Supersets: An Advanced Strength-Training Technique You Want in Your Routine
Muscles adapt to the stimulus you place on them. When you progressively overload your muscles by increasing the resistance or volume when you train, your muscles are forced to develop greater strength and mass to accommodate the overload. But over time, muscle growth and strength gains can slow down or plateau. At that point, you’ll have to challenge them in a way they’re unaccustomed to. There are a variety of advanced training strategies that can help you break out of a plateau and challenge muscles that need a wake-up call. One of these is super sets.
What Are Supersets?
A superset is performed by doing two sets back-to-back with no rest between the sets. Supersets can target agonist muscles or antagonist ones. An agonist superset is carried out by doing two exercises in a row that target the same muscle group. For example, an agonist superset might be squats followed by leg extensions. Both exercises work the quadriceps muscles.
Antagonist supersets work two opposing muscle groups in the same way. For example, the biceps and triceps are two opposing muscle groups. To do an antagonist superset that works these muscles, you could do triceps dips followed by biceps curls. Why not do triceps kickbacks instead of triceps dips? Ideally, supersets should consist of a compound exercise followed by an isolation exercise.
Compound exercises are multi-joint movements that work more than one muscle group at a time. They involve the movement of several joints simultaneously. Squats and triceps dips are examples of multi-joint movements. Isolation exercises, like biceps curls and leg extensions, work only one muscle group at a time.
Could you do two compound exercises instead when you super set? It would be difficult since performing two compound exercises in a row is too exhausting. Remember, you aren’t resting between the two sets. So, you’ll have a hard time tackling another compound movement so quickly. Some people superset by doing sets that involve two different muscle groups entirely. For example, squats followed by biceps curls. However, this isn’t a true superset.
Which should come first, the compound or the isolation exercise? If you do the isolation exercise first, you’re doing a pre-exhaust superset. In this case, you exhaust a muscle with an isolation movement and then force it to work again in an already exhausted state. Pre-exhausts can spur the growth of the muscle group you targeted with the isolation exercise. If you do the compound exercise first, it’s a post-exhaustion superset.
Which is better? A 2003 study looked at quadriceps activation using EMG analysis when participants did pre-exhaust and post-exhaust sets that worked the quadriceps. Two of the three quad muscles were activated more with the post-exhaust set as opposed to the pre-exhaust set. So, post-exhaust may give you more bang for your training buck.
Why Do Supersets?
As mentioned, supersets challenge your muscles in a unique way. Therefore, the extra stimulus your muscles get from supersetting can help jumpstart muscle growth when you’ve reached a plateau. It’s an example of a more advanced training technique and a way to use progressive overload in a less conventional manner.
Another benefit of this type of training is it creates more of an afterburn. Also referred to as EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), the afterburn is the additional calories your body burns after exercise to restore your body to its pre-workout state. When you do two sets in a row without rest, more lactic acid builds up in the muscles you worked. The lactic acid lowers the pH and forces your body to expend more energy to recover. So, it’s a strategy for boosting the number of calories you burn when you train.
Plus, as mentioned, supersets help stimulate the growth of the muscle you’re exhausting. For example, if you’d like to jump-start the growth of your triceps, you might do a post-exhaust set by doing triceps dips (a compound exercise) followed by triceps kickbacks. (an isolation exercise) You can use this strategy to target any muscle group and exhaust it.
Supersets are an advanced training technique you can easily add to your strength-training arsenal. Use this training technique once you’ve mastered a traditional rep scheme and need another way to stimulate your muscles. You can also use supersets as a way to make a training session more time expedient. By not resting between sets, you’ll expedite your workout on those days when you have less time to train. However, superset training fatigues the muscles you’re working more and may require more recovery time between workouts. Keep this in mind and don’t do them more than once per week.
Enjoy the added strength, hypertrophy, and fitness benefits that adding supersets to your routine offers!
Poloquin article. “Workout Systems: Post-Exhaustion Method”
Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017; 117(9): 1877-1889.