Three sets of 10 reps, 30 seconds on with 15 seconds of rest, back-to-back circuit-style exercises — there are more ways to format your workout than there are dumbbells in a hotel gym! But burnt out as you might be on trainer speak, there's one term you gotta know: superset.
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"A superset is when a workout programs movements — traditionally only two — back-to-back, with little or minimal rest in between" says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault, a digital platform to help you decrease pain, prevent injury and increase your flexibility and mobility.
Hopping right up to the pull-up bar after cranking out some push-ups, then dropping back down into a push-up and continuing to alternate between the movements is a superset workout.
The superset workout has been a meathead mainstay since Schwarzenegger's reign, and considering Wickham calls them "the most efficient way to exercise for strength gains," supersets are here to stay. Below is everything you need to know about how to use supersets for big gains in less time.
Pick the Right Type of Superset for Your Goals
It sounds simple enough — it's basically just a two-movement circuit, after all. But putting together a superset workout can feel a little like uncharted territory. That's because, as Ian Elwood, CSCS, CF-1, founder of Mission MVNT, explains, which two movements you pair together matters.
"There are a few types of supersets — traditional, opposing and different — which pair different types muscle-groups, and which offers slightly different benefits," he says. Here are the main differences between these three.
1. Traditional Supersets
Traditional supersets pair opposing muscle groups, or what Wickham calls, "antagonist muscle groups — muscle groups that work opposite sides of the joints." For example, hamstrings and quads, chest and back, biceps and triceps. "The most famous example is probably the bench press (a chest exercise) paired with a bent-over row (a back exercise)," Wickham says.
The main benefit of working opposing muscle groups in the same workout, according to Elmwood (and a September 2017 study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology), is that it's super time-efficient.
"While you're working one of the muscle groups, the other is able to rest," he says. "That means you get rest...without you actually taking rest." In the bench-row combo, for example, while you're pressing the barbell over your chest, your back muscles get a rest. And when you're rowing, your chest gets to take a breather.
Because both muscle-groups get rest during the actual workout, the idea is that you're able to lift more weight or crank out more reps than you'd be able to in a couplet that targets the same muscle groups, Wickham says. "You're able to damage the muscle fibers of both muscle groups to a great degree, in minimal time," he says. And ultimately, that means strength gains! (After rest, repair and recovery, of course.)
2. Compound Superset
While athletes who want to get stronger should stick to traditional supersets, those who are looking to improve muscular endurance should opt for a compound superset. Sometimes called an agonist super, "a compound superset pairs two movements that work the same main muscle," Wickham says. For instance a triceps push-up paired with a triceps extension, which (duh) both work your triceps.
The name of the game in compound supersets is fatigue. "The demand on the muscle is intense," Elmwood says. "You'll feel the burn deep in the belly of the muscle." It might sound painful, but according to one July 2017 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning, it's more effective for overloading (read: strengthening) a muscle group than working different muscle groups.
Wickham notes that folks looking to bust through a specific plateau or target a specific muscle group can use compound supersets to their benefit. Let's say, for example, you want to increase your barbell push press. You might superset a push press with the handstand push-ups or wall walk to help strengthen the shoulder. But be warned, "you're going to need prioritize recovery after a compound superset to help yours muscle repair," he says.
3. Unrelated Superset
Finally, there's the unrelated superset — often just referred to as a "circuit" — which works completely different muscle groups. Think: a calf raises and bench press, squats and pull-ups, deadlifts and biceps curl or lunges and shoulder press.
"The benefit of pairing two movements like the lunge and shoulder press, is that you'll be able to hop between the two movements without getting too much muscle fatigue or compromising form," Elmwood says, which means you're able to exercise more muscle groups in less time.
Unrelated supersets are essentially a type of full-body training, which makes them great for folks who only strength train two or three times a week, Wickham says. But it's important to keep in mind that usually an unrelated superset is less metabolically or cardiovascularly challenging than a typical HIIT or CrossFit workout. So if "efficiency" is what you're after, these other workout styles and the other two types of supersets are best.
Get Started With Superset Training
Ready to build your own muscle-building superset workout? Your first step is to hone in on your goals. Want to get strong? Do a traditional superset. Want to boost muscular endurance or target a specific muscle group? Do a compound superset.
Next, choose exercises based on that. For a traditional superset, Wickham suggests the following pairing:
- Dumbbell chest press and dumbbell row
- Kettlebell goblet squats and kettlebell swings
- Triceps cable extensions and biceps cable curls
- Push-ups and pull-ups
For a compound superset, you might pair:
- Triceps push-ups and triceps extensions
- Pull-ups and rope climb
- Weighted squats and leg extensions
- Barbell deadlift and kettlebell swings
Regardless of the type of superset, Wickham recommends doing each movement for 4 to 5 sets of 8 to 15 reps. Your rep count should be determined by weight, and "weight should be determined by your objectives," Elmwood says. As a general rule: Heavier weight means lower reps for building strength. Lower weight pairs with higher reps for muscular endurance.
Finally, think about rest. "In a traditional superset, you can usually go right from round one to round two and so on," Elmwood says. That's because there's "built-in rest" for the muscles being worked.
But "in a compound superset workout, you'll have to program actual rest between rounds so that your form doesn't go to mush," he says. How long you'll need to rest between movements depends on how much weight you used, but he says anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes of rest between rounds is adequate.