Supersets vs. Tri-Sets vs. Giant Sets: Should You Be Pairing Your Exercises?

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Performing exercises back-to-back helps you become more efficient with your workout session.
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You'll be hard-pressed to find a weightlifting program that doesn't include supersets, tri-sets or giant sets. Some contain all three — for good reason! But are they right for you and your fitness goals? First, let's start with some basic definitions:

  • Supersets: doing two exercises back to back with little to no rest in between
  • Tri-sets: doing three exercises back to back with little to no rest in between
  • Giant sets: doing four or more exercises back to back with little to no rest in between

And when it comes to which exercises you pair, you have three options:

  • Traditional: pairing exercises that work opposing muscle groups (like biceps and triceps)
  • Compound: pairing exercises that target the same muscle group
  • Unrelated: pairing exercises that target completely different muscle groups (like lats and hamstrings)

The Benefits of Pairing Exercises

The biggest benefit to pairing exercises is time efficiency, according to a July 2017 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology. In traditional weightlifting sets, you complete all of the scheduled sets of one exercise before moving to the next, resting for a period of time in between sets. A large portion of your session would be dedicated to rest.

With supersets, tri-sets and giant sets, the rest period is used to complete a set of different exercise. This allows you to complete the same amount of exercises in a much shorter period of time.

Another benefit of pairing exercises is that you'll burn more calories in a shorter amount of time, according to 2010 research conducted by Len Kravitz, PhD, at the University of New Mexico.

Plus, the more muscle you have, the more potential for future strength gains as well as a greater amount of metabolic tissue, which requires more calories — all good things if your goal is to gain muscle and lose fat.

With all the benefits that come from supersets, tri-sets and giant sets, it seems that these methods are the best approach for everyone, right? But it's a little more complicated than that.

When Not to Pair Exercises

If your main goal is to maximize strength or hypertrophy (muscle size) in the shortest amount of time, you'll want to stay away from supersets for the bulk of your program. According to the aforementioned study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology, the increased levels of post-workout fatigue may mean you're not able to work out as frequently.

And if you're using compound supersets, you'll be repeatedly taxing the same muscle, limiting your ability to express force, according to one July 2017 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning. A decreased force potential reduces the amount of resistance you can use and will limit your strength gains.

So if strength is your goal, dedicate your sessions to performing most of your exercises in the traditional fashion. You can still use the rest periods to perform low-level corrective or activation exercises, but pairing two or more fatiguing (i.e., weight-bearing) exercises back to back isn't recommended.

When and How to Pair Exercises

If your goals include a combination of strength gain, muscle gain and fat loss, there's a way you can use both the classic method along with supersets, tri-sets and giant sets.

For each session, dedicate your first one or two exercises to strength, and complete them in the classic fashion. Complete 3 to 6 sets of 6 repetitions or less, with two to five minutes of rest between sets, according to the American Council on Exercise.

After you complete your first one to two exercises, you can then finish your session with a couple of supersets, tri-sets or a giant set. Keep the reps more toward the strength side (8 reps or fewer).

If you put this all together, a sample full-body workout may look something like this:

Superset #1

Start with the first exercise and perform the second during the rest period of the first.

Move 1: Barbell Deadlift

  1. Stand with your feet outside your shoulders. Point your toes out slightly.
  2. Stick your hips back and bend forward to grab the barbell below with both hands, using an overhand grip.
  3. Sink your hips down, flatten your back and pull the bar off the ground until you're standing straight up.
  4. Lower it back down to the ground under control with your back flat.

Reps: 4 sets of 6 with 3 minutes of rest between each set

Move 2: Wall Slide

  1. Stand with your back against a wall and your feet several inches away.
  2. Slide your back down the wall as you bend your knees to come into a wall sit.
  3. Pause when your thighs are parallel to the floor, then press back up.

Reps: 3 sets of 8 performed during the rest period of your deadlifts

Superset #2

Start with the first exercise and perform the second during the rest period of the first.

Move 1: Dumbbell Alternating Bench Press

  1. Lie flat on a bench while holding a pair of dumbbells at shoulder height. Keep your core engaged to stay firmly attached to the bench.
  2. Press both dumbbells toward the ceiling, keeping the elbows at a 45-degree angle.
  3. Lower one dumbbell as you keep the other pressed toward the ceiling and focus on keeping the lower back from arching and the hips from rotating.
  4. Once at the top position, lower the other dumbbell, keeping the first dumbbell pressed up.
  5. Alternate from side to side and repeat for reps.

Reps: 3 sets of 6 per side with 2 minutes of rest between each set

Move 2: Ankle Mobility

  1. Stand or sit and lift one heel off the ground.
  2. Flex your foot, brining your toes toward your shin.
  3. Circle the ankle around and point your toes for full extension at the bottom of the movement.
  4. Circle back around to the starting position.

Reps: 2 sets of 8 per side during the rest period of your bench press

Tri-Set Finisher

Switch from exercise to exercise with as little rest as possible.

Move 1: Dumbbell Reverse Lunge

  1. Stand up tall with your back straight and hands on hips for stability. Hold a dumbell in each hand.
  2. Step back a few feet onto the ball of your left foot, keeping the right leg planted.
  3. Hold for a second before pushing off your back foot and returning to standing.
  4. Repeat on the right leg.

Reps: 3 sets of 8 per side

Move 2: Single-Leg Push-Up

  1. Begin in a high plank. Support yourself on your hands and toes, creating a straight line from head to hips to heels.
  2. Lift one foot a few inches off the floor.
  3. Keep your core engaged as you bend your elbows to lower your body down to the ground (or as far as mobility will allow).
  4. Press back up, keeping your lifted foot where it is.

Reps: 3 sets of 6 per side

Move 3: Resistance Band Triceps Push-Down

  1. Begin by anchoring the middle of a resistance band high above your head. Holding an end in each hand.
  2. Keep your elbows bent and tight at your sides, slightly peeking behind your body.
  3. Keeping your upper arms stable, straighten your elbows by moving your palms toward the floor, face down.
  4. After your elbows are fully extended, bend them again to 90 degrees, returning to the starting position.

Reps: 3 sets of 8

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