What Is a Superset in Bodybuilding?

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A young man is training in the gym. (Image: kopitinphoto/iStock/Getty Images)

Bodybuilders use a number of specialized training systems to make their workouts as productive as possible. A training system is a specific arrangement of sets, reps and exercise performance designed to make exercises sufficiently challenging so they trigger muscle growth – a process called hypertrophy. One such training system is supersets. There are a number of variations of this training system, but the common feature in all superset variations is that exercises are paired and performed back-to-back with no rest in between.

Regular Supersets

A regular superset involves performing two similar exercises back-to-back with no rest in between. This extends the duration of the set and ensures that the target muscles work harder than normal. Examples of regular supersets include squats followed by lunges, bench press followed by pushups and situps followed by planks. As muscles are fatigued by the first exercise, the second exercise will normally require less resistance or be performed for fewer repetitions than if it was performed first.

Opposing Supersets

In this superset variation, also called antagonistic supersets, exercises are performed for opposing muscle groups -- for example, shoulder presses followed by lat pulldowns or leg extensions followed by leg curls. This type of superset allows for a lot of work to be done in a short time as each exercise provides an active rest from the other one within the pair. Because of something called reciprocal inhibition, opposing supersets allow for enhanced muscle recovery between exercises. When one muscle contracts, the other must relax -- this is the essence of reciprocal inhibition. By performing exercises in opposing pairs, each muscle will recover more quickly.

Pre-exhaust Supersets

In most exercises, there is generally a weak link muscle that will fail before the target muscle. In pressing exercises, this is usually the triceps, and in pulling exercises, this is the biceps. Pre-exhaust gets around this problem by keeping the weaker muscles that would normally fail first in reserve and only using them in the second exercise. The main muscle is therefore pre-exhausted by the first exercise. Examples of pre-exhaust supersets include dumbbell flies performed before bench presses, dumbbell pullovers performed before lat pulldowns and dumbbell front raises performed before shoulder presses.

Lower-body/Upper-body Supersets

Weight training is not normally associated with cardiovascular fitness, but by utilizing lower-body/upper-body supersets you can get an effective cardio workout despite not performing any specific cardiovascular exercise. Simply perform a compound lower-body exercise and follow it immediately with an upper-body exercise. The initial lower body exercise will drive your heart rate up, and the exercise immediately following will keep it up. This type of superset works like interval training -- an effective type of cardio training system. Examples of this type of superset include squats followed by dumbbell bench presses, lunges followed by lat pulldowns or deadlifts followed by shoulder presses. Lower-body/upper-body supersets are most effective when performed using moderate to high repetitions -- between 12 and 20.

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