By Tom Venuto, CSCS
Wouldnât it be great if there was 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 âanimalâ? really does exist. No, itâs not a drug. Itâs not some miracle supplement, either. Nor is it a newfangled piece of workout machinery. If youâve been training seriously for any length of time, itâs something youâre probably already familiar with, but havenât fully exploited to the maximum degree. What is this method for building more muscle in less time? Surprise, surprise; itâs called supersetting!
Even if youâve 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 youâre 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 using âstraight sets.â? A straight set consists of a series of nonstop repetitions, usually somewhere between 6 and 12, followed by a brief rest interval of about a minute. A superset is an advanced training technique where you perform two exercises in a row with virtually no rest in between exercises. 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. 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 on the second movement. Your strength will also decrease from fatigue with each subsequent superset. Because supersets donât allow you to use maximal weights, they are not well-suited to building strength. Supersets are definitely a body building and âshapingâ? 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, you 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.
Now that you know what supersets are, the question is; why should you even bother using them? There are three primary advantages supersets have over conventional straight sets:
1. Supersets save time. The most obvious advantage of supersetting is to save time. Even if you truly enjoy training, itâs probably safe to assume that you wouldnât mind getting equal or better results in a shorter period of time. By eliminating the rest intervals between sets (when you would normally be doing nothing), you can finish your workout in a fraction of your usual time
2. Supersets increase intensity. Usually when you think of high intensity, you think of forced reps, descending sets, and negatives. Supersets are simply another method of increasing intensity. Shortening the rest between sets is hard work â especially if youâre 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 help prevent injury or allow you to work around an injury. I stumbled onto 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 my lower back. Because I could no longer squat more than 315 lbs. without re-injuring my back, out of necessity, I started doing supersets and higher reps. After a relatively brief period training with supersets, 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 and allows you to work around existing injuries.
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 way to superset is to combine two exercises for the same muscle group. An example would be supersetting dumbbell flyes with bench presses.
Within the âsame muscle groupâ? superset category there are four sub-categories: pre-exhaust, post-exhaust, compound and isolation. Each one has a slightly different effect:
a) 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 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 couldnât 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 extensions, other lower body muscles 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. Letâs 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 stick with 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 would then be added later during the pre-contest âcuttingâ? phase.
Here are some examples of pre-exhaust superset combinations:
Isolation exercise (1st) Compound Exercise (2nd) Leg Extension Squat Leg Curl Stiff Leg Deadlift Dumbbell Pullover Reverse grip lat pulldown Tricep Pushdown Close Grip Bench Press Dumbell Flyes Barbell Bench Press Dumbell Side Lateral Raise Military Press Barbell Curl Curl grip pullups
b) 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 go for 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) Isolation Exercise (2nd) Leg Press Leg Extension Incline Bench Press Incline Dumbbell Flyes Military Press Dumbbell side lateral raise Close Grip bench press Rope Pushdowns Stiff Leg Deadlift Leg Curl
c) 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 itâs 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 Compound Exercise #2 Squats Leg Press Bent Over Barbell Rows Deadlifts
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 âwobblyâ? 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. Itâs not uncommon for pre-fatigued muscles to give out suddenly without warning. If this happens during a bench press or squat and you donât have a spotter or safety mechanism in place, the results could be disastrous. A safer method, especially if youâre a beginner, 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).
d) 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 Dumbell Flyes Cable Crossover Leg Extension Sissy Squat
Ok, now that you know all four types of same muscle group supersets, let’s take a look at the other two categories of supersets: 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). Antagonistic supersets are most popular as a technique for blasting the arms. For example, barbell curls paired with Tricep pushdowns are a great combination. Supersetting biceps and triceps together can create monstrous pumps that make your arms feel like theyâre about to explode!
Exercise #1 Exercise #2 Barbell Curls Tricep Pushdown Leg Extension Leg Curl Barbell Row Bench Press
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 utilize this principle is to âsqueeze inâ? 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!