The word sounds magical, doesn’t it? Like it’s got some sort of secret power behind it.
If you aren’t familiar with supersets, don’t worry. Many advanced athletes and coaches toss the word around like it’s common knowledge, but they didn’t always know what a superset was. Gaining an understanding of supersets will help you become a better athlete and give you a great tool to power up your training.
What is a Superset?
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.”
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No one knows who invented supersets, but many people learned about them from Joe Weider, who is considered the father of modern bodybuilding and who published a wide range of materials on the subject. Supersets were one of his “Weider’s Training Principles,” a list of training techniques and guidelines that he believed led to superior results.
What are the Benefits of Supersets?
So, what’s the point of doing supersets?
For one thing, they’re different. If you get into the habit of resting after every set, your body can adapt and your progress could plateau. Supersets shock the muscles with a rapid-fire approach, which can help you increase size and strength.
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Second, they elevate your heart rate and add an element of conditioning to your workout. This builds your cardiovascular stamina and increases the level of difficulty of your workout.
Third, they burn more calories per minute. A study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that supersets burned more calories in relation to exercise time than traditional sets.
“If more kilojoules can be metabolized within the same limited timeframe, SUPERs [supersets] present a convenient form of resistance training for the exerciser looking to increase EE [energy expenditure] with limited exercise time,” the study’s authors concluded.
Fourth, supersets allow you to combine an exercise that works an agonist muscle with one that works an antagonist muscle—e.g., pairing Biceps Curls with Skullcrushers. One muscle group works while the other rests, which is a really smart way to organize a workout and allows for better recovery. It also targets stabilizing muscle groups in unique ways, which is a plus.
“Pairing accessory exercises helps work your stabilizing muscles and in turn builds strength,” says Aaron Bonaccorsy, performance coach at STACK Velocity Sports Performance.
That agonist-antagonist relationship can also help you produce more force during an exercise. Ben Boudro, owner of Xceleration sports, says, “The opposite muscles help each other out. When you stress your biceps muscle, your triceps muscle relaxes in order to help the biceps. When you go to use your triceps after the biceps exercise, you’ll be able to generate more force with your triceps! It’s a give and take relationship that’s awesome for muscular development.”
Finally, supersets are time-savers. They let you perform more reps in a shorter amount of time, which makes your workout more efficient.
When Does it Make Sense to Use Supersets?
Supersets make the most sense for accessory lifts—i.e., the exercises you perform after the “big lifts”—moves like Lat Pull-Downs, Rows, Tricep Pushdowns, Glute-Ham Raises, etc.
Grouping exercises that alternately target agonist and antagonist muscle groups is a good idea. One simple way to do this is to combine a “pressing” exercise with a “pulling” exercise—e.g., Cable Presses with Inverted Rows, Pull-Ups with Overhead Presses, and Leg Presses with Physioball Hamstring Curls.
Due in part to lifestyle and fitness choices, most people are anterior dominant—meaning they use the muscles on the front of their bodies more frequently than the ones on the back of their bodies—e.g., using the biceps and quads more than the triceps and hamstrings. Anterior dominance can lead to postural and performance issues and ultimately leave you susceptible to injury. By pairing pressing and pulling exercises, you ensure that you’re training symmetrically and reduce your risk of developing anterior dominance.
“Grouping a push with a pull is the best way to use a superset. You want your body to develop symmetrically and your pushes to be as strong as your pulls. This is huge for injury prevention down the road,” Boudro says.
When Does It Not Make Sense to Use Supersets?
You don’t want to use supersets when you perform compound exercises like Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Presses, Cleans and Snatches. These lifts usually come toward the beginning of a workout, because it makes more sense to tackle them while you’re fresh as opposed to being burned out from supersets. Bonaccorsy says, “I have those type of lifts in an athlete’s program to get them stronger. I want them to attack them at full capacity with high focus and high energy.”
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It’s certainly OK to do light mobility or stretching exercises between sets of “big lifts,” but you generally want to perform those lifts when you’re at a high energy level and give yourself ample time to recover between sets.
Also, it’s usually not a great idea to superset two exercises that target the same muscle groups. “I wouldn’t superset two upper-body pushes. Unless you’re an elite bodybuilder, it’s probably too taxing,” Bonaccorsy says.
The Superset Guide
Now that you know about supersets, it’s time to start including them in your workouts. Follow the guide below to make sure that every one of your supersets consists of a perfect pairing.
1. Superset Upper-Body Vertical Presses like…
- Shoulder Press variations
- Military Press variations
- Landmine Press variations
with Upper-Body Vertical Pulls like…
- Lat Pull-Downs
2. Superset Upper-Body Horizontal Presses like…
- Bench Press variations (Dumbbell, Barbell, Single-Arm, Wide-Grip, etc.)
- Cable Pushes
with Upper-Body Horizontal Pulls like…
- Row variations (Bent-Over, Seated Cable, Inverted, Chest Supported, etc.)
- Reverse Flys
3. Superset Elbow Extension Presses like…
- Tricep Push-Downs
with Elbow Flexion Pulls like
4. Superset Lower-Body Presses like…
- Leg Presses
- Leg Extensions
- Goblet Squats
with Lower-Body Pulls like…
- Glute-Ham Raises
- Physioball Leg Curls