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Match Game: Better Living Through Supersets

If you think a superset is any exercise plus any other one, you need a refresher course. Increase your training density properly, and your reward will be more muscle in less time!

"My workouts take too long."
"I don't know what to do during the prescribed 3-5 minute rest periods between my sets."
"I'm bored."

These are common complaints heard throughout the gym as trainees grunt their way through all four sets of one exercise before moving onto the next. Before they know it, a solid hour and a half passes, and they still have three more exercises to go.

Enter supersets. They aren't a new, magical fix. It's actually possible to use them improperly, and make your workout less effective as a result. But done right, they can enhance an already-sound training program and get you out the door and on with your life.

Supersets are appropriate for just about any person in the gym looking to make the most of their time, especially people who are easily distracted on the training floor. Supersets keep idle hands busy.

But look around online, and you'll see the term "superset" used so loosely that you may not know what one really is. So let's start at square one.

What are Supersets? ///

Supersets are a training scheme in which one set of one type of exercise, often titled "A1" in a program, alternates with another, titled "A2." To perform one superset, you perform the prescribed reps of A1 followed by those in A2. Take, for example, the following setup:

A1. Goblet Squat, 4 sets, 6-8 reps, 60-second rest
A2. Pull-up, 4 sets, 6-8 reps, 60-second rest

Grab a kettlebell or dumbbell and bang out between 6-8 reps (remember, if you feel like you could have completed 2-3 more good reps, it's time to step up in weight). When you're done, rest for approximately 60 seconds before moving onto the pull-up for 6-8 reps. That's one complete superset. After another 60 seconds, make your way back to the goblet squats to begin set 2.

You might be surprised to see that rest period after the goblet squats, since many people think of supersets as two exercises with little or no rest in between. I think of the bang-bang approach as more of a metabolic circuit than a strength superset, and I'd prescribe it as a conditioning workout in lieu of steady-state cardio.

For strength building, I like taking slightly longer rest periods to ensure that I'm feeling fresh for my next set. For example, I wouldn't be able to do as many pull-ups if my heart was still racing from the heavy goblet squats immediately prior.

What They're Super at ///

Consider the above superset. Imagine, if you will, the amount of time it might take to finish the two movements without supersetting them:

A. Goblet squats, 4 sets of 6-8 reps, 120-second rest
B. Pull-ups, 4 sets of 6-8 reps, 120-second rest

For this example, we'll assume that each set takes 25 seconds to complete, and we'll omit any warm-up sets for the sake of simplicity. Adding this all up, the time required to get through this would be 4(25s) + 4(120s) + 4(25s) + 4(120s) = 1,160s, or 19 minutes and 20 seconds. On the other hand, a superset would take 4(25s) + 4(60s) + 4(25s) + 4(60s) = 680s, or 11 minutes and 20 seconds.

That's eight extra minutes you have on your hands. You'll get home to your kids eight minutes earlier. You'll make it to your business meeting on time. Or perhaps you want to use those newfound minutes to fit in some foam rolling in at the beginning or end of your session. Add in another superset with similar parameters, and you save 16 minutes.

You can thank me later. But I'd be satisfied if you just foam rolled instead.

Supersets are all about improving your training density: the amount of work completed within a given time frame. Increased training density is great not only because are you being efficient, but because you're also moving more.

Think about it: one set here, followed by one set way over there, and then back to the starting point. Then repeat. Supersets are one of the most simple and effective ways to increase your training density-provided that the correct movements are paired together, of course.

Build a Super Superset ///

Exercise selection is crucial. Far too often, I see individuals in the gym arbitrarily throw together a pair of exercises that do more harm than good. Pairing a deadlift with pull-ups, for example, would be a poor choice, because both exercises absolutely fry your grip.

The same goes for pairing dumbbell lunges or single-leg squats with dumbbell rows. The quickly-accumulating fatigue will compromise the quality of the entire superset. You will feel drained, and you'll also pull less weight and bang out fewer reps.

Good supersets generally fall into two camps: antagonist or non-competing. Look around online, and you'll see plenty of people who use the term superset to describe any pairing of exercises, including two movements that target the same muscle group, like, say, military presses and side delt raises for shoulders.

This is actually a "compound set," whereas the standard antagonistic supersets are more like this:

A1. Horizontal push
A2. Horizontal pull

A1. Vertical push
A2. Vertical pull

Biceps with triceps is a common antagonistic superset. You can also superset a horizontal push with a vertical pull—such as push-ups with pull-ups—or a vertical push with a horizontal pull.

Alternatively, a non-competing superset can look like this:

A1. Squat
A2. Upper body pull

A1. Hip hinge
A2. Upper body push

Some trainers trend toward one or the other methodology, but I think of antagonistic and non-competing supersets as two sides of the same coin. I prescribe antagonistic supersets for someone on an upper/lower training split, which usually involves training 4-5 days per week. Non-competing supersets, on the other hand, are perfect for full-body sessions performed 3-4 days per week.

With full-body workouts, you want the movements to be as non-competing as possible, so you can effectively use each half of the superset as a rest period for the other. This is why it's not appropriate for every exercise to be matched with an equally-taxing movement—like max deadlifts and heavy benching. Keep in mind that the quality of each set for each exercise should be kept as intact as possible.

You should also take into account the setup of your gym and the general environment there. Does it make sense to take over both the squat rack and the pull-up bar at the same time? If there's a power cage with pull-up bars, that might be your solution.

Do you normally train at a busy hour when people aren't going to be thrilled with your equipment-hogging, or do you have free reign over everything? Be willing to be flexible with both where and how you perform your supersets.

Common Questions

Q
If I step out of the squat rack for a second, that guy over there is going to steal it. How do I incorporate supersets without losing my spot?

If equipment access is a problem, you could use it as an opportunity to seamlessly incorporate mobility and band-work into your program. If you want to work on mobility—this should be all of you!—and you don't particularly care for devoting an entire session solely to hip flexor drills, then mobility drills might be just the thing.

If you have cranky shoulders or stiff ankles like I do, then shoulder stability or ankle mobility drills would pair well with your heavy deadlifts or squats.

Can I superset isolation exercises?

Technically you can, yes. But just as with any smart programming, compound movements should take priority, which means that squats come before curls. If you're a believer in isolation exercises, leave them for last. Then you can go to town on them.

I feel like I haven't done enough if my workout is under an hour. Can I do more?

The point of supersets isn't necessarily to jam more work into more time. Remember that more isn't always better; better is better. But if feeling the pump and living in the gym is your thing, then have at it.

Can I superset more than two exercises?

Of course. A tri-set of three strength movements can work just as well as a superset, provided the movements follow the same guidelines I noted earlier. Or you could pair two exercises together and follow them immediately with a mobility drill. Four exercises executed in sequence is known as a giant set.

That may sound like a circuit, but as I mentioned earlier, a circuit moves more quickly, and with little to no rest. They're great for fat-burning, but if you want to build muscle, don't rush it.

Those rest periods bug me. Can I reduce them?

That depends on your goal and the exercise. If you do heavy deadlifts, I think it's important to rest for 3-5 minutes between sets. With supersets, this time can be split up to incorporate something like push-ups (upper-body push) or maybe some wall hip flexor mobilizations.

That said, I think it is overkill to hawk-eye the clock and insist on starting your next set right on the dot. Take a breather! When you feel like you're ready to get in another clean set, let 'er rip.

Sample Training Program ///

Do you need a little direction to set up your first superset training program? You can borrow one of mine. This one's a two-day full-body split to perform three times per week with at least one full day between each session.

Your first two weeks might set up like this:

Week 1
  • Monday: Training Day 1
  • Wednesday: Training Day 2
  • Friday: Training Day 1
Week 2
  • Monday: Training Day 2
  • Wednesday: Training Day 1
  • Friday: Training Day 2

And so on. As with any other training program, you should stick with this for 4-6 weeks before moving on to a new program.

Training Day 1

Training Day 2

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About The Author

Sohee Lee holds a Bachelor's of Science in Human Biology from Stanford and is a NSCA certified trainer who loves living a fit life and helping others.

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JFort93

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JFort93

Great article, I always think of supersets as no rest in between the 2 exercises but thanks for the new outlook.

Feb 15, 2013 10:46pm | report
NewBuild1

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NewBuild1

Wow. Really interesting article. Again I'm one of the ones who always figured there was no rest between the sets, and my workouts tend to follow suit, consisting largely of "superset" pairs without any rest. Interesting to note the differences and great to see an article explain things in a clear and logical way.

Feb 16, 2013 12:40am | report
frenchie1981

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frenchie1981

Thanks a lot for thid article!!

Article Rated:
Feb 16, 2013 1:38am | report
  • Body Stats
  • ht: 13'7"
  • wt: 163.14 lbs
  • bf: 18.0%
shaddock67

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shaddock67

Great explanation. Like myself I thought there was no rest in between sets. Always learning something new. Thanks again.

Feb 16, 2013 2:52am | report
daddyliftnasty

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daddyliftnasty

that artical sucked didnt teach me anything jus sound like a girl trying 2 teach how to work out hahaha i would only take advice from dlb

Feb 16, 2013 8:13am | report
pinotsniffer

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pinotsniffer

Great article. Have been using supersets for a while now to get some great strength gains - thanks for some new ideas!

Feb 16, 2013 1:33pm | report
  • Body Stats
  • ht: 22'4"
  • wt: 268.18 lbs
  • bf: 43.3%
JarheadRodeo

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JarheadRodeo

Personally it is hard to argue with someone who is in that kind of shape, but considering it is called a "superset" for the reason being that it is accomplished by doing two different exercises in succession without rest. If you rest a minute between sets... how is that a superset? That is simply alternating exercises between sets. Now her explanantion between the compound sets and supersets definition was enlightening. I tend to do compund sets with shoulders, and supersets with arms or chest/back. She states how doing exercises back to back will not aid in increasing strength but just merely shredding fat. I find that to be false. Though super/compound sets have helped me shred over 25lbs and 6% BF in the last 5 months while still maintaining size, I have actually gotten stronger. Stamina is half the battle when it comes to strength. Superset or compound set chest for 4 weeks, and watch that plateau you have reached on bench press melt away. That is a guarantee.

Feb 16, 2013 10:22pm | report
josiah81

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josiah81

The superset is a Weider principle of lifting. She's just explaining how the way it was intended to be used. It was initially intended to work one muscle group while stretching the opposing muscle. For example you work the chest it stretchs the back and vice versa. The Weider principle never said anything about it not being declared super unless you do it non stop without rest.

Feb 18, 2013 12:08pm | report
jpstanton

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jpstanton

The author of this article is correct. In Charles Poliquin's German Volume Training programs, he says to rest between sets in a superset.

Feb 19, 2013 12:25pm | report
chem1cal

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chem1cal

Rest is needed to ensure that adequate edenosine triphosphate is replenished into the muscle. Usually, for intense hypertrophic workouts, someone should wait approximately a minute and a half to two minutes per body part before returning to the next set.

Feb 19, 2013 8:52pm | report
rmcguire890

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rmcguire890

Great information! thank you!

Feb 17, 2013 12:44am | report
MPennacchia

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MPennacchia

"The point of supersets isn't necessarily to jam more work into more time. Remember that more isn't always better; better is better. But if feeling the pump and living in the gym is your thing, then have at it. "

^^^THIS^^^

Is me.. (:

Feb 17, 2013 8:58am | report
heung

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heung

I love supersets

Feb 17, 2013 2:38pm | report
KettleBellFreak

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KettleBellFreak

This article said squats come before curls. Um either that was a ****** example, or you have an odd *** routine. Other than that was a pretty good article. But a guy above stated "strength gain has to do with stamina" and that's true. If you're gassed, of course you aren't going to gain strength, you need to feel good.

Feb 17, 2013 5:27pm | report
josiah81

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josiah81

Honestly, squats need to come before curls. Curls develop a glamour muscle, which is important for symmetry, but squats develop power. They also pump your natural occuring testosterone thoughout your body making everything stronger. Plus nothing will teach you the defenition of instensity and determination like double your weight pushing you into the ground and you controlling the weight and lifting it. I hope this doesn't sound negative or demeaning to you. I had the same logic as you years ago and found from experience I was wrong.

Feb 18, 2013 12:00pm | report
chem1cal

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chem1cal

Generally I'll compound to body parts and compound set them. Initially I would do Back/Biceps, Chest/Triceps and Shoulders/Legs. I'd shoot for the 6-10 rep range for hypertrophy.

Now I am doing a "cutting" kind of phase where I am doing a bit more repetitions at slightly lower weight. I am also doing Chest/Back, Bicep/Tricep.

For example, I'll do for Bicep/Tricep:
Dumbbell Bicep Curl >>> Tricep Pushdown (V-Bar) [Rinse and Repeat 4 times with a rest period of 30 seconds-60 seconds inbetween].

By doing this, I get more of a workout in for a specific time frame (I am just such an oh-so-busy guy!). I also get a nice boost because of the agonist/antagonist relationship between the muscles I am using (Except on Leg/Shoulder day... They are just misfits).

Abs are sprinkled in every workout somewhere, since it is a more resilient muscle compared to other muscles.

Good article, though!

Feb 19, 2013 8:50pm | report
stooger15

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stooger15

i always like to know which exercises to pair up. i am on my fourth program now and i am looking forward to the next one.

May 11, 2013 10:08pm | report
Showing 1 - 16 of 16 Comments

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