If you’ve spent any amount of time looking for workout inspiration or attending personal or group training sessions, chances are you’ve run across the term “superset.” While supersets are common, it’s still hard for many to grasp what they are and how best to integrate them into a workout. So, here’s some help!
Supersetting is rather simple: Perform two exercises, back-to-back, with little to no rest in between. An example would be doing a set of biceps curls and then triceps dips right afterward. For the time-crunched gym goer, supersets are regarded as the holy grail of workout constructs. Any type of training that promises better results in half the time is a win for most!
Designing supersets, however, gets a bit more complicated. See, the exercises you choose to perform back-to-back will either work for you or against you. Sequence the right exercises together and you’ll burn more calories and increase performance. Choose the wrong pairing and it can bring on injuries and potentially impede your progress. Let’s break it down and make supersets super simple. There are three types.
Antagonist Supersets: Pairing exercises together that involve opposing muscle groups.
- Ex. Biceps curls, followed by triceps curls
- Ex. Leg extensions, followed by hamstring curls or deadlifts
Antagonist supersets allow one muscle group to rest while another gets to work. This should enable you to lift at the same “level” (weight/reps) as you would if completing multiple sets of one exercise with adequate rest in between each set—which saves time and increases caloric expenditure.
Agonist Supersets: Pairing exercises together that involve the same muscle groups.
- Ex. Chest presses, followed by push-ups
- Ex. Pull-ups, followed by biceps curls
Agonist supersets are sometimes referred to as compound sets and are the most physically demanding types of supersets. They allow you to increase your volume of training (how much you can accomplish in the same amount of time) and intensity (in less time), and incorporate more muscles in the same workout.
A “pre-fatigue superset” falls under the agonist heading. Instead of choosing two exercises that target the same general muscle group, you begin with an exercise for one of the smaller muscle groups that assists in the second exercise you’ll be performing. In theory, for example, when you wear out one of the muscles that assist in the chest press, the chest will have to work harder, and will then have a bigger “reaction” to the chest press.
- Ex. Triceps kickback, followed by chest presses
- Ex. Biceps curl, followed by seated rows
Unrelated Supersets: Pairing exercises together that are not connected.
If you pair exercises that are unrelated, you still receive the benefit of accomplishing more sets and reps in a shorter amount of time, and also will have little-to-no loss of strength when moving between exercises.
- Ex. Lunges, followed by pull-ups
- Ex. Squats, followed by push-ups
Common Superset Mistakes
Beware of the following mistakes that might affect your health and results.
Pairing Core with Other Exercises – Your core is responsible for stabilizing and helping you lift. When you are continually taxing your core in between sets of heavy lifting, you run the risk of eliminating an integral source of support. Better to save the core work for the end of the workout or another day if you’re using supersets to maximize your gains!
Performing Successive Compressive Moves – A compressive move is anything that compresses your spine, such as goblet squats or barbell lunges. Compressive moves aren’t bad, necessarily. But you do want to work in non-compressive exercise to counterbalance these common exercises. Examples include anything that fixes your arms in place and allows your feet to move, such as triceps dips, pull-ups, glute bridges, or any suspension exercises (e.g. TRX exercises).
Ultimately, supersets are a great way to maximize your time in the gym. And, with a little bit of forethought, they can help you keep your muscles guessing, break through plateaus, and avoid burnout or boredom. Ask a personal trainer for more advice if you’re still unsure how to build your own supersets.