A Superset in weight training is an intensity method for increasing workout density (amount of work completed in a certain time period) by performing two exercises with no rest.
The first exercise is completed then immediately the second exercise is completed. This is one superset.
A rest period is usually added before starting another superset although one doesn’t have to be used (see staggered supersets below). The rest period could also be very brief.
In general the two exercises chosen should work two different primary bodyparts (ex. biceps and triceps) but some people also use supersets for the same bodypart (ex. just biceps).
Technically by definition when the two exercises work the same primary bodypart they are called a compound set but some people just call them agonist (meaning same bodypart) supersets.
Arnold was a big fan of supersets and used them a lot in his workouts.
Benefits and Disadvantages of Supersets
There are several benefits to using supersets, the primary one being an increase in intensity by completing the sets in less time (also called workout density). Supposedly this boosts your natural hormone levels.
Also by eliminating the rest that is usually taken between sets of the different exercises, the individual muscle groups are still allowed to rest but the total workout time will be less so it is a time saving method as well.
If the two exercises used work antagonistic (opposing) muscle groups (ex. biceps and triceps) there are additional benefits such as stabilizing the connecting joint (elbow) since both muscle groups are stimulated and also utilizing the blood (and nutrient) flow to the common area.
The main disadvantage to using supersets, especially when used with heavy compound movements (ex. deadlifts, squats…), is the likely decrease in weight that can be used because of the overall total body fatigue from the increased workout density. Furthermore, the second exercise will usually suffer the most because of the lack of rest before it.
Since the body will be forced to complete the workout in a shorter time period, this will further stress the energy systems. This of course depends on your current level of conditioning.
If your goal is to use the most weight possible during the workout then alternating (jump) sets are the better choice since they allow longer rest between bodyparts without increasing your workout time.
Types of Supersets
There are many different ways to use supersets in your training. Here are several:
Agonist Supersets – Technically called compound sets. The exercises chosen would work the same primary muscle group such as barbell curls and preacher curls.
Antagonist Supersets – The exercises chosen are ones that work antagonist (opposing) muscle groups such as back/chest, biceps/triceps, quads/hamstrings, etc. Again the benefit is joint stabilization and blood (nutrient) flow to the common area. An example would be barbell rows paired with bench press.
Staggered Supersets (or just Staggered Sets) – These are supersets without any rest between the supersets themselves. You simply go back and forth between the two exercises without resting.
This works best if you pair a large muscle group with a smaller one as it can be draining when using two large groups, but that can be done as well. This saves time by allowing you to work the one muscle group while the other technically rests.
It also works well when you want to give extra attention and work to a lagging bodypart. In this case you would stagger that exercise for the lagging bodypart with several other bodypart exercises.
For example, if really want to work your calves, you could do 3 staggered supersets with chest/calves then do 3 more staggered sets with back/calves. In this case you just did 6 sets for calves in a short amount of time. You could continue this pattern with every exercise in a workout.
Pre-Exhaustion Supersets – This combines two exercises for the same primary muscle group (by definition this is a pre-exhaustion compound set or pre-exhaustion agonist superset).
The first exercise is usually an isolation move, which targets and directly works the primary muscle group. The second exercise is usually a compound movement, which hits multiple muscles including the primary muscle group. Some examples would be leg extensions with squats, dumbbell pullovers with pullups or dumbbell flyes with bench press.
The goal is to exhaust the primary muscle group with the first exercise so that when the second exercise is completed, the primary muscle group will fail before the supporting muscle groups can start to dominate the exercise.
Obviously the weight you can use on the compound movement will be less than normal because of the pre-exhaustion, which some people see as a downfall of this method. But others say that all of the muscle fibers are not stimulated during the easier isolation exercise which then forces more fibers to be used than normal during the heavier compound exercise resulting in a greater level of fatigue and muscle growth.
Post-Exhaustion Supersets – The opposite of pre-exhaustion supersets. Again by strict definition this would be called a post-exhaustion compound set (or post-exhaustion agonist superset) since both exercises will use the same primary muscle group.
You usually start with a compound movement that works several muscle groups (including the primary) and follow that with the isolation exercise to completely exhaust the primary muscle group. Examples of this would just be the opposite of those above (ex. bench press followed by dumbbell flies).
The idea is that the primary muscle group is not fully fatigued during the compound exercise because of the help it gets from the supporting muscle groups.
Although the bench press targets the chest muscles, the delts and triceps support and help move the weight. Now when the isolation exercise (ex. dumbbell flies) is completed, the primary muscle is fully fatigued.
Since you can use more weight during the compound exercise than you can with pre-exhaust supersets, this is generally recognized as the better (and more popular) method of the two.
In-set Supersets – Generally used with agonist (same bodypart) exercises. Instead of doing a full set of the first exercise and then a full set of the second exercise, you will alternate reps between exercises to complete one superset.
You do 1 rep of the first exercise, then 1 rep of the second exercise, continue alternating until you complete the target reps for each exercise.
You have to pick exercises that share a common point when completing the exercises (basically creating a hybrid exercise) so you don’t have to set weights down, which would decrease effectiveness.
Obviously if you are weaker on one exercise than the other, you will try to get the target reps on that exercise. After that happens, for extra intensity you could then continue repping out on the stronger exercise to failure.
An example of exercises to pair for the back could be barbell deadlifts with barbell rows. For the chest you could use dumbbell flies with dumbbell presses. For the shoulders a classic example would be a clean and press.
Push/Pull Supersets – A pushing motion type exercise is paired with a pulling motion type exercise. In many cases this will be an antagonistic superset (ex. triceps extensions and barbell curls) but it doesn’t have to be. An example would be pairing squats with pullups.
Compound Exercise Supersets – Performed using two compound exercises (ex. barbell rows and bench press). The general goal is to use the most amount of muscle by picking compound exercises, which makes these supersets pretty demanding so longer rest periods are usually used between each superset.
Isolation Exercise Supersets – Performed using two isolation exercises (ex. rear laterals and dumbbell flies). The goal is to really target the muscles using isolation exercises. The overall demand will be less so shorter rest periods could be used.
Weightlifting/Cardio Supersets – This involves pairing a weightlifting exercise with a cardio exercise. Putting these together in a certain way can add intensity to your workouts.
For example, after each weightlifting set in your workout you would do a cardio exercise such as jumping rope for so many repetitions (or for time) then rest as needed and repeat the combo.
You will be accomplishing a lot of work in a workout which saves time and burns calories. However given the demand, this may limit the amount of weight you can use on your weightlifting sets so it’s best used if fat loss (and not strength) is your goal.
You can also use weightlifting/cardio supersets to overload a certain muscle group that may have plateaued. For example an intense leg workout would be supersetting squats with exercise bike sprints. Be prepared for a burn and maybe some crying!
Important Notes About Supersets
Although you can combine any two exercises into a superset, there are some things to consider instead of just throwing any two together.
- Avoid using two exercises that heavily work the core/lower back as an injury could result from bad form caused by fatigue (ex. squats and overhead presses). Be careful when pairing any core specific exercise such as planks, ab wheel rollouts, etc. or lower back specific exercises such as hyperextensions, good mornings, etc. with other exercises that also heavily use these same muscles.
- Avoid pairing two exercises that work a similar movement pattern since this can result in muscle imbalances and/or overuse injuries (ex. bench press and overhead press). An exception to this would be when trying to overload just one muscle group by using agonist exercises.
- When pairing antagonistic exercises, try to place the exercise for the weaker muscle group first to prevent further muscle imbalances. You will have the most energy for the first exercise.
- It’s important to consider exercise order, especially with antagonistic supersets, since the opposing muscles can directly affect the range of motion of each other. An antagonist muscle must relax for the other muscle to fully contract. For example, when using chest and back supersets, it’s best to put the back exercises first since most of us have bad posture and tight pecs. The back exercise will help draw the shoulders back into proper alignment for the chest exercise reducing any shoulder problems. When using leg supersets, it’s usually best to put the hamstring/glute dominant exercises first as they can help the hip flexors relax. Most of us have tight hip flexors from sitting a lot and quad dominant exercises (leg presses, leg extensions…) can cause additional tightening of them.
- Be careful when pairing two exercises that require you to grip the whole time. Your grip could fail before you complete all of the supersets. Use wrist straps if needed.
- To prevent possible spine problems such as herniated discs, you should not pair two exercises that both compress the spine. Ideally you would want to use one exercise that helps elongate the spine if you use one exercise that compresses it. An example superset could be squats with dips.