Wouldn’t it be great if there were a safe and natural way to build more muscle in a shorter period of time? In this day and age of exercise gimmicks and quick fix solutions, most smart bodybuilders would be skeptical if they heard such a claim.But guess what? Such an “animal” really does exist. No, it’s not a drug. It’s not some miracle supplement, either. Nor is it a newfangled piece of workout machinery. If you’ve been training seriously for any length of time, it’s something you’re probably already familiar with but haven’t fully exploited to the maximum degree. What is this method for building more muscle in less time? Surprise, surprise; it’s called supersetting!
Even if you’ve used supersets before, you may not be familiar with all the different types of supersets or the many ways you can incorporate them into your workouts. Just in case you’re not familiar with supersets, let me start from the beginning and explain the difference between a conventional set and a superset.
Conventional weight training is done with “straight sets.” A straight set is performed by doing a series of repetitions; 8-12 in a row for example, then stopping to rest for a minute or so before doing another set. A superset is an advanced training technique where you perform two exercises in a row with virtually no rest in between. Supersets are an excellent technique for muscular development, especially if you are short on time. Supersets are not, however, the most effective technique for building strength or power. Let me explain why…
When you perform two exercises in a row with no rest in between, this will reduce the amount of weight you can handle, particularly in the second movement. Your strength will also decrease from fatigue with each subsequent superset. Because supersets don’t allow you to use maximal weights, they are not well-suited to building strength. Supersets are definitely a body building and “shaping” technique. You seldom see powerlifters or strength athletes doing supersets. In fact, they usually do the opposite; they take longer rest intervals between sets so that they can recuperate as much as possible. After a 3-5 minute recovery period, they can attack each set with maximum strength. If you are still fatigued from the previous set, and you start another set too soon, you won’t be able to lift as much weight.
Ok, now you know what a superset is. The question is; why should you bother using them? There are three primary advantages of superset training over conventional straight set training:
1. Supersets save time. The most obvious advantage of supersetting is to save time. Even if you truly enjoy training, it’s probably safe to assume that you wouldn’t mind getting equal or better results in a shorter period of time.
2. Supersets increase intensity. Usually when you think of high intensity, you think of forced reps, descending sets, negatives, etc. Supersets are simply another method of increasing intensity. Shortening the rest between sets is hard work – especially if you’re used to a long rest interval. The principle is: more work performed in less time equals more intensity and more intensity equals more muscle.
3. Supersets prevent injury or allow you to work around an injury. I stumbled on the value of supersets as a way to train around injuries at the age of 20 when I ruptured a disc in my lower back. I was a strong squatter at a very young age, doing 405 lbs for 6 reps before I was 20 years old. After the injury, I wanted to maintain my leg size without putting so much stress on the lower back. Because I could no longer squat more than 315lbs without re-injuring my back, I sought a way to maintain my leg size without super heavy squats. Out of necessity, I started doing high reps and supersets. After a relatively brief period training in this fashion, my quads quickly grew to become my best body part. With the exception of brief strength phases when I do straight sets with as much weight as I can, I utilize supersets extensively for quads to this day. Supersets allow you to overload a muscle and generate high intensity without requiring heavy weights. This decreases your chances of injury.
There are three primary categories of supersets: 1) same muscle group, 2) agonist-antagonist, and 3) staggered sets. Let’s take a look at each category and a few examples of each.
1. Same muscle group. The first and most common category of supersetting is to combine two exercises for the same muscle group. An example would be supersetting dumbbell flyes with the bench press.
Within the “same muscle group” superset category there are four sub-categories. Each one has a slightly different effect:
Pre-exhaust. Pre-exhaustion is probably the best known and most effective type of superset of all. A pre exhaust superset is performed by choosing two exercises for the same muscle group; an isolation exercise first, followed by a basic, compound movement.
The idea behind pre-exhaust supersets is to take a muscle group beyond the normal point of exhaustion and thereby achieve muscle fiber stimulation and growth that you normally could not achieve from a straight set. Here’s how this works: Suppose you are doing a set of leg extensions for your thighs and you push yourself until you can’t do another rep. Most people think their legs are finished at this point and that they couldn’t go further if they tried. The quadriceps muscles may indeed be completely exhausted – you couldn’t do another leg extension if you tried – but by walking over to the squat rack, you’ll find that you are still able to do squats (albeit with a lighter poundage than usual). Why? Because even though the quadriceps reached total failure on the leg extension exercise, other lower body muscles that are used in a squat are still fresh and strong (glutes, hamstrings, adductors and different sections of the quadriceps group.) By “pre-exhausting” the target muscle with an isolated movement, you can then continue to blast the fatigued muscle even further with the help of the assisting muscles in the compound movement.
The only drawback with pre exhaust supersets is that you will only be able to use a fraction of your normal weight on the second exercise. Let’s say you can normally squat with 315 for 10 reps when you do the exercise first. When you switch the order and do leg extensions first, you might find that your quads are so fried from the leg extensions that even 225 lbs for 10 reps on the squat is difficult. That’s ok when it comes to muscle growth, but if your goal is power or strength then this would be counter productive. If strength is your primary goal, it would be better to just do straight sets of squats and to do your squats first. In a periodized training schedule for a bodybuilder, straight sets should be used almost exclusively during the off season strength and mass phase. Supersets can be added later during the pre-contest phase.
Isolation Exercise (1st)
Dumbell Side Laterals
Compound Exercise (2nd)
Stiff Leg Deadlift
Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown
Close Grip Bench Press
Bench Bench Press
Curl Grip Pullups
Post-exhaust. The opposite of pre exhaust is post exhaust. In a post exhaust superset you would again choose a basic compound movement and an isolation movement. This time, however, you would perform the compound movement first and the isolation movement second. The advantage of the post exhaust superset is that you will be fresh on the compound movement so you can use more weight. Post exhaust supersets can also be used as an effective variation on the heavy-light system. For example, instead of just doing the regular sets of 8-12 reps, choose a heavy basic movement for the first exercise and do about 6 reps. Then, follow it with a lighter isolation movement and do around 20 reps. This gives you the best possible of both worlds: a) size and strength increase, and b) isolation with a wicked pump.
Compound Exercise (1st)
Incline Bench Press
Press Behind The Neck
Close Grip Bench Press
Isolation Exercise (2nd)
Incline Dumbbell flyes
Dumbbell Side Laterals
Compound superset. This type of superset is reserved for very brave people. Supersetting two compound exercises together can create amazing muscle growth in a very short period of time, but it’s incredibly demanding and exhausting. It takes all the energy you can muster to get through a series of compound supersets. It is also very taxing on the nervous system and requires that special attention be paid to recovery after the session. An example would be supersetting squats with leg presses. Combinations like these can easily leave you lying flat on your back gasping for air (but the results are well worth it!)
Compound Exercise #1
Bent Over Rows
Compound Exercise #2
NOTE: A word of caution about pre exhaust and compound supersets: If your second exercise is a compound free weight movement that requires a great deal of neuromuscular coordination or is the type of exercise that requires a spotter, pay extra attention to your form. When your prime movers are fatigued from the first exercise, you may feel “wobbly” and your form is much more likely to break in the second exercise. If you let your form become sloppy because you are fatigued, you are more likely to get injured. It’s not uncommon for pre-fatigued muscles to give out suddenly without warning. If this happens during a bench press or squat and you don’t have a spotter or safety mechanism in place, the results could be disastrous. A safer method, especially for beginners, is to select a movement for the second exercise that requires less skill and coordination (leg press, smith machine squat, hack squat) or one with a built in safeguard (power rack, safety catch, spotter, etc).
Isolation supersets. The fourth and final way to do a same muscle group superset is to superset two isolation exercises, such as cable crossovers and dumbbell flyes. This is a useful technique for isolating one particular muscle group or section of a muscle group to the exclusion of others. It is used most often during pre-contest or definition phases when mass and strength are no longer the primary concerns.
Isolation Exercise #1
Isolation Exercise #2
Ok, now that you know all four types of same muscle group supersets, let’s take a look at the other two categories of supersetting: antagonistic supersets and staggered supersets.
2. Antagonistic muscle groups. When you do two exercises in a row for the same muscle group, it tends to significantly limit the amount of weight you can use because of fatigue and lactic acid buildup. Pairing opposing (antagonistic) muscle groups together can help you keep your strength up because as one muscle is working, the opposite one is resting. Common examples include pairing biceps with triceps, chest with back, or hamstrings with quadriceps. This is also an excellent technique for bringing up lagging body parts (priority training). For example, barbell curls paired with Tricep pushdowns are a great combination for blasting the arms.
3. Staggered sets. The final category of supersetting is staggered sets. A staggered set is a type of superset where you combine a major muscle with a minor and completed unrelated muscle. This technique is most commonly used for abs and calves. The way you use this principle is to “squeeze in” a set of abs or calves in between sets for any major muscle group. For example, you could throw in a set of calves in between every set of chest you do. Instead of resting and doing nothing in between sets of chest, you are doing something productive – working your calves! This gets your workout finished much more quickly and spares you the monotony that many people feel from doing these small body parts by themselves.
As you can see, many benefits can be gained from including supersets in your training program. They are a proven technique for increasing intensity and bringing up lagging body parts. They allow you to gain muscle while working around injuries that might be aggravated with heavy weights. If your training program is getting stale, supersets can also help relieve your boredom. Best of all, supersetting is a legitimate way to get more results in less time. If you need to squeeze a result-producing workout into a short period of time, then supersets could be the answer to your muscle-building prayers.
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Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural bodybuilder, personal trainer, gym owner, freelance writer and author of Burn the Fat, Feed The Muscle (BFFM): Fat Burning Secrets of the World’s Best Bodybuilders and Fitness Models. Tom has written over 140 articles and has been featured in IRONMAN magazine, Natural Bodybuilding, Muscular Development, Muscle-Zine, Exercise for Men and Men’s Exercise. Tom is the Fat Loss Expert for Global-Fitness.com and the nutrition editor for Femalemuscle.com and his articles are featured regularly on literally dozens of other websites.