Supersets can be an efficient way to get more work done in a set time – possibly allowing you to get more results. However, supersets that aren’t planned well are a surefire means to get worse results.
So let’s start off basic, what is a superset?
In its simplest form, a superset is two or more movements that are done in a form where you do one set of each movement and don’t repeat another set of any movement until finishing each exercise. Essentially, you go from one exercises to the next until you’ve done one set of each, and then repeat until you’ve done all the sets prescribed.
Depending upon who you ask, some will say that a super set is only two movements, and anything greater than that is a circuit – but as far as the context of this article goes, we’re gonna just leave it at a more open definition and discuss general principles of optimizing the structure of doing exercises back to back. Supersets can be a really great way to get more work done in a certain amount of time.
In traditional normal straight sets, you complete a set of an exercise, sit and rest the duration that’s appropriate (check out our science of rest break video) and the repeat that same exercise, rest again, etc. until you’ve done all of the sets prescribed.
Rest is really important for success and we are gaining more and more research encouraging longer duration rest between repeating an exercise, often a minimum of two minutes, with more being ideal still.
If you’re like most people, you don’t have a ton of time to train.
Most people who utilize our programming have about 45 to 75 minutes to train – which doesn’t necessarily leave a lot of room to train hard then. For instance, if you have 45 minutes to train and you warm up for about 5 minutes, you’re left with 40 minutes to lift. Assuming you follow the general guideline of at least two minutes between sets and each training set takes you around 1 minute to complete, you’re going to be able to get 13 sets of training in (40 divided by 3).
Now let’s not write off that 13 good sets of lifting can be very effective, however, 13 sets doesn’t necessarily allow you to maximize results. For example, if you’re running an upper lower split and on an upper day, you may have bench press, pull ups, dumbbell strict press, 3 point db rows, bicep curls, and tricep extensions in mind to hit up each major area. However, if you are only doing 13 sets, you’d realistically only be able to do just over 2 sets of each to finish with the time frame. This is where supersets can come in really well.
Again, 2 sets can be effective, but we could modify and possibly get better results. By utilizing something like an agonist-antagonist superset where you train opposite muscle groups back to back you could condense how much training you’re doing and not have the quality of your work suffer significantly. If we used the prior example, you could pair up bench press and pull ups, dumbbell strict press and 3 point DB rows, and then do the isolation movements together. If we stick with 1 minute for each set but go to 1 minute of rest between each exercise, our numbers look quite a bit different.
Now one round will be 4 minutes (1 minute exercise A, 1 minute rest A to B, 1 minute exercise B, 1 minute rest B to A), and we can do 10 total rounds. This could play out where we do four rounds for bench and pull ups, then three rounds for rows and strict press, and finish off with three rounds for curls and extensions.
You can see in this situation that the density of work has drastically increased, which may allow for better strength gains and muscle growth. An important caveat here is you have to be generally fit enough to handle this kind of pace, which many trainees will struggle with and see a decrease in performance, which will limit benefit – at least initially. From our experience doing this type of training takes a few weeks to a few months to accommodate, but once you are adjusted you can push the pace and weights quite well.
Now the scenario we broke down is one of the more common kinds of supersets, agonist-antagonist. This is where we look to pair exercises which emphasize muscles that have opposite functions, which should theoretically limit the competition for recovery. We can look at a few example:
Bicep Curls and Tricep Extensions
Bench Press and Rows
Leg Extensions and Leg Curls
This type of superset can be an effective option, however, as you move into more compound based movements – particularly for the lower body – you run into more overlap which could impede recovery.
For instance, I’ve seen some coaches program squats and deadlifts, arguing that squats are primarily a quad and adductor based movements and deadlifts are more hamstrings and glutes. While that is true, the squat does use the hamstrings and glutes, and the deadlift does use the adductors and quads.
Even more than that though, both utilize the back extensor muscles to a relatively high degree and our lower body will likely give way before we can maximally tax our lower body going back and forth between these.
This also occurs with the upper body with movements. While the prime movers in exercises bench press and rows don’t overlap much, more supportive muscles like the rotator cuff can get taxed. How much that matters and holds someone back is hard to say, in many cases if someone accommodates to it, they’ll not be limited too much from it and likely could still make more progress doing that kind of superset if time limited.
This issue is likely particularly less of an issue if you are only doing this for one grouping of exercises, versus doing 3-4 of them in a row. Due to this, other superset options can become more viable options to facilitate less competition between muscle groups.
With Citizen Athletics, we usually stick with more full body type programs where we are emphasizing different qualities and body regions, but still training generally the whole body. With this style of training, we do a lot of compound based movements and it has required that we think very critically about the moves that we select to maximize outcomes.
For instance, I’ve seen coaches program exercises like deadlifts and pull ups together. While at face value they seem to not have much overlap, a huge one is the grip. No one wants to do deadlifts or pull ups with their grip giving out on them. As well, the lats can get taxed significantly and make both movements struggle quickly. Another pairing we’ve seen put out is exercises like front squats and strict press. Sure, one is a leg exercise and one is an upper body pressing movement, but both tax the upper back, which can often be limiting in the front squat for people.
Over time we’ve found that there are a few categories of moves that work really well together and generally do not compete significantly, allowing you to optimize recovery while doing the other movements.
Hinge and Press
A hinge is generally a deadlift or a bridge/hip thrust variant where we emphasize hip motion with minimized knee motion, utilizing a high amount of glutes, hamstrings and lower back muscles. A press is generally a bench press, push up, or strict press variant where we emphasize shoulder and elbow motion, utilizing a high amount of pecs, delts, and triceps. What you can notice here is that these have little to no overlap.
An example of one we regularly program is:
And DB Bench Press
Squat and Pull
A squat is generally where we are utilizing more knee motion than hip motion, trying to utilize a high amount of quadriceps, as well as usually our adductors and glutes. A pull is generally a row or pulldown variant where we emphasize shoulder and elbow motion, utilizing a high amount of lats, biceps, and upper back muscles. Similar to above, these have little to no overlap, which allows you to push hard and not be concerned.
An example of one we regularly program is:
And Chest Supported Rows
These are two of the smartest supersets we’ve found – particularly from a strength and muscle building stand point to allow you to push hard and make gains in a condense time frame! There are other ones that we’ve found work well, such as power and control supersets, but we’ll tackle those in part 2!
Thanks for reading, let us know what other topics you want us to cover!