If you want to know what supersets are, whether or not they can help you build muscle, get stronger, and lose fat, and the right way to use supersets in your training, then you want to read this article.
- A superset is set of two exercises that are performed immediately back-to-back, typically for the same muscle group.
- Supersets aren’t going to help you gain strength or lose fat faster, but if used properly, can help you finish your workouts faster without hurting your performance.
- If you want to get the benefits of supersets with none of the downsides, then you should use traditional sets for your heavy, compound lifts, and superset muscle groups that don’t interfere with one another.
Supersets are a staple of classic bodybuilding workouts.
You find them in almost every muscle building magazine, book, and blog, and Golden-era bodybuilders like Franco Columbu, Frank Zane, and Arnold swore by them.
But how effective are supersets?
Well, the short story is that supersets aren’t inherently good or bad—it all comes down to how you use them. Use them correctly, and they can help you finish your workouts faster without hurting your performance. Use them incorrectly, however, and they’ll probably slow down your progress.
Let’s start by defining exactly what a superset is.
What Is a Superset?
A superset is a weightlifting technique where you do two exercises in a row, with little or no rest in between them.
This is why supersets are also often referred to as “paired sets.”
Pairing more than two exercises in this way is usually referred to as a “circuit,” a “tri-set” for three sets, a “quad-set” for four sets, and so on. You may have heard the term “giant set” as well, which usually refers to a circuit of four or more exercises.
For example, you might superset barbell curls with dumbbell hammer curls, which both target the biceps (but in slightly different ways).
Supersets are also often used to target different (usually opposing) muscle groups, usually to save time.
After completing a superset, you’ll generally rest for a minute or two before moving on to the next set, exercise, or superset in your workout.
Here’s how this might play out in an arms workout:
10 to 12 reps
Followed immediately by…
10 to 12 reps
Rest 1 to 2 minutes.
Repeat 3 times.
Do Supersets Help You Build Muscle Faster?
Many people believe supersets are better for building muscle than traditional training methods, and their arguments usually boil down to one or more of the following:
- “Supersets are harder than traditional sets.”
- “Supersets help you do more reps in each workout.”
- “Supersets give you a bigger pump.”
- “Supersets spike growth hormone and testosterone levels.”
Let’s take a closer look at each of these claims and see how they stand up to scrutiny (and science).
“Supersets are harder than traditional sets.”
There’s no getting around the fact that building a great physique requires a lot of hard, uncomfortable work.
“No pain, no gain” isn’t practical advice, but it’s not entirely inaccurate, either. If you’re not constantly pushing your body and muscles outside their “comfort zones,” so to speak, you’re not going to get very far in your muscle building journey.
That’s why many people assume supersets are highly effective. They’re difficult. And painful. More so than traditional sets.
That doesn’t mean they’re better for muscle and strength gain, though.
The main reason supersets feel harder is the short rest periods, makes weights feel heavier, ratchets up the pump, and greatly elevates your heart rate, but these things (surprisingly) aren’t a powerful muscle-building stimulus.
What is? Keep reading to find out.
“Supersets help you do more reps in each workout.”
This is true.
By supersetting exercises together, you can get more work done in the time you have to work out, and as accumulating volume (total reps) is an important part of muscle building, this sounds good at first glance.
The problem, however, is just as a calorie isn’t a calorie when it comes to optimizing body composition, a rep isn’t a rep when it comes to optimizing strength and muscle gain.
In other words, you have higher and lower quality volume, and if you want to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, you want to emphasize the former as much as possible.
One of the key factors that determines the quality of the reps you do is the intensity, or the amount of weight you use relative to your one-rep max (1RM). Simply put, if you’re not lifting heavy enough weights, you’re not getting as much out of the training as you could be.
I don’t want to go too far into the weeds here, but the long story short is research shows that you want to focus your weightlifting efforts on loads ranging from 75 to 85% of your 1RM to maximize both strength and muscle gain.
The only way to do this effectively is to ensure you get adequate rest in between each set, because if you rest too little (1 minute in between heavy weightlifting sets, for example), your performance rapidly declines.
Cut your rest periods too short, and you either have to use lighter weights or do fewer total sets, which stunts progress over time. This is why studies show that people who rest longer between sets are able to gain more strength and muscle than those that rest less.
So, while supersets can help you cram more volume into your workouts, it’s usually not high-quality volume that strongly impacts muscle and strength gain.
“Supersets give you a bigger pump.”
The “pump” refers to the temporary increase in muscle size that occurs when you lift weights, especially when you use higher reps and shorter rest periods.
When you contract your muscles, metabolic byproducts like lactic acid, hydrogen ions, and phosphate build up in and around the cells.
In response, your body pumps more blood into the muscle to remove these chemicals and provide oxygen and nutrients. Some of this blood remains trapped in the muscles, and voila, you’re “pumped up.”
These chemicals don’t just contribute to a pump, though. Some also directly stimulate muscle growth through a process known as metabolic stress.
Supersets are good for getting a pump because they usually involve 10+-rep sets and short rest periods, which greatly spike the production of metabolic byproducts and blood flow to the muscles.
As a result, they also cause more metabolic stress than traditional sets, and thus, it’s theorized that they can also cause more muscle growth.
The problem is metabolic stress isn’t a strong muscle building stimulus—not nearly as strong as mechanical tension, for example, which is how hard your muscles have to contract to move a weight.
In other words, metabolic stress and mechanical tension are two different muscle-building “pathways,” and when you train your muscles, both are involved to one degree or another.
How much one pathway is emphasized over another depends on what you’re doing. Supersetting emphasizes metabolic stress over mechanical tension, for example, while heavy weightlifting (strength training) emphasizes mechanical tension over metabolic stress.
This is why relying too much on supersetting is a mistake—you’re producing a lot of metabolic stress (weak muscle-building stimulus) at the expense of mechanical tension (strong muscle-building stimulus).
This has been borne out in several studies, including one conducted by researchers at the University of Central Florida, which compared higher-rep “pump” training to lower-rep strength training.
Both protocols resulted in about the same amount of muscle growth, but there was a small trend toward greater gains in the strength training group.
Similar results were seen in another study conducted by scientists which compared training with weights that were 30% of the subjects’ one-rep max versus 80%.
They found that although both groups gained about the same amount of muscle, the group training with 30% of their one-rep max had higher levels of fatigue that would likely longer to fully recover from (thereby reducing potential workout frequency).
Furthermore, the more supersetting you do in your workouts, the more fatigued you’re going to be, which will impair your performance in your heavy lifting and reduce the total amount of mechanical tension you can subject your muscles to for the rest of your workout.
All this is why the proper way to use supersetting is to save it for lesser important (isolation) exercises, and to do it later in your workouts, gotten your heavy work out of the way. (More on this soon.)
So, while “pump training” can produce a fair amount of metabolic stress and weak muscle-building stimulus, it’s not nearly as effective as increasing mechanical tension (progressive overload) and can interfere with the kind of training that does.
“Supersets spike growth hormone and testosterone levels.”
One good example is a study conducted by scientists at Kennesaw State University and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that compared the changes in testosterone levels between people who did supersets versus traditional sets.
They found that the group that rested 1 minute between sets (superset group) had 25% higher testosterone levels immediately after the workout than the group that rested 2.5 minutes per between sets.
Slight and temporary increases in anabolic hormones are nice, but how much can that impact muscle growth?
In short, when you review the body of research available on the matter, it’s pretty clear that temporary, exercise-induced increases in anabolic hormones simply don’t translate into much in the way of additional strength or muscle gain.
A good example is actually the study I just cited above. Ironically, the group that rested less in between sets also gained significantly less muscle than the group that rested more, despite experiencing larger post-workout spikes in anabolic hormones.
Do Supersets Help You Gain Strength Faster?
Supersets are usually presented more as a bodybuilding than strength training technique, but some people do claim they can be used to get stronger faster.
The reasoning is usually pretty flimsy, boiling down to more reps and sets over time = more strength, which isn’t entirely wrongheaded. Increasing volume over time is indeed a valid way to increase strength.
As we discussed earlier, though, your body doesn’t respond to all volume in the exact same way. Some reps are more “anabolic” than others.
We also recall that in the case of supersetting, we’re sacrificing intensity and performance by shortening rest times, which is great for increasing pump and metabolic stress, but awful for achieving maximal progressive overload.
To do the latter, you want to handle as much weight as you can for the given rep range you’re working in, and to do that, you want to rest longer than usual in between your sets to ensure your body and muscles have fully recovered and are ready for another intense bout of exertion.
As you can see, supersetting is fundamentally at odds with this.
That said, you can focus on increasing whole-body strength while also including supersets in your workouts. Keep reading to find out how.
Do Supersets Help You Lose Fat Faster?
If you’ve spent any time in these parts, you know that you need an energy (calorie) deficit to lose fat.
Many people assume supersets are better than traditional sets in this regard because they’re harder and involve doing more reps in less time.
This is partly true.
The primary factor that determines how many calories you burn in a workout is how much total “work” you do in it, so if you’re using supersets to do more reps in your workouts, then you’re going to burn more calories.
Depending on how many additional reps you’re able to squeeze in, this can be significant–maybe as much as an additional 100 to 200 calories per workout.
On the other hand, if you’re simply using supersetting to get through a workout faster, you’re not going to burn any more energy than you would have with longer rest periods.
In other words, if you took what’s normally a 60-minute weightlifting workout and change nothing but the rest times to turn it into a 45-minute “superset workout,” you’re not going to burn any additional calories.
In fact, you may even burn more calories with a traditional workout, because you’d be able to use heavier weights.
Anyway, assuming you’re following a sensible diet, any additional calories burned through supersetting can indeed translate into slightly more fat loss over time.
The problem, however, is the price you have to pay for this additional energy expenditure, which we’ve already discussed in detail.
By replacing heavy, traditional sets with supersets, you can burn more calories, but you can’t also maximize progressive overload and thus muscle and strength gain (which is probably why you’re hitting the weights in the first place).
Now, you could argue that this doesn’t matter because you can’t gain any muscle or strength to speak of while cutting, but that’s not entirely true.
Advanced weightlifters shouldn’t expect much progress while cutting, but most people in the gym absolutely could build muscle and lose fat at the same time if they knew how.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that heavy, traditional weightlifting may be better for advanced weightlifters who want to maintain maximum lean mass while cutting.
Some people also that supersets somehow increase muscle definition and really “bring out the cuts.”
While they definitely make your muscles “burn” more, that doesn’t somehow translate into more muscle definition, which is merely a product of high levels of muscle development with low levels of body fat.
You can’t “spot reduce” fat (to any degree that matters, at least) by doing exercises for specific areas of your body or muscle groups, so the only way to “bring out the cuts” in your arms, chest, abs, or anywhere else is to reduce your body fat percentage.
Can Supersets Replace Cardio?
If you’re into lifting weights, you’re probably not so into cardio.
(I wrote a book called Cardio Sucks, so I feel you.)
And even if you like cardio (okay, confession: I actually don’t mind it), we only have so much time to give to our vain pursuit of building the perfect body, and cardio has to take the back seat because resistance training does so much more for our body composition.
This is why many people claim you “don’t need to do cardio” if you just make your weightlifting harder by including supersets
Well, while there are some benefits to including cardio in your exercise regimen, so long as you’re doing a few hours of resistance training per week, you don’t have to for any reason, really.
Furthermore, while supersets can leave you in a sweating, heart-pounding, breathless mess, much like cardio, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are “working” equally well when you drill down into the physiology.
We can find evidence of this in a study conducted by scientists at Southampton Solent University with two groups of strongmen and powerlifters following two different training protocols:
- One group did high-rep, low-weight squats and deadlifts with short rest periods—supersets, basically.
- The other did HIIT cardio sessions on an exercise bike.
After 8 weeks, researchers found that both groups had gained about the same amount of leg strength, but the cardio group had improved their aerobic fitness significantly more.
Other research on the matter has reported similar findings as well.
So, the bottom line is this:
Strength training can do many wonderful things for your body, but it can’t can’t provide all of the same benefits as cardiovascular training.
So no, supersets can’t replace cardio. In some ways, nothing can. You either do it and reap the benefits or you don’t.
A Better Kind of Superset
All things considered, supersets aren’t very useful in the way they’re normally practiced.
They aren’t better for muscle growth than traditional sets, they make it harder to handle heavy loads and add weight to the bar, and they don’t even save that much time (does that 15 minutes really matter that much?).
What are they good for, then?
Well, I like them when they’re used to create what are called antagonist paired sets.
“… an antagonist paired set (APS), is performing one set on an exercise, and then instead of performing a second set on that exercise after resting, you perform a set on an exercise that is the “antagonist” of the muscle group trained on the first set.”
Technically speaking, when a muscle contracts, it’s considered an “agonist,” and the muscle that produces the opposing motion is considered its “antagonist.”
Thus, an “antagonist” muscle is simply one that performs the opposite function of another.
The reason the body works like this is if both of these muscles were to fire hard enough at the same time, it would cause serious damage to the muscles, tendons, and bones.
That’s why your body generally inhibits one muscle group while another is firing (there are exceptions).
Now, the difference between “antagonist paired sets” and traditional supersets is this:
- With traditional supersets, you’re increasing fatigue in a single muscle group.
- With antagonist paired sets, you’re training two muscle groups and simply doing more sets in less time without greatly increasing fatigue in either.
In effect, with antagonist paired sets, you’re using your sets for one muscle group as the rest periods for the other, which are naturally unengaged while the agonist is in the driver’s seat.
This also works for muscle groups that aren’t antagonistic, but are far enough away from each other that training one doesn’t impact the other.
All this has been demonstrated in scientific research, as well.
A 2010 review from researchers at the University of Ballarat concluded that antagonist paired sets allowed athletes to finish their workouts in less time, while using weights that were just as heavy (and in some cases, heavier) than traditional programming.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at how to superset the smart way.
1. Use traditional sets for your heavy, compound lifts.
Although you can use antagonist paired sets for your compound lifts, I don’t recommend it.
Given how important it is to get strong on these lifts, it’s simply not worth compromising your progress on them just to finish your workouts a bit faster.
This is why research shows it’s best to do your heavy, compound sets in a row, with no other exercises in between, and then use antagonist paired sets for your isolation exercises.
For example, your workout might look like this:
2. Superset muscle groups that don’t interfere with one another.
This means antagonists, of course, but as I mentioned a moment ago, it also includes muscle groups that are far away enough from each other to not be connected in function.
Thus, you can pair exercises for many different muscle groups, like…
- Biceps and triceps
- Quadriceps and hamstrings
- Chest and back
- Shoulders and back
- Back and quadriceps
- Calves and shoulders
- Shoulders and quadriceps
- Triceps and back
Personally, when I superset, I like to do it like this:
I do two heavy compound exercises with traditional sets (finishing every set for each exercise before moving to the next exercise), and then I’ll do antagonist paired sets or for two or three accessory exercises.
For example, here’s what I might do for a leg workout:
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80 to 85% of one-rep max (1RM)
Rest 3 minutes between each set.
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps at 80 to 85% of 1RM
Rest 3 minutes between each set.
Leg Press (Antagonist Paired Sets)
3 sets of 6 to 8 reps at 75 to 80% of 1RM paired with Hamstring Curl
Rest 2 minutes between each set.
Hamstring Curl (Antagonist Paired Sets)
3 sets of 6 to 8 reps at 75 to 80% of 1RM paired with Leg Press
Rest 2 minutes between each set.
3. Rest at least 1 to 2 minutes between each superset.
Even if the muscle groups you superset don’t directly interfere with one another, you’re still going to be a little fatigued after each set.
If you’ve just finished a set of leg press, for instance, then you won’t be able to curl as well for a minute or two as you recover. You need to let your heart rate settle and mentally prepare yourself for another hard set.
This is why it’s best to rest at least one to two minutes in between your supersets, or as long as you need to feel fully prepared for the next set.
Personally, I rest 1 minute in between supersets for my biceps and triceps, and 2 minutes in between supersets for larger muscle groups, like the quadriceps and hamstrings.
The Bottom Line on Supersets
A superset is where two exercises are performed back-to-back, with a short rest period in between.
Although supersets can help you finish your workouts faster, that’s mostly what they have to offer.
They aren’t better for muscle building than traditional sets, and when used incorrectly (the way most people use them), they actually get in the way of progress by making it harder to progressively overload your muscles.
When it comes to gaining strength, supersets have nothing to offer.
They make impossible to maintain the intensity, volume, and frequency required to optimize strength gain.
Supersetting does have a place in a well-designed workout plan, though.
When used to create “antagonist paired sets,” supersetting allows you to get more work done in less time without sacrificing performance or results.
To do this, you simply alternate between “agonist” and “antagonist” muscle groups, like the biceps and triceps, resting a minute or two in between each set.
So, as long as you…
- Use traditional sets for your heavy, compound lifts.
- Superset muscle groups that don’t interfere with one another.
- Rest at least 1 to 2 minutes between each superset.
… then you’ll reap the time savings of supersetting without any of the downsides.
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