Maybe I'm a bit biased as supersets are one of my favorite weighting methods. And for muscle growth it is actually not a real weighting method, rather an 'efficiency method'. In this article, we'll discuss what a superset is and why it is a smart tool to add to your training plan.
What are supersets?
There are several definitions of a superset, but the most common is this: with supersets you do 2 exercises of different muscle groups in a row. You combine two exercises per 'set'. Preferably you choose muscle groups that do not 'get in each other's way'. For example, you alternate the bench press with a bent over row and do not opt for triceps stretching after the bench press. Because in the latter combination you train a muscle that is already active during the bench press. That may not matter at first, but it causes an accumulation of fatigue in your triceps, making the final sets of the bench press less effective for your pecs.
I am not saying that you cannot do this, because every 2 exercises that you want to do in a row are a superset, but I do say that from a muscle growth perspective it is wise to think carefully about the exercise combinations. Do you want hundreds of examples of strong combinations? Then check out my favorite training schedules for muscle growth.
Supersets versus compound sets
Technically speaking, not all combinations of 2 exercises fall under the heading of supersets. This is purely a theoretical definition that you do not have to worry about. For example, if you do 2 exercises for your pecs in a 'superset' in a row, they call this a compound set. For clarification:
- They call the bench press (primary chest) followed by a bent over row (primary back) a superset.
- and bench press (primary chest) followed by a dumbbell fly (primary chest) are called a compound set.
In another article, let's talk about compound sets and what drives muscle growth here.
How much time do you lose with a 'normal workout'?
This article is about the strong effect of a superset. To clarify this, we first look at a normal workout, which complies with the most important muscle growth principles (don't read a strong muscle growth story for all about building muscle mass). The main principles for this article are the rest interval, training frequency and the training volume per muscle group. The latter of course differs per person and per training experience, but for the average serious strength athlete we choose 10 effective sets for a large muscle group and 6 effective sets for a smaller muscle group per training. In addition, one rest interval of 2 minutes probably a lot more effective than 60 or 90 seconds, so we'll stick to that in this article.
23 sets in 50 minutes
Imagine you have your chest and back planned on a training day. You do a total of 10 sets for both muscle groups, divided over 3 exercises, excluding the warming up (sets). For example, your training looks like this:
- bench press, 4 sets of 8 reps
- incline dumbbell press, 3 sets of 10 reps
- incline cable flyes, 3 sets of 12 reps
- are across row, 4 sets of 8 reps
- pull ups, 3 sets of maximum reps
- one arm cable row, 3 sets of 12 reps.
In total you do 20 sets that take an average of 30 seconds. You also rest 2 minutes between each set. Without counting your warm up sets, your training lasts:
- 23 x 30 seconds (one arm cable rows provides 3 extra sets) + 19 x 2 minutes (after the last set you are ready) = 49,5 minutes
Without a doubt, this is a very effective workout! But you probably do at least 8 exercises during a workout and do more sets, because otherwise you will not find them effective enough. For the example, we'll stick to this effective training.
How much time do you spend with supersets?
Suppose we do exactly the same exercises and sets, only now we make supersets of this:
- superset 1: 4 sets of bench press and 4 sets are over row
- superset 2: 3 sets of incline dumbbell presses and 3 sets of pull ups
- superset 3: 3 sets of incline cable flyes and 3 sets of one arm cable rows
If a set lasts 30 seconds, 90 seconds of rest in a superset is sufficient. I prefer to choose 30 seconds between the exercises and 60 seconds after a superset, for example:
- set 1 bench press (duration 30 seconds)
- 30 seconds of rest
- set 1 are over row (duration 30 seconds)
- 60 seconds of rest
This way you rest a total of 2 minutes between the same exercise.
23 sets in 25 minutes
In the superset example, you do 20 supersets instead of 10 separate sets. This results in the following calculation:
- 23 sets x 30 seconds and 9 sets x 90 seconds rest (after set 10 you are done) = 25 minutes. Or with the manner of 30 seconds between the two exercises: 25,5 minutes.
This is a difference of 23 minutes for the same exercises.
Supersets possibility number 1 - rest longer
The first option that supersets offer you is a total longer rest period between sets of the same exercise. In the superset example, you now rested for 30 seconds between the exercises and 60 seconds between sets. I prefer 30 seconds between the exercises and 90 seconds between sets. In total you rest for 2.5 minutes between the same exercise. And your workout is still 18 minutes shorter than in the loose set method.
Supersets possibility number 2 - do more per workout
Most likely training a muscle group twice is much more effective for muscle growth than training a muscle group once a week. This provides 104 growth stimuli instead of 52 growth stimuli. I know that you can write a training schedule in hundreds of ways, but if we follow the example of the article, you can only train all muscle groups twice if you train 2 days a week with the loose method:
- day 1 and day 4: chest and back
- day 2 and day 5: shoulders, triceps
- day 3 and day 6: legs and biceps
- day 7: rest
What if you can only train 3 times a week? Then you train a muscle group at most once a week. Especially for the largest group of athletes, who go 1, 2 or 3 times a week, supersets is the training method of choice.
All muscle groups 2 times a week in 3 days
With supersets you save almost 50% of your training time. That means that in theory you can do twice as much per training. If you combine large muscle groups (more sets) and small muscle groups (fewer sets), you can train each muscle group twice a week in 2 days, without having to spend longer in the gym. Example:
- day 1: chest, legs, shoulders and biceps
- day 2: rest
- day 3: chest, back, biceps and triceps
- day 4: rest
- day 5: legs, back, shoulders and triceps
- day 6 and 7 rest
I admit that these are very tough days in terms of intensity. But regarding duration you can now train all muscle groups twice a week. I myself am in favor of a 2 split with a 3-day split. In week 1.5 you do half of the muscle groups twice and the other half once and the following week you switch this over.
4-day split optimal
A 4-day split is optimal for supersets. Then you do 3 muscle groups in a day and you are ready (well) within an hour with a full training, without sacrificing effectiveness. In short, supersets are a great way to increase your training efficiency. More effective sets in the same time frame or the same number of effective sets in a much shorter period.
Just because I think supersets are fantastic doesn't mean you have to write them in a training schedule. There are many roads to Rome and one of them is simply spending longer in the gym to complete your sets. But if you rarely train with supersets, I challenge you to do half of your training with supersets. And to reward yourself, simply add extra exercises to your training. Because you just have time to spare! Nice right?
- Wallace, W., Ugrinowitsch, C., Stefan, M., Rauch, J., Barakat, C., Shields, K.,…, De Souza, EO (2019). Repeated bouts of advanced strength training techniques: effects on volume load, metabolic responses, and muscle activation in trained individuals. Sports (Basel), 7(1), 14.
- Schoenfeld, BJ (2011). The use of specialized training techniques to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Strength Cond J, 33
- Paz, GARobbins, DW, de Oliveira, CG, Bottaro, M., & Miranda, H. (2017). Volume load and neuromuscular fatigue during an acute bout of agonist-antagonist paired-set vs. traditional-set training. J Strength Cond Res, 31