer says. "In addition to the lats, you get biceps, forearm and grip strength work."
Pryer recommends programming Pull-Ups in blocks as a way of ensuring high-quality reps. "I will program them in blocks (say 15-25 total reps) and have the athlete use as many sets as they need to knock out the total number of reps (while performing sets of a different exercise in between). In my experience this keeps the quality high," Pryer says.
Sets/Reps: 3x6-10 each side on Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press, 15-25 total Pull-Ups
2. Bulgarian Split Squat/Slideboard Leg Curl
Consider this a supercharged version of the Leg Machine Extension/Leg Machine Curl superset. The basic idea behind that pairing makes sense in that one exercise targets the quads while the other is more hamstring/glute-focused. You'll see this theme in many common supersets. "The point of that is generally to allow for more local recovery while working the other area," says Craig Weller, exercise specialist at Precision Nutrition. "In doing that, local load is reduced and each area gets more recovery while systemic load stays high."
However, there are better exercises you can use to put that principle into practice.
We've dedicated entire articles to why Leg Extensions may do more harm than good, and machine-based Leg Curls aren't much better. The Bulgarian Split Squat and Slideboard Leg Curl are big upgrades that translate to athletic performance more effectively.
The Bulgarian Split Squat is a Squat variation that builds lower-body strength and power, particularly in the quads. By working each leg individually, it requires greater amounts of stability and core strength while also effectively destroying muscle imbalances. The act of driving and decelerating from a split leg position translates to a huge number of athletic movements. "Most movements in sports (running, cutting, jumping, etc.) require the ability to decelerate eccentric forces in a single-leg stance," Pryer explains.
Pairing the Bulgarian Split Squat with the Slideboard Leg Curl is a great idea, as the latter targets the posterior chain. This effectively balances out the former's quad-centric nature.
"Supersets can be predicated off imbalances, training effect or activation," says Brad Arnett, owner of NX Level Sports Performance and J.J. Watt's long-time personal trainer. "The Slide Board Leg Curl recruits more than hamstring—it's glutes as well as hamstring."
A big part of what makes the Slideboard Leg Curl such a great exercise is time under tension. From the moment you bridge off the ground, your hamstrings, glutes, hips and core must stay engaged throughout the movement. It's nearly impossible to cheat this exercise, which isn't the case with a Leg Machine Curl. If you don't have access to a slideboard, there are a number of workarounds you can utilize. One would be simply using a towel on a hard, smooth surface, another would be using Valslides or furniture sliders. If all else fails, you can even use a stability ball.
Sets/Reps: 3x6-8 each leg on Bulgarian Split Squat, 3x10-12 on Slideboard Leg Curl
3. Ab Rollouts/Pallof Presses
Consider this a supercharged version of the Crunch/Russian Twist superset.
Ab Rollouts are what's known as an "anti-extension" exercise. Unlike Crunches, which force your spine into flexion, anti-extension exercises train the body to prevent the spine from going into extension (hence their name). This is the natural function of the abdominal muscles. As you roll forward in an Ab Rollout (which can be performed both with an Ab Wheel or a barbell), your lumbar spine naturally wants to arch. Your abs must work to prevent this arch or "extension." This creates a core that's both more capable of protecting your spine and better prepared to efficiently transfer energy throughout the body, which is obviously a huge plus for athletes. Ab Rollouts are an excellent exercise, but they do require some serious core strength. STACK expert Mike Boyle explains how to progress up to the movement in this video.
Modern research has found Russian Twists put a ton of pressure on the lumbar spine. Loading the movement makes it even worse. "We have to take into consideration biomechanics and appreciate the spine isn't necessarily designed to twist back and forth, repeatedly, under load," says Tony Gentilcore, CSCS and Boston-based performance coach. "Taking a more 'joint-sparing' approach with core training will be a safer, more long-term way to help people get the results they're after."
Pallof Presses are a terrific replacement. Named for physical therapist John Pallof, the exercise builds anti-rotational core strength and stability by training to body to create core stiffness. This helps prevent energy leaks during athletic movements, which enhances performance. You can use a band or a cable machine to perform the Pallof Press. Once you master the basic move, you have a bevy of more difficult variations at your disposal.
Sets/Reps: 3x8-10 Ab Rollouts, 3x8-10 each side on Pallof Press
- What is a Superset? Everything You Need to Know About This Powerful Training Trick
- Why Every Athlete Should Use The Kettlebell Swing
- 25 Plank Variations For a Shredded, Stable Core