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 using "straight sets." A straight set consists of a series of nonstop repetitions, usually somewhere between 6 and 12, followed by a rest interval of one to three minutes. 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 hypertrophy, especially if you are short on time. However, not all types of supersets are ideal for building maximal 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 on the second exercise in each superset pair. Your strength will also decrease from fatigue with each subsequent superset. Because supersets don't allow you to use maximal weights, they are not always well-suited to building strength. However, supersets are always a great body building or hypertrophy technique. You don't see powerlifters doing supersets as often as the bodybuilders use them. In fact, strength athletes usually do the opposite; they take longer rest intervals (sometimes as long as 3-5 minutes) between sets so they can recuperate as much as possible before the next set. After a between-set recovery period of at least 3 minutes, you can attack the next 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.
3 Major Benefits of Supersets
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, it's probably safe to assume that you wouldn't 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 as little as half the time (or you can do more volume in the same time).
2. Supersets increase intensity. Usually when you think of high intensity muscle building techniques, you think of forced reps, descending sets, and negative-emphasis reps. Supersets are simply another method of increasing intensity. Shortening the rest between sets is hard work and represents an overload to your body -- 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 can allow you to work around an injury or decrease joint stress. 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 fairly decent squatter at a young age, doing 405 lbs for 6 reps before I was 20 years old. After the injury, I wanted to maintain my leg muscle without putting so much stress on my lower back. Because I could no longer squat more than 275-315 lbs. without high risk of re-injuring my back, I started doing supersets and higher reps out of necessity. 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. When you do supersets, you can't lift as much weight (especially on the second exercise), because you are not recovering completely between exercises. However, with a superset, you can still overload a muscle with a lighter weight in a way that produces muscle growth, because the work density is higher. By not training with max poundages all the time, this decreases joint stress and often allows you to work around injuries.
There are three primary categories of supersets: 1) same muscle group 2) agonist-antagonist 3) staggered sets (aka "non-competing" muscle group supersets). 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 bench presses with dumbbell flyes. Within the "same muscle group" 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 type of superset among bodybuilders. 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 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).
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 a very effective variation on the heavy-light system (specifically, it's concurrent periodization where you use multiple rep range training in the SAME workout). 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.
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 it's incredibly demanding and exhausting. It takes all the energy you can muster to get through a series of compound supersets. If you use relatively heavy weights, it is also very taxing on the nervous system and requires that special attention be paid to recovery after the session. YouDO NOT need many sets when you use compound supersets. An example would be supersetting squats with leg presses. Another is the bent over row with a romanian deadlift (absolutely KILLER!... but avoid if you have low back problems) Combinations like these can easily leave you lying flat on your back gasping for air, but the results are well worth it!
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 focusing on 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, or when you want to keeping training and stimulating blood flow, but you want to give your central nervous system a rest.
2. Antagonistic muscle group supersets.
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 developing better muscle balance. For example, many people overwork the pushing exercises like bench press, while neglecting the pulling exercises like rows. By using antagonistic (push-pull) supersets. You assure a good balance between these opposing muscle groups. In bodybuilding, supersets are especially popular as a technique for blasting the arms. Supersetting biceps and triceps together (as in pairing barbell curls paired with dumbbell tricep extensions), is a great combination can create excellent muscle pumps that make your arms feel like they're grown an inch!
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 "squeeze in" a set of abs or calves in between straight sets for any major muscle group. For example, you could throw in a set of abs 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 abs! 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. Supersets are a proven technique for increasing intensity and bringing up lagging body parts. They allow you to continue gaining 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!
Shaw, I.; Shaw, B.S. (2014). Resistance Training and the Prevention of Sports Injuries. In: Hopkins, G. (Ed.). Sports Injuries: Prevention, Management and Risk Factors. Nova Science Publishers, Hauppauge, NY. ISBN 978-1-63463-305-5
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