Strength training is super-important for improving your current quality of life and for guaranteeing you stay strong and independent into old age. If you struggle to fit strength training into the mix of your schedule, I get it—but, trust me, it’s worth it. Plus, luckily for all you busy bees out there, there are a few techniques you can use to maximize the benefits of your strength workouts while keeping the amount of time you spend in the gym minimal. One advanced training variable that many top fitness pros use in their training all the time? Supersets. Here’s what to know about them, and how to do them right (because a lot of people don’t), so that you can get the most gains out of your workouts.
What Supersets Are All About
Often, when you do a strength training workout, you perform a set of a given exercise and then rest for a specific amount of time before doing another one. What do you do during that rest period? Twiddle your thumbs? Scroll through social media? Flex in the mirror? Let me tell you: You could be so much more productive!
That’s where supersets come in. Supersets are the practice of performing two exercises back to back and then taking a designated rest period. There are a handful of specific do’s and don’ts you’ll need to keep in mind in order to see results, but, when done correctly, supersets can massively reduce your training time while also improving your conditioning.
Tips For Doing Supersets Right
Since doing supersets correctly is really a must here, I want to cover a handful of tips and tricks that you can use to optimize supersets in your training.
1. Prioritize The “Agonist-Antagonist” Approach
My first tip is to use the most common form of superset: agonist-antagonist sets. (These may be better known as “push-pull supersets”.) Essentially, this means that you perform two exercises back-to-back for opposing muscle groups. An easy way to consider this is by using that “push-pull” moniker; one classic move is to superset pushups with pullups.
The reasoning behind the classic push-pull superset is that you’re not training “competing” muscle groups. This means that you’re not repeating a motor or biomechanical pattern in each exercise. It’s not necessarily the end of the world if you do that (more on that in a second), but it would cause you to fatigue much quicker.
In short, training opposing muscles gives the first muscle time to recover while you train the second muscle. This is fantastic for reducing your idle time in the weight room and also keeps your heart rate and blood lactate higher, thus enhancing your work capacity over time.
The easiest way to plan push-pull supersets is to simply pair up your major muscles with their primary antagonists. (Check out the list below.) Once you have these pairs set up, select an exercise for each and start designing your supersets!
- Chest or shoulders with lats or traps
- Biceps with triceps
- Quadriceps with hamstrings or glutes
When it comes to certain exercises that work both—like squats for quads and glutes, for example—I’d be more likely to choose isolation exercises to superset for each muscle group. You want to make sure that the performance of one exercise doesn’t inhibit the performance of the other.
Finally, consider your gym layout and fellow gym goers anytime you’re planning these supersets. You don’t want to be the jerk hogging multiple pieces of equipment at once, so try and find exercises that can be done on the same machine or even machines that are right next to each other in the gym. Remember, everyone at the gym is paying to be there, so you need to share!
2. Do Agonist-Agonist Supersets This Way
The opposite of a push-pull superset is an agonist-agonist superset. Some might also refer to these as pre-exhaustion or post-exhaustion supersets. With these, you’re planning two back-to-back exercises for the same muscle group. Generally, you would perform a compound movement and an isolation movement with this setup.
If you’re doing a pre-exhaustion superset, perform the isolation exercise first, then immediately go to the compound exercise. An example would be performing chest flies before a bench press. While this might get you a killer burn on your chest muscles, there’s probably not much of a muscle-building benefit to these in the long run. However, they might help a little bit if you’re working on your mind-muscle connection during compound movements. Once a muscle is already screaming with lactic acid, it’s much easier to “feel” that muscle during the compound exercise.
On the flip side, you can perform a post-exhaustion superset, in which you do the compound movement before the isolation movement. From our previous example, you would simply swap the order of exercises and perform bench presses before chest flies. This can be a good way to ensure you’re truly working a given muscle to its max. If you feel that your shoulders and triceps dominate your bench press, for example, adding chest flies after your set might help ensure that your chest also gets an adequate training stimulus.
Honestly, though, I’m not a huge fan of these types of supersets. The pre-exhaustion method inherently makes compound exercises potentially more dangerous. Anytime you add fatigue to the equation, your odds of dropping a bar or getting hurt will certainly increase. So, if you want to give these a shot, I’d recommend sticking to machine exercises and using higher reps to focus on the burn. Don’t try to go heavy with this approach!
3. Keep your Goals in Mind
As with any training approach, you need to keep your goals in mind when incorporating supersets into your routine. If you’re trying to build muscle as efficiently as possible, supersets are a fantastic way to support that goal. However, if you’re a powerlifter looking to get as strong as possible, supersets might not support that as well. Inherently, supersets create more overall fatigue, and even central nervous system fatigue, which will make it harder to lift super-heavy and get super-strong.
Conversely, if you’re using strength training as a method of improving your conditioning or endurance, adding supersets can be a great way to enhance the metabolic cost of training, thus improving your work capacity. The more you can do in the same (or shorter) amount of time directly translates to your ability to sustain muscular work over longer periods of time.
The Bottom Line
For 99 percent of people hitting the gym, supersets will likely support your goals in one way or another. I’m a big fan of using agonist-antagonist (push-pull) supersets to reduce the time I spend in the gym and improve my overall workout. If you add these in, I’d cut your normal rest period in half after each superset. If you usually rest for two or three minutes after a single set, you can drop to a minute or a minute and a half instead once you incorporate the supersets. Trust me, you’ll feel the difference—and reap the rewards over time.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.