A Comprehensive Guide To Supersets

If you want to know how to mix supersets into your workout routine in order to maximize your results then this article is for you.

A traditional superset is just doing two exercises in progression without rest in between.

Let’s say you want to add a superset to your chest day.

You could do a set of heavy incline bench (which you should be doing) for six reps followed by a set of heavy one arm db rows for six reps each.

There is a reason I say “heavy” which we will get to in a minute.

That superset fits perfectly with my Monday workout…

On my Tuesday lift, I could superset front squats (which you should be doing) and dumbbell military press.

I don’t really give two shits how your weekly routine is broken down.  You may very well be on a five-day split focusing on one muscle group per day or your four-day split may be set up differently than mine is above.

It really doesn’t matter.

You can still turn a portion of any workout into a superset workout and reap some serious benefits from doing it.

It adds a major intensity factor because you are doing one exercise after another without rest.

I will say right upfront that I will superset biceps and triceps religiously.

superset workout bicep curls

The reason is simple, bicep curls and other bicep exercises are not compound movements.  Neither are most triceps exercises.  I can easily superset these exercises without zapping a shit load of my energy.

For example, take Monday and Wednesday of my four-day split above.

I work biceps at the end of those workouts.

My personal preference is to do a set of barbell curls followed by a set of incline dumbbell curls.  Sometimes I will throw in a set of kettlebell curls too so that I really work the forearms.

That is a three exercise superset for my biceps.

Biceps just seem to respond awesome to supersets.  So do triceps.  So do abs.

On my ab workout days, I will superset physio ball crunches and weighted crunches.  I will also superset pretty much all of my ab exercises.

You do not need to do this.

I do it because I enjoy it.

Abs are tailor made for supersets.

Supersetting helps me to bump up the intensity when I am doing isolation exercises for biceps, triceps and abs.

Anytime I can bump intensity I will reap the rewards.

They also make my workouts more fun.

If you’ve ever watched a typical CrossFit competition it is literally a competition of nothing but supersets.

Only they don’t do a typical superset which consists of two exercises back to back with no rest in between.

They are doing several different exercises back to back… or, in many cases, the same exercise (like hang clean) more than six times with progressive overload without any rest.

crossfit superset workout

I am not a major fan of CrossFit workouts.

For the average lifter, they are not going to provide you any advantages in building muscle over the long haul for the simple fact that they turn into endurance workouts.

Studies show that when you train for both endurance and strength both are likely to suffer.

Once in a while doing a CrossFit workout can be great.

However, I think of them a lot like running a distance race – it’s not something you want to do every single day.

It’s just too demanding and your muscles are going to get overtrained and you’re highly likely to notice your strength take a big hit.

But adding supersets into small segments of your workouts, as opposed to your typical CrossFit workout can offer some great benefits.

Benefits of Supersets

As we hit on above, supersets can help you build muscle and increase fat loss.

There are some gurus out there saying they don’t work.

I assure you that they do and there is research to back it up.  This doesn’t mean you have to superset to get awesome muscle development.

But if you mix them into your workouts you can certainly get some added benefits.

Burn Significantly More Body Fat

Supersets burn more fat

Research (research ) has shown that superset workouts can burn significantly more fat by increasing both excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) and also energy burned during the workout vs. tradition workouts.

Whether or not this is important to you depends on your goals.

If your main goal is to lose weight and burn away stomach fat then this can certainly be a major plus of focusing on supersets.

Increases In Strength + Muscle

One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that supersetting antagonist muscles resulted in greater strength gains than traditional sets.

The reason this is important is that research shows that as strength increases so does muscle.

An example of antagonist muscles would be biceps and triceps.  Or pecs and lats.  When one muscle contracts the other relaxes.

In that particular study, they supersetted barbell rows with bench press with a two-minute rest in between.

Another thing that the researchers found was that doing supersets resulted in accelerated recovery during the workout allowing the person to do subsequent sets with more weight and/or reps.

Other studies (study) have demonstrated similar effects of superset workouts as opposed to traditional workouts.

However, it’s important to note, that not all research finds it to be more effective at increasing strength.

Any strength gains can quickly become void if you overdo it.

This is why I do not do supersets for every exercise in a workout.

If you overly exhaust your energy it’s a fools game to expect that your strength is going to increase.

Increased Growth Hormone + Testosterone

Pretty much anytime you increase the intensity of an exercise it is going to result in the corresponding adjustment of hormones.

For example, studies show that both testosterone and growth hormone are increased when the intensity of the exercise increases.

This is why high-intensity interval training significantly increases these hormones as opposed to steady state cardio like jogging.

The same thing applies to a superset.

When I reduce the rest time between exercises I subsequently increase intensity.

Again, if you are only supersetting light weight isolation lifts this intensity increase is not going to be dramatic and it certainly is not going to cause great benefits.

However, if you start supersetting heavy compound lifts the intensity can skyrocket resulting in the substantial releases of growth hormone and testosterone.

This is not a license to just do nothing but supersets, though.

I mean, only an idiot would do HIIT for every single workout because eventually overtraining is going to occur and totally erode all of your results.

It’s also important to note that the same research cited above shows that these increases in growth hormone and testosterone do not always result in more muscle growth.

Supersetting Saves Time

Yes.  Anytime you can stack several exercises on top of the other without much rest it will shave time off of your total workout.

This can be a great thing if you are strapped for time and want to get your lift in.

This is why I superset biceps and triceps at the end of my workouts.

Not only do those muscle groups respond great to supersets, but I am also able to save a good 15 to 20 minutes off the end of my workout.

Pre And Post Muscle Exhaustion

One of the things about quads is they tend to be much stronger on most people than hamstrings.

This is why some old-school bodybuilders would make a point of doing exercises that exhaust the quads before they jump into their heavy movements like squat.

The reason for this is because if you do squats first then your hamstrings are much more likely to get worn out way before your quads.

If I work my quads first I can ensure that by the time I hit squats both muscles will be on a level playing field.

Arnold Schwarzenegger actually wrote a post on this for Flex online title “Exhaust Your Options”.

Quoting from that article:

See, the problem many people have is that their biggest muscles (in this case, the quads) are much stronger in comparison to the smaller assisting muscles (the glutes and hamstrings)…

… one effective strategy is to pre-exhaust the area by doing isolation exercises before your compound moves so your quads fail at more or less the same time as your glutes and hamstrings do

In that article, Arnold recommends doing leg extension before squats in order to pre-exhaust the quads.

In a superset scenario where you wanted to pre-exhaust the quads, this would work by doing leg extensions and then jumping into a set of squats.

You could also do a set of squats and then a set of leg extensions – that would be post-exhaustion.

The goal is to ensure that the muscles (in this case quads) are fully worked by the time your workout is done.

I personally hate leg extensions so I don’t necessarily recommend you do them.

They are not good for the knees.

But it’s a good example of this concept anyway.

Negatives of Supersets

Regardless of what you read in bodybuilding magazines supersets are not going to turn you into the freakin Hulk.

This is especially true if you do them for your heavy compound lifts for every single workout.

Again, I think about it similarly to doing HIIT sessions or intense cardio for every workout.

It’s just not wise because the muscles need time to rest and recover.

To me, it runs along the same lines as doing drops sets and/or burnout sets for every workout.

I swear, you see guys doing these all the time and they are usually struggling to put on any muscle.

It’s just a result of reading bodybuilding nonsense that is not going to make one bit of good for the average guy going to the gym.

Burnout

Jumping from one exercise to another without any rest is exhausting as hell.

Ok… I’ll backtrack.

It’s not exhausting if you’re doing lightweight isolation lifts.  This is where the whole concept of supersetting was invented.

It’s easy to jump from a set of bicep curls to a site of triceps extensions when you are doing light weight.

However, if you are trying to superset heavy compound lifts it can burn you out in a hurry.

Your lift should be dominated by heavy compound lifting for the simple fact that they are going to allow you to build more muscle because you can use heavier weight.

It becomes too exhausting to superset these lifts on a day-in and day-out basis because they take a shit load of effort.  It’s a recipe for burnout.

You are going to do far better getting plenty of rest between your compound lifts (most days) so that you can devote all of your energy to them.

Too Much Cardio

One of the easiest ways to turn an awesome hypertrophy workout into an endurance fest is to start doing supersets for everything.

It begins to look a lot like Crossfit.

Crossfit is all the rage but it is not the extreme muscle building powerhouse that so many amateurs think it is.

You get these guys at the gym who just got done watching an ESPN Crossfit competition and they come in and start doing endless sets of cleans and pullups.

Research (research, research, research) consistently shows that training for both muscle development and endurance at one time lowers your results on both fronts.

Supersets that Work Well

You can literally superset just about any group of exercises.

This gives you endless options and pretty much unlimited combinations which can be both good and bad.

It keeps it interesting, but it can also make it confusing.

As a simple rule of thumb I pretty much always superset my biceps, triceps and ab routines.  These consist of isolation exercises and I’ve simply found that supersetting them leads to better results for me.

So, obviously, isolation exercises make for great supersets.  They are probably the single best exercises to superset.

Examples include:

  • Bicep curls – Tricep extensions (antagonist muscles)
  • Leg extensions – Leg curls (antagonist muscles)
  • Barbel bicep curls – preacher curls (same muscle)
  • Triceps extensions – skull crushers (same muscle)

Another great way to superset is a compound movement with an isolation movement.

Examples include:

  • Pullups – Bicep curls
  • Squats – Leg extensions
  • Shoulder press – Triceps extension

You can also superset compound exercises but I don’t do this all that often because I lift heavy and prefer to get plenty of rest between sets.

Examples include:

  • Front squats – Stiff leg deadlift (quad to hamstring)
  • Bench press – Lat pulldown (antagonist muscle)
  • Bench press – Bent over rows (antagonist muscle)
  • Hang cleans – Chin-ups

Keep in mind, these lists are just examples.  The options are endless and there are simply way too many to list here.

The main superset combos involve:

  • Isolation exercises – isolation exercise
  • Compound exercise – isolation exercise
  • Compound exercise – compound exercise

Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is the key to actually building muscle.

It is simply the continual increase of weight from set to set and also week to week.

This is how you get stronger.

If you go from set to set without increasing weight eventually you are going to stop getting stronger.

Research clearly shows that increases in strength correspond to the building of muscle.

It doesn’t matter if you are using free weights at the gym or bodyweight exercises at home.  If you are not applying the principle of progressive overload you are not getting stronger and muscle hypertrophy will suffer.

What most people inevitably do when they do superset workouts is slip into light weight and high reps.

Or, even worse, they rob energy from compound lifts by doing a bunch of isolation exercises.

Let’s say you are doing a superset of squats with leg extensions in an effort to exhaust your quads.

It becomes problematic if your quads become so tired that it’s effecting your natural progression of weight increase on the squat.

This is how you turn a great hypertrophy exercise like squat into an endurance exercise, which results in absolutely no muscle growth.

Remember, research shows that when you try to focus on both endurance and strength gains within the same workout you sacrifice both.

If you are trying to build muscle then you do not want to superset with the sole purpose of building endurance.

Sets and Reps

Research consistently shows that heavier weight lower rep workouts build more muscle.

Most people end up turning their supersets into cardio sessions.

They tip the strength/endurance continuum in the endurance direction and their supersets do nothing in terms of muscle development.

In order to make your supersets more effective, you want to focus on heavier weight movements.

Doing this will increase strength which in return increases muscle.

If you are supersetting a compound movement with a compound movement I always keep the rep range for both exercises under eight reps.  Preferably under six.

Again, the reason I do this is three-fold:

  • Focusing on heavy, lower reps will build more muscle
  • Compound exercises are way more exhausting.

If I am supersetting isolation lifts I give myself more leeway because they take much less energy and I will usually be using much lighter weights.

I keep my isolation supersets in that 8 to 12 rep range.

This means that I am still choosing a weight for my isolation lifts that is heavy enough that I actually have to work to get those 8 to 12 reps.

You don’t want to use a 20 rep weight to do an 8 rep set.

Final Thoughts

Doing a superset workout can be extremely beneficial.

Research shows that when done right they can:

  • Increase strength
  • Boost recovery
  • Increase growth hormone
  • Increase testosterone

The major negatives of supersets that you want to avoid are burning yourself out and also robbing your ability to place an emphasis on progressive overload at the expense of endurance.

Isolation to isolation exercises and compound to isolation exercise are, in my opinion, the two best ways to superset a workout.

I tend to stay away from a lot of compound to compound supersets (for most workouts) for the simple fact that it zaps too much strength.

I would love to hear your thoughts.

Leave your comments in the box below I truly hope you’ve found this useful.

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