When it comes to lifting weights, it’s not just about picking up heavy things and putting them down (carefully, please). All sorts of variables—from how much of a load to how quickly you move it—affect the results of your hard work. One of the biggies when putting together a routine is the order in which you do your exercises. Supersets are one of the most popular techniques for a number of reasons. Click to the next page to find out what a superset is.
What is a superset?
At its most basic definition, a superset is when you do two exercises back to back with little to no rest between them, explains Bruce Kelly, MS, CSCS, owner of Fitness Together in Media, PA. Typically, the two exercises work different muscle groups or movement patterns, though not always.
Why should you do them?
For starters, they’re a great choice when you’re short on time. Instead of doing an exercise (like squats), then resting, then doing another set, you can alternate exercises and do a second move (say, overhead presses)—one that uses different muscles—during the time that would’ve been allotted for rest. In this way, you’ll get, say, three sets of your lower body and upper body move done in roughly the same amount of time it would’ve taken to do three straight sets (with rest) of one of them.
Another benefit: “ Supersets are a good protocol for hypertrophy as they help create the biological and hormonal environment necessary for muscle building,” says Kelly. In other words, by using your rest periods to do more work, the two exercises in effect serve as active recovery for each other, providing that extra level of both pump and fatigue that trigger the physiological processes that encourage muscle growth.
How can you build good supersets?
The above example—upper body alternating with lower body—is a great way to get a total body workout done quickly. Put, say, three or four supersets together using multijoint exercises (like squats, bench presses, rows, overhead presses, etc.), do each for 8 to 12 reps and three times through, and you’ve got a solid resistance workout in about a half-hour.
“Supersets are also done with antagonistic muscles, i.e., opposing muscle groups, such as biceps and triceps or chest and back, for example,” Kelly says, e.g., alternating a push with a pull. These supersets tax the upper body exclusively, but allow one set of muscles (on the front or back of the body) some active rest while the opposite muscles work, and vice versa. And you can still do a total body workout this way, too. “You could do a chest/back superset, a quad/hamstring superset, a biceps/triceps superset, and then some shoulder work with some calf work,” says Kelly.
When shouldn’t you superset?
Because supersetting effectively reduces or even eliminates rest periods, it’s not the right choice if your goals are to increase muscular strength or power. “Complete recovery between sets is essential to training for those,” Kelly says.