You need to work hard to get results in weight training. Those goals might be strength, muscle or weight loss. If you’ve been working out for six months or so, and you’re ready to move up a level, supersets could be for you; but be warned, these sets will hit you hard.
In brief, supersets are sets of weight training exercises done sequentially with no rest in between. The absence of rest essentially defines supersets.
What Do We Know About Supersets?
Supersets come in a variety of training program styles. For some coaches and trainers, if you don’t rest between different exercise sets you can call it a superset. In fact, there’s nothing too definitive about supersets when it comes to detailed instruction and the results you can expect. Too few measured studies have been done. Even so, bodybuilders tend to swear by supersetting for muscle growth. As could be expected, the extra work and intensity in a superset workout is known to increase energy expenditure during the session, and also after the session as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Supersets also increase lactate production compared to traditional sets, a sign the muscles are working very hard indeed.
These conditions tick the boxes for muscle growth — metabolic overload and lactate production. On the other hand, pure strength trainers can probably give supersets a miss because these conditions are not optimum for strength development.
Types of Supersets
Two primary types of supersets are recognized: A superset where the second exercise hits the same muscle group (agonist); and a superset in which an opposing muscle group (antagonist) is targeted in the second set. You can infuse variety by juggling with compound and isolation exercises and light and heavy sets first and second.
Agonist Sets the Key
Agonist sets mean you hit the same muscle group or groups with both exercise sets, and of course there is no rest in between with supersets, so you will work very hard, sometimes to near anaerobic exhaustion.
The other type of basic superset, the antagonist set, has opposing muscle groups being worked. An example is leg extensions for the quads and leg curls for the hamstrings. However, when you use this type of superset, you do not get the same degree of stress to a single muscle group as you would with agonist sets — which is a primary goal of supersetting. Antagonist sets might still be good for workout variety, energy expenditure and time saving, but they don’t meet the performance criteria for muscle building that agonist sets do.
Pre-Exhaust and Post-Exhaust Sets
You can do agonist sets two ways:
A heavy exercise specification first followed by a lighter exercise (pre-exhaust). Example is 10 squats at 200 pounds followed by 10 leg extensions at 100 pounds with no rest in between.
A lighter exercise specification first followed by a heavy set (post-exhaust). Example, 10 bent-over rows with 25 pound dumbbells followed by Romanian deadlifts at 200 pounds with no rest in between sets.
You can mix up isolation exercises with compound exercises or do both isolation or compound exercises for both sets. Be warned though, that two supersets of compound exercises (like leg presses and squats) is heavy going and you need to ensure safety by using a spotter when appropriate, or at least concentrate very hard because you will be fatigued during the second set.
J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1043-51. The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults. Kelleher AR, Hackney KJ, Fairchild TJ, Keslacy S, Ploutz-Snyder LL.