What is a superset?
It’s difficult to determine a single meaning behind the term ‘superset workout’, but essentially you have two types to choose from; antagonistic and agonistic.
In each case, you need to choose two exercises, performing the second exercise immediately after you complete the first.
This is where you select two exercises that train opposing muscle groups.
A few of the most common supersets of this type are:
- Chest and back
- Triceps and Biceps
- Quads and hamstrings
- Abs and lower back
This is the type of superset where you can be expected to lift much more weight in the second exercise, compared to the agonistic version.
Despite the fact that you are performing two exercises in quick succession, you should actually have longer rest periods for each muscle than during conventional sets, while still keeping the work rate high.
For antagonistic supersetting, there isn’t the same restriction on exercise selection as there tends to be with agonistic supersets.
Because you are training opposing muscle groups, you can afford to select two compound movements without worrying too much about overtraining. e.g. Barbell rows supersetted with bench press.
There doesn’t tend to be a difference in terms of rest periods or the rep and set count, but agonistic supersetting will require you to make a different type of exercise selection to antagonistic supersets.
Rather than the more conventional ‘opposing muscle group’ approach, this actually resembles more of a drop set approach, where you continue to work the same muscle group beyond the reps and sets of one exercise.
Due to the increased work load on a specific muscle, a popular option is to start off with a heavier compound exercise, then switch to an isolation exercise.
A few examples of this would be using your adjustable bench and switching from bench press to dumbbell flys, close grip bench press to single arm extensions, and stiff-legged deadlifts to lying leg curls.
Supersetting type 3
There is actually another type of superset, although this tends to be fairly unconventional due to the difficulty in managing exercises across a 4 or 5 day training split.
You still need to choose two exercises, but these can work any muscle groups in your body, such as back with triceps or calves with shoulders.
For example, if you were to perform a superset workout with biceps and shoulders on the Monday, it would make it difficult to get your biceps fully recovered in time for a Wednesday training session of back and chest.
This would then limit the development of your back due to the biceps not fully recovering after Monday, leading to further knock-on effects with your strength in other exercises.
There’s also the difficulty in effectively warming up muscle groups at opposite ends of the body, which would take longer to do correctly, and if left out, could have a greater risk of injury.
For these and many other reasons, traditional antagonistic and agonistic supersetting is considered much more effective and is highly recommended.
5 Types of superset
1. Compound supersets
An excellent option if you are training for strength due to the amount of stabilizer muscle activation, compound supersets require two compound exercises to be performed back to back.
Generally performed with low rep sets of between 4 and 6 repetitions, this is a popular choice for anyone starting a fresh 12 week cycle specifically targetting strength gains over an increase in size.
Due to the amount of weight being greater in each exercise than isolation supersets, it’s best not to perform this workout on a regular basis, to give your central nervous system time to recover.
2. Staggered supersets
This type of superset is generally not meant to overload a specific muscle group, like many of the other types.
Instead, staggered supersets are where you train muscle groups that aren’t close to each other anatomically. So calves and shoulders would be ok, but biceps and back would not (due to relying on biceps for a lot of the back exercises).
3. Pre-exhaustion supersets
If you’re not already familiar with pre-exhaustion training, this is essentially where you flip the traditional workout on its head, training with isolation exercises before the compound movements.
Although this isn’t necessarily a routine that we would recommend long-term, it’s certainly a shock to the system if you include it at least once in a 12 week cycle.
This helps to prevent any loss in strength while still shocking your muscles enough to promote further growth.
Don’t expect to lift the same as when you perform the compound movement first, as the whole point is that you exhaust your muscles first with the isolation movement.
4. Isolation supersets
Isolation supersets will see you targetting a specific muscle (such as the biceps) with exercises designed to train that primarily that one muscle group (hammer curls, concentration curls, and dumbbell curls for biceps, for example).
A useful option to have if you are running short on time towards the end of a workout, as you usually don’t need to pull together lots of weight plates and setup a barbell.
You can simply pick up a set of dumbbells, then perform twice the amount of work you normally would in a much shorter space of time.
5. Post-exhaustion supersets
This is perhaps the most common form of superset, and has certainly been one of the most popular in monthly fitness magazines in recent years.
Post-exhaustion supersets involves choosing a compound exercise, performing your usual reps, then immediately switching to an isolation exercise for that main muscle group.
An example would be deadlifts then switching to straight arm pulldowns or pullovers.
Benefits of supersets
There are numerous benefits to including supersets in your workouts, and making them a regular part of your training routine.
That being said, the 3 main benefits of supersets are generally considered to be:
- Time saving – Reducing the amount of time you spend resting between exercises means you can choose to complete your workouts in a shorter amount of time, or add some extra cardio or stretching that you otherwise might not have found time for.
- Increasing the intensity – Although in many cases you won’t be able to put up the same amount of weight due to the lack of rest between exercises, you are still increasing the intensity of your workouts.This tends to be in the case of isolation agonistic supersets, where you train a specific muscle group with multiple exercises in a very short space of time.Compound antagonistic supersets can actually lead to more weight being lifted, due to the opposing muscle group approach and the reduced likelihood of muscle fatigue on the second exercise.
- Adding variety – Whether you’re looking to add size, increase strength, or lose weight, the importance of variety in your workout plan cannot be overestimated.
Following the same routine week after week, particularly if it’s caused you to reach a plateau with your results, is the quickest way to lose faith and perhaps even think twice about your plan altogether.
Like any training method, supersetting shouldn’t be adopted as a permanent workout strategy. Instead, you should look to set aside a minimum of one week out of every 6 where you switch your regular routine for some form of supersetting.
With lack of interest being amongst the top reasons why people give up on fitness programs, this can not only help you to continue making progress towards your goals, but also keep your workouts feeling fresh and interesting.
Supersetting chest and back
As with any training technique, there will always be a few muscle groups or combinations of muscles that respond better than others.
Triceps and biceps is one of the all time favourite superset combinations in terms of isolation exercises, but chest and back is possibly the most effective in terms of compound movements.
A superset workout that trains chest and back also has the added benefit of working two large muscle groups with compound exercises and heavier weight.
Working two of the largest muscle groups in the body does come with its drawbacks though.
You will probably still want to train your back and chest with 4 to 5 exercises each, so depending on your recovery time, it may be beneficial to split the volume and perform your chest and back workout twice per week.
The exercises you choose for a chest and back superset have to be thought out fairly carefully, so as not to have a negative impact on your arm and shoulder workouts later in the week.
Regardless of your exercise choice, there will inevitably be a fair amount of bicep and tricep involvement, which is why we recommend keeping your arms workouts 3 days apart from your chest and back workouts to maximise recovery.
Because you’ve chosen to train chest and back in the same workout, you shouldn’t have to worry about synergist muscles of the second target muscle group being pre-exhausted by the first.
For example, supersetting quads and hamstrings by performing squats as your first exercise will require a certain level of involvement by your hamstrings.
The following exercises are the best options to choose from when making your selections:
- Incline bench press
- Flat bench press
- Dumbbell flys
- Cable crossovers
- Decline bench press
- Weighted dips
- Hammer press machine
- Seated cable rows
- Wide grip pull ups
- Bent over barbell rows
- Rear delt flys
- Dumbbell pullovers
- Pendlay barbell rows
- T-bar rows
Sets and reps
Just because you’re performing exercises closer together, shouldn’t necessarily change your target rep and set range.
If you’re still training for the same goals (muscle size, strength, tone and definition, etc.) then stick to the same rep ranges as you do in your normal workouts.
For strength, this will usually mean keeping your sets in the 4 to 6 rep range, while for size, 8 to 10 reps per set will usually provide the best results.
It’s worth mentioning that this is specific to back and chest workouts due to the larger size of the muscle groups. The best choice of sets and reps for other muscle groups (hamstrings and quads, biceps and triceps) will be covered in upcoming superset articles.
Putting it all together: Sample workout
In terms of putting together your first superset workout, it’s best to start off with something like a post-exhaustion superset for chest and back, with a 2 day split.
This essentially means that for the first day, you will be performing chest exercises for your compound lifts and back exercises for your isolation lifts.
On the second day of the split, you would then train back with the compound lifts, and chest with the isolation exercises.
Rep ranges for isolation lifts will be slightly higher than for the compound exercises to force more blood and nutrients into the target muscle, creating a greater pump.
Reps and sets can be varied to suit your specific training goal, but the following workout plan should act as a useful template to start from:
Training session 1:
1) Incline barbell bench press
Sets: 4, Reps: 10, 8, 6, 4
1) Wide grip lat pulldowns
Sets: 4, Reps: 12, 10, 8, 8
2) Flat barbell bench press
Sets: 4, Reps: 8, 6, 4, 4
2) Seated cable rows
Sets: 4, Reps: 12, 10, 8, 8
3) Dips (weighted if necessary)
Sets: 4, Reps: 6, 6, 6, 6
Sets: 4, Reps: 12, 10, 10, 10
Training session 2:
Sets: 4, Reps: 5, 5, 5, 5
1) Chest press machine
Sets: 4, Reps: 10, 10, 10, 10
2) Barbell rows
Sets: 4, Reps: 8, 8, 8, 8
2) Dumbbell flys
Sets: 4, Reps: 12, 10, 10, 8
3) Wide grip pull ups (weighted if necessary)
Sets: 4, Reps: 10, 8, 6, 4
3) Incline cable crossover
Sets: 4, Reps: 12, 12, 12, 12
It’s worth mentioning that these routines shouldn’t be performed on consecutive days, to allow for recovery between training sessions.
If your time commitments don’t allow for a 4 or 5 day split (taking into account training legs, arms, and shoulders workouts), then try combining the compound exercises from day 1 with the compound exercises from day 2.
You can also try doing the same for isolation exercises, and whichever one yields the best results, you can choose to include as one day of your training routine.
But don’t forget to only use supersets, drop sets, and other advanced training techniques as a shock to your regular workout routine.
They shouldn’t become a replacement that you perform week-in week-out as the gains you will start to experience diminishing returns on your gains.