The Match Game: The Secret To Great Supersets

Superset-based workouts are an effective way to train more efficiently toward any goal, but not all pairings are created equal. Learn how to make the perfect match here!

Supersets have been around forever, and for good reason. They can make a workout more productive, accelerate muscle hypertrophy, increase fat burning, and create faster strength gains. All supersets are not created equal, however. Make the wrong choice, and the quality of both exercises can suffer, as can your progress toward your overall goal.

Don't fall prey to random programming. Learn the secrets of effective exercise pairing for your specific goals, and you'll never view "rest" periods the same way again.

Circuits 101

A superset is a pair of exercises that are alternated. A triset is a set of three different exercises that are alternated. Both of these are types of circuits. Often, you'll see them labeled in a workout like this:

A1. Bench press
A2. Barbell row

Bench Press/Barbell Row Superset

Both exercises in this superset grouped and assigned A-group to distinguish them from other exercises on the program. In this case, you would alternate both A-group exercises would be alternated until all sets were complete. Sometimes, however, an extra exercise improves the rotation:

A1. Front squat
A2. Barbell row
A3. Plank

Front Squat/Barbell Row/Plank Triset

The same format applies as the superset: You move from A1 to A2 to A3, then cycle back through until all sets are complete.

Two Exercises or Three?

Rest and the way intensity dictates rest are the most important aspects involved in good exercise pairings. For our purposes, "rest" refers to the duration of the paired exercises in a superset or a triplet—not standing around recovering. Rest in a superset is the other exercise.

The easiest way to think about rest is by establishing a common set duration. A typical set of 10-12 reps takes close to a minute to complete. Difficult, whole-body exercises done at a high-intensity are better suited for two minutes of rest, which equates to two paired exercises and thus a triplet. Isolated movements at a relatively lesser intensity are fine with one minute of rest and thus constitute a superset.

If rest is inadequate, reps or resistance may suffer and the goal of the workout may be compromised. The following eight types of movements generally require more rest than a typical superset can provide, and thus are better suited for a triplet. Barring that, they should at least be paired with active rest or mobility work, and definitely not with one another.

  • Chin-up or pull-up
  • Deadlift variations
  • Squat variations
  • Sprints
  • Bench press
  • Glute ham raise, hamstring curl, and other hamstring-dominant movements
  • Good mornings
  • Calf raise variations

With the exception of the last movement, these are all compound or taxing single-jointed movements. When the whole body is forced to work hard to accomplish a task, no exercise paired with it will allow for quality rest.

Thus, if you're banging out chin-ups and front squats back to back, your numbers will drop off in a hurry on both. If the goal was 3 sets of 10 reps each of chins and squats, you'd likely turn in reps of 10 on set one, then 6 or 7 on set two, then maybe as few as 4 or 5 reps in the final set. It's simply too much work and too little quality rest to continue to meet the 10-rep goal.

"When the whole body is forced to work hard to accomplish a task, no exercise paired with it will allow for quality rest."

As for calf movements, they often cause cramping and fatigue when paired with other leg exercises, even at low intensities. The same goes for intense hamstring and lower back-dominant movements. Trying to pair them with something like front squats could be a recipe for technique degradation and potential injury.

Of course, how these movements affect each person is different, and a little trial and error goes a long way. Start by using the above list, listen to your body, and you will be on the road to more productive supersets and triplets.

Supersets for Strength

Supersets in strength-focused training aren't as popular as they are for hypertrophy and fat-loss training, but that doesn't mean they can't work well here. The best method is to choose supersets in the following two categories:

  • Active rest: Use for the big lifts like squat, deadlift, and bench press variations.
  • Antagonists: Pair supporting movements that hit opposing muscles or movements in the same body area.

Active rest means just that: getting something done within a rest period. Instead of standing around during the 2-3 minutes between heavy squat attempts, perform something that is focused on mobility, core strength, or isolation work. One of my favorites is the "no money."

No Money Shoulder Exercise
Watch The Video - 00:43

In each of the below, the A group is the strength component, and the B group is comprised of supporting movements.

Strength Superset Workout 1

Strength Superset Workout 2

Supersets for Hypertrophy

For lifters focused on hypertrophy and bodybuilding, performing supersets that hit antagonistic muscle groups is a great way to accelerate hypertrophy in target areas. This will drive increased blood flow into the muscles of both the working and resting muscle group.

"Performing supersets that hit antagonistic muscle groups is a great way to accelerate hypertrophy."

Pairings can be based on muscles:

  • Bicep/triceps
  • Chest/back
  • Hamstring/quadriceps
  • Delts/rotator cuff

Or movements:

  • Horizontal push/horizontal pull
  • Knee-dominant leg/hip-dominant leg
  • Overhead press/overhead pull

Here's how some hypertrophy-centered upper body and lower body workouts could look. Keep reps relatively high, in the 8-12 range, and rest periods very short.

Upper Body Hypertrophy Superset Workout

Lower Body Hypertrophy Superset Workout

In both workouts, you use oppositional movements and muscles that will keep the target body part pumped without ruining the movement. Notice that I didn't pair a leg exercise with front squat, though. As I mentioned earlier, form degradation is simply too big of a risk with a high-technique, whole-body movement. It's best to err on the safe side.

Supersets for Fat loss

Supersets can be used with great effect for fat loss by increasing the amount of work performed in a given timeframe. This burns tons of calories in the gym, and in the subsequent hours following training. Here, I think the best method is to pair heavy but relatively low-technique lifts with a highly metabolic exercise.

"The best method is to pair heavy but relatively low-technique lifts with a highly metabolic exercise."

In particular, I've found tremendous success pairing movements that will tax the whole body, such as heavy dumbbell lunges, with lightweight metabolic movements that get the heart rate up. Mountain climbers are a good example. Because the metabolic exercise is light, and the heavy exercise relatively simple, this formula works well and doesn't crush one body part too much, allowing you to keep moving at a fast pace.

Supersets for Fat Loss Workout 1

Supersets for Fat Loss Workout 2

Lift More Efficiently, Grow More Quickly

Try these methods of circuiting exercises and you'll find your workouts will become more productive and efficient. It takes time and experience to create an ideal routine, so experiment and see which methods best meet your goals. If you found a pairing that works perfectly—or disastrously—share it in the comments.

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