January 12, 2021 10 min read
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Work smarter, not harder.” Don’t kill yourself over something if there’s an easier way to do it—you don’t have to slam your head into a wall.
But when we’re in the gym, the whole point is to work hard, right? No one wants to be accused of slacking off and not giving it their all in the iron temple, and for good reason. Gassing out your muscles is the surest way of developing them (along with sticking to the proper lifestyle). However, that doesn’t mean you can’t include some smart techniques to make your workouts that much more effective.
Which brings us to the superset. Unless you’re completely new to the gym, you’ve probably heard this term thrown around. And you may have heard (or are under the assumption) that it means throwing two different workouts together without a break in between.
As you might’ve guessed by now, the superset goes much, much further than that. Not only are there different types, but there are various ways you can program them into your workout to produce different results.
But first, let’s take a quick look into the benefits of supersetting.
So, if a superset is basically just taking out the breaks between sets of alternating exercises, why on earth would you want to do it? I mean, the breaks are there for a reason—right?
Much like pushing yourself harder will bring greater results, pushing yourself in the superset realm will also bring certain benefits to your workout routines. The greatest benefit is the most obvious—saving time. But not saving time in the sense that you’re cutting your workouts short, since the point is that you’re still engaging your muscles to the same degree as usual (if not more). By removing, or at least minimizing, the rest time between sets, you’re able to pound out a lot more while spending less time at the gym.
This leads to another great benefit: the potential for fat loss. Moving quickly, since the key word here is speed, will bestow cardiovascular benefits onto your resistance training workouts. Studies have found that supersetting your exercises will burn more calories during the workout itself, and afterward, than a traditional resistance training routine. However, cardio still has an important place in your fitness goals, so don’t completely replace it.
Before we get into the specifics of certain superset types, the last major benefit is found with muscle hypertrophy. There is some evidence that suggests that this type of intense workout method allows for the release of more growth hormones, among other physiological processes, that will boost muscle growth—making this a specifically useful tool for those looking to get ripped as hell.
“Okay. Great. Sounds good to me”, you might be saying right now. Time to inject some serious supersets into the routine. Right? As you’ve probably guessed from the heading of this section—no, not right.
As it turns out, there’s a whole bunch of different ways you can superset. And technically, we haven’t even been using the term “superset” 100% correctly so far. Throwing any two exercises together and calling it a superset is correct in only the loosest way possible.
There are three (main) ways to categorize “circuits” of two exercises: the compound set, the superset, and the upper/lower (or unrelated superset). A conventional set is known as a straight-set and combining 3 or more sets together is called a circuit. Each of these will have different effects physiologically, and it’s important to know the differences before incorporating a “superset” into your workout routine.
While often colloquially referred to as a superset, the compound set is the technical term for paired exercises that both work the same muscle groups.
This can, for example, mean pairing a push-up and a dumbbell bench press into a paired set. Or a barbell bicep curl and a dumbbell hammer curl. The former example hammers into the chest while the latter focuses on the biceps. A lower body example would be a quadricep extension and a squat.
Combining sets of exercises that focus on the same muscle group serves to add a huge amount of intensity and volume onto a single muscle group, especially when it comes to isolation exercises. It’s one of the most demanding types of supersets because of this, and it’s not always a good idea for beginners due to the high volume.
However, if you’re looking for hypertrophy this is a great way to go. By taking a muscle group to these extremes, you’ll be getting an insane pump over a high amount of reps—the perfect recipe for bulging muscles.
A “true” superset is also known as an antagonist paired set. This is because it pairs two exercises that target opposing, or antagonist, muscle groups. An example of this would be a bicep curl and a tricep extension—the former targeting the biceps and the latter the triceps.
The biggest benefit of these is that your muscles not only have enough time to recover between sets, but they’ll also recover faster. With antagonist muscle groups, the muscle that’s disengaged is in a naturally relaxed state—if your body tried engaging it, it would cause harm to the muscles, tendons, and bones.
So, while you’re gassing out one muscle group, you can go straight to its functional opposite without having to engage the first at all. This prevents overworking certain muscles while also saving you time and allowing your body to work at peak performance with every set you do.
Here’s a list of muscle groups you can pair together to form a superset:
As you can see, some of these are more than just antagonists, since they’re in very different parts of the body.
These are the supersets that don’t have any special relationship between muscle groups, with their key defining feature that they don’t have anything to do with one another.
Examples of supersets such as these would include pairing a lunge with an overhead press, or leg extensions and pull-downs. Much like with antagonist paired sets, there’s no loss of strength going from one set to the next, allowing you to finish workouts without having to give up rep quality or overworking certain muscle groups.
Combining an upper/lower body exercise will also help you finish workouts faster, since you’ll be giving yourself a full-body workout without the need for resting between each individual set. Whichever type of superset you choose is up to you and your goals, but we’re not quite done yet.
This is a more advanced (and by that we mean brutal) type of compound set, working the same muscle group similarly to the way that compound sets do. The difference is the angle from which you’re hitting whatever particular muscle group.
When speaking about muscles, we can classify a muscle into its point of fixation and insertion. The fixation part is where the origin of the muscle is, and the insertion is the part of the muscle that moves. So, a fixation/insertion superset targets the fixation with one exercise and the insertion with the other exercise.
Attacking a single muscle group from different angles like this is the key to achieving some insane hypertrophy results with your training. If you’re looking to take your body through the wringer, this is the way to do it.
An example with the biceps would be pairing a close grip chin-up with an incline dumbbell curl. You can see how with the chin-up it’s your shoulders are moving while the elbows remain in the same position in space. But with the incline dumbbell curl, the complete opposite happens. It’s the elbow that moves while the shoulders remain in place.
If you want to open the gates to hypertrophy heaven, including fixation/insertion supersets into your routine is a solid way to turbocharge muscle growth. Here are some other movements you can pair for their respective muscle group:
But the inclusion of compound exercises in any superset should be carefully considered.
There are several ways with which to organize your supersets, and while we’ve delved in pretty far in terms of choosing the correct muscles to work, it’s just as important to decide how to work them in terms of complementary exercises.
While we'll be looking at isolation versus compound movements for now, we’ll further expand on the decision to include compound movements at all, further below.
So, if you’re looking to include heavier compound exercises into your superset, should they come before or after an isolation movement?
Pre-exhaust, as the name implies, is when you organize a superset in such a way to exhaust a particular muscle group before performing the compound exercise. An example with the biceps could include pairing a barbell bicep curl, and then a seated row.
Post-exhaust is the opposite. This way you’ll be able to do the compound movement first, and then you’ll exhaust the focus-muscle with an isolation exercise. For example, completing dumbbell chest flyes after a barbell bench press.
Which one you do depends on where you’re at and what your goals are, but it’s generally better to do the compound lifts to begin with. These are your heavy-hitters, and it’s important to keep your form in tip-top shape with enough coordination and technique to maximize their benefits.
Furthermore, they’ll hit more muscle groups in a shorter amount of time, so it can be beneficial to prioritize them.
Another way to organize your isolation and compound movements is by taking into account the specific goals you want to accomplish with each.
An activation-based organization will act as a sort of warm-up for your larger lift. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be an isolation exercise, but it should be done explosively to get your blood pumping and muscles primed. Furthermore, the explosiveness of the first movement should help you translate that to the heavier compound lift. An example would be the squat jump and a conventional squat.
Pre-fatiguing, on the other hand, means targeting a specific muscle similarly to the pre-exhaust method. First, you perform an isolation movement for your target muscle group, and then you perform the compound exercise. This forces the other muscles engaged in the compound lift to make up for the slack of the one that’s been pre-fatigued.
Whatever you choose will partly come down to whether you’re training for hypertrophy or strength.
Like we mentioned at the beginning, supersets are all about those muscle mass gains. The high rep count with low to mid weights is a recipe for swoleness. This is compounded by opting for compound and fixation/insertion sets into your workout, rather than the conventional antagonist paired set.
The compound set technique essentially forces you to complete a high amount of reps on a single muscle group, which is the best way to see muscle mass gains. Furthermore, such a high intensity will also provide the necessary hormonal and physiological ingredients for turbocharging muscle growth.
In terms of programming, aim for 8 to 12 reps of each exercise. The number of supersets you do will depend on the type of movement you’re doing, and whether or not you’re including compound exercises into the supersets.
The other side of the coin is strength: heavy weights and low reps. If you’ve been following along closely, you might be able to see a slight disconnect between what supersets are all about, and what strength training is all about.
While it’s not impossible, keep in mind that it’s definitely not optimal. You’ll still be wanting to pack on some serious weight, but your sets will suffer from the minimized rest periods. This also extends to your bread-and-butter lifts: the squat, bench, and deadlift.
Performing these lifts for strength necessitates a high level of performance with each set—a performance that’s going to suffer if you push yourself too far. It’s recommended to do your heavy compound lifts in a row and in a straight-set with proper rest times (at least if strength training is the aim). However, that doesn’t mean you have to exclude supersets completely.
Antagonist paired sets (aka, the conventional superset) with isolation exercises are a great way to squeeze out some extra juice from your muscles, especially after you’ve completed your compound lifts.
But supersetting (or at least compound setting), makes it extremely difficult to maintain the necessary volume, frequency, and intensity that’s needed to optimize your workout routine for strength gains. Which is why it’s not generally recommended for some.
Supersets are intense—and some variations are more intense than others. It’s much easier to overwork your body if you’re in the zone and you keep telling yourself you need to complete this entire circuit. This is why it’s essential that you keep your mind in tune with your body to prevent overtraining. There are a couple of areas where this is especially important.
Your spine is important—we all know that. And obviously, working out (especially under heavy loads) can sometimes have negative effects on our spinal health. Well, as you might’ve guessed, this can be exacerbated with supersets.
You shouldn’t be pairing compressive movements with other compressive movements. For example, this can be things like squats, farmer carries and lunges. All of these exercises will place downward pressure on your spine. It’s best to either include one exercise that doesn’t compress downward, or it’s even better to choose a movement that decompresses.
That includes any exercise that leaves your arms fixed in a position while your bottom half is free to move. Examples include pull-ups, dips, and even glute bridges.
Over-compressing the spine also goes hand-in-hand with overtraining the core. The core is used in all stabilization that your body needs during lifts, and working it to the point where it can’t perform its primary function can result in injuries. Or, at the very least, your form will suffer when it comes to the heavier compound lifts.
With the brutal intensity of the superset, you’re going to want to keep your body well-rested and well fueled—but that goes without saying. Eat enough and eat whole, healthy foods, and the muscle mass gains will follow close behind.
If you’re looking to get an edge, supplementing with high-quality creatine will get you insanely ripped. Combining these ingredients with a well-programmed fixation/insertion superset program will ensure that you’ll be leaving the halls of the iron temple more swole than ever before.