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What are supersets?

Between work, family, and your social life, the need for short and effective workouts is becoming more popular, with 30-minute workouts, in particular, becoming the norm. Supersets are a great time-saving training method that proves to be just as effective as traditional training methods.


In this blog post, we will explore superset training, why this training method is effective, and how you can incorporate it into your fitness plan.


A man in athleisure uses a cable machine to perform bicep exercises.

Understanding supersets

Supersets are where you perform two or more exercises in succession of one another with no rest in between. This training method is also known as paired-sets training and compound sets but is more commonly known as supersets.


Basic superset structures

You can use supersets by pairing different exercises that target the same muscle group, such as barbell bench press with machine chest flys to solely work your chest muscles. Alternatively, you can also work on different muscle groups together, like pairing bicep curls with tricep push-downs to work on your arms overall.


Supersets can also work on different parts of your body. For example, if you’re focused on a full-body training program, you could superset goblet squats with flat dumbbell chest flys. These three structures all work well and can easily be incorporated into all training programs.


A man in athleisure is in a push up like position while pulling a single kettlebell towards his chest.

How effective are supersets?

The best part about supersets is time efficiency. Since you are performing two exercises back-to-back without any rest, supersets allow you to complete your workout in less time. This means you can complete your workout faster and have more time in your day.


A 2021 study from Iverson and colleagues and a 2019 study from Krzysztofik and colleagues examined time-effective workout strategies, including supersets, and found this training method to be extremely effective in comparison to traditional training methods (1,4).


In particular, the 2021 study examined a study conducted in 2009 that saw a group of 15 males with at least one year of experience in the gym who performed high-intensity loaded bench press and bench pulls in either a superset or traditional manner for 8 weeks (1,2). Results showed participants’ one repetition maximum on both exercises were extremely similar. However, the superset condition was completed in less time (1).


To make supersets effective, the 2021 study found muscle gains were similar when groups who performed supersets to failure at an 8-12 repetition maximum range (1). Given this, it’s important to keep your workout intensity high while performing supersets.


Incorporating supersets into your workout


Intensity

When incorporating supersets into your routine, you’ll need to keep your workout intensity high. As mentioned previously, to do this properly, you’ll want to perform most sets at an 8-12 repetition max range (1).


In terms of RPE, or rate of perceived exertion, this means you’ll be between 6-8 on the scale below, where it becomes more uncomfortable and challenging to hold a conversation.


A scale from 0 to 10, depicts workout intensity with 0 being at rest, 4-5 being moderate, and 10 being maximal effort

If you prefer to measure your heart rate to understand workout intensity, you’ll be closer to 75% of your maximum heart rate. You can find out how to calculate your maximum heart rate by watching this video of mine.


Rest periods

While incorporating rest can be frustrating for those on a time crunch, having rest in between sets is crucial for your muscles to replenish their capacity and optimize muscle gains (1).


While current guidelines outline rest periods should be 3-5 minutes for strength, 1-2 minutes for muscle growth, and 30-60 seconds for endurance, some studies have found we build tolerance for short rest intervals over time (1). In addition, a systematic review from 2017 found rest intervals of 1 minute or less still provided optimal strength gains in both novice and trained gymgoers (1).


Given the evidence, if time is of the essence, I would take 1-minute rest intervals as it has been proven that tolerance for short rest intervals can be built, and you can still see similar results in both muscle and strength in comparison to longer rest times.


A man in athleisure hits a sledge hammer onto a large truck tire while in a gym.

Structure

Depending on your current training split, supersets can be incorporated into your training program in many ways, including:

  • the same muscle group (i.e. two chest exercises), or

  • opposing muscle groups (i.e. a bicep exercise with a tricep exercise or a leg exercise with shoulders)

There’s really no right or wrong way to use these two focuses, so try to incorporate them into your current routine, remember to get eight sets per muscle group per week, keep the intensity high, and you’ll continue to see muscle gains (3,1).


Give supersets a try!

By performing different exercises back-to-back and at a high intensity, supersets are an effective time-saving method that will allow you to see similar strength gains in comparison to traditional training methods. Plus, there are endless combinations of exercises you can add to your routine, keeping your workouts interesting and preventing boredom.


For more time-saving methods that you can incorporate into your routine, check out this video based on that 2021 study from Iveson and colleagues.



 

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Reference

  1. Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No time to lift? Designing time-efficient training programs for strength and hypertrophy: a narrative review. Sports Medicine, 51(10), 2079-2095.

  2. Robbins, D. W., Young, W. B., Behm, D. G., & Payne, W. R. (2009). Effects of agonist–antagonist complex resistance training on upper body strength and power development. Journal of sports sciences, 27(14), 1617-1625.

  3. Schoenfeld, Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(11), 1073–1082. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2016.1210197

  4. Krzysztofik, M., Wilk, M., Wojdała, G., & Gołaś, A. (2019). Maximizing muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review of advanced resistance training techniques and methods. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(24), 4897.

  5. Ribeiro, A. S., Nunes, J. P., Cunha, P. M., Aguiar, A. F., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2019). Potential role of pre-exhaustion training in maximizing muscle hypertrophy: a review of the literature. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 41(1), 75-80.

  6. American College of Sports Medicine. (2009). American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 41(3), 687-708.

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