How to Maximize Workout Efficiency With Supersets
Chances are you’ve heard the term supersets thrown around at the gym or stumbled upon it while looking up workout routines. In this article we explore what exactly a superset is, how they can increase your workout efficiency and how to easily implement them into your workout routine.
How Muscle is Built
Before we dive into what supersets are, let’s quickly cover how muscle is built. Through proper muscle tension and stress, usually accomplished with rigorous exercise, you break down your muscle fibers which are repaired stronger.
Proper muscle tension occurs when the targeted muscle group is fully engaged and stretched with each rep and movement. This requires a little mental recognition and leaving your ego at home. When you try to push as much weight as possible, not only do you compromise your form (which could increase your chance for injury), you engage other muscle groups to “assist” you to complete the exercise. This isn’t the most effective approach if you’re looking to target concentrated muscle growth. Simply, set your ego aside, lower the weight and focus on proper contraction.
Metabolic Stress (the “Pump”)
The “pump”, or burn, is a good indicator you fully engaged and exhausted your muscles during a workout. It creates a feeling of fullness and leaves your skin, tight. While exercising, blood rushes to the working muscle group in order to supply it with what it needs (more oxygen and elimination of waste byproduct, lactic acid) in order to maximize performance.
In order to build muscle, you’ll need to first damage and break down your muscle fibers. Once this is accomplished, your body rebuilds the fibers back bigger, stronger, and more dense. Keep in mind, our bodies are smart and adaptive to routine. Ever notice after a few months into a workout, you suddenly plateau? That’s because our muscles adapted. It’s important to regularly switch up your routine in order to “confuse” your body for continued growth. Vary your weights and repetition to accomplish this.
Implementing a superset workout program is an easy way to improve your odds of hitting these elements so that you’re able to build more muscle. This intermediate workout technique increases workout EFFICIENCY by replacing traditional periods of rest, usually between an exercise, or “set”, with another set immediately with little to no rest in between. The second set can target an opposing, related or random muscle group (we cover the differences below); hence the term, “superset”. The goal is to have a back to back arrangement of sets with little to no rest time. This results in greater muscle tension and stress, leading you to more muscle development. This doesn’t mean you eliminate rest altogether, you still have periods of rest in between your supersets. For example, 1 set of 10 reps followed immediately by another set of 10 reps, then rest.
Benefits of a Superset
- Burn calories more efficiently
- Increase cardiovascular endurance and muscle stamina
- Increase intensity and focus
- Build more muscle
- Reduce workout time
- Increases workout efficiency and time spent in the gym
Types of Superset
There are 3 variations of supersets which places opposing, related or random muscle groups back to back during a workout.
Opposing (“Antagonist”): The first method is to target the exact opposite muscle group for your back to back exercise. There is typically an opposing muscle group for each muscle; which means when one muscle is contracted, the opposing muscle will be relaxed. We call these push vs. pull movements. Some common PUSH muscles are: triceps, chest, shoulders, and quads. Their opposing PULL muscles (in the same order) are biceps, back, traps, and hamstrings. By working opposing muscle groups, you maximize rest periods for muscle groups between sets because no muscle group is worked consecutively. Theoretically, the additional rest periods should allow you to do more in weight and repetition; providing for greater muscle development.
Related (“Agonist”): The second method is to target related (direct or complementary) muscle groups for your back to back performance.
- Direct: A superset targeting directly related muscle groups, consists of overloading a single muscle group in order to hit it from all angles. For example, follow a wide grip tricep pushdown immediately with a narrow grip.
- Complementary: Complementary muscle group supersets pair associated groups together, such as back + biceps or chest + triceps (essentially a pull with a pull and push with a push). A common way to accomplish this is to combine a compound movement with an isolation exercise to form the superset. Note a compound exercise is a movement that engages multiple muscle groups in order to complete it (e.g., bench press, which requires both the chest and tricep). An isolation exercise focuses on only one major muscle group (e.g., tricep pressdown). The order in which you do this is up to you and your goals.
- Pre-exhaustion superset is performing an isolation exercise first, followed by the compound movement. Pre-exhausting your muscles through an isolation workout, you stimulate more muscle fibers and take muscle exhaustion to the next level. Keep in mind, you’ll likely need to lower the weight for the compound movement.
- Post-exhaustion superset is performing the compound exercise first, followed by an isolation set. Similar to pre-exhaustion, this allows you to take muscle exhaustion beyond normal levels. I personally prefer this over pre-exhaustion since compound exercises usually require greater concentration and energy.
Random: The final method is to target a seemingly random set of muscle groups. This has the ability to burn a ton of calories and providing a very good full body workout, as long as you’re able to maintain intensity. The key to this superset is to come in with a plan and remain focused.
A general tip is to limit the number of back to back compound exercises during your workout. While compound exercises are known to be highly effective for burning calories, building strength and muscle, stacking multiple compound movements back to back can be brutal on the body’s nervous system and may require extra recovery time. Form often gets compromised in the process, increasing your chances for injury.
Which Superset is Right For You?
Each of the superset variations discussed has the ability increase workout efficiency, build more muscle and strength, shed some excess fat, and break out of a plateau. The one for you ultimately depends on what works for you, your body, schedule and goals.
- Opposing supersets are great for someone who is looking to increase muscle mass, strength and size, especially when in a bulking period (caloric surplus). The longer rest periods allow you to progressively increase weight and repetition. Fine tuning an individual muscle group may become more difficult with this superset once workout duration is factored in. Imagine trying to exhaust every angle of your chest (upper, middle, lower, inner and outer) while fully working your back in under an hour!
- Related supersets, whether pre or post-exhaustion, are for those looking to add more definition and lean muscle to targeted areas. Attacking a single muscle, or complementary muscles, from all angles allows you to fine tune muscle growth! A potential drawback here is greater difficulty performing the second exercise of the superset with the same amount of weight (when compared to doing so as a stand-alone workout) because the muscle has already been fully exhausted (pre-exhaustion) or partially engaged (post-exhaustion).
- Random supersets have the ability to be highly effective and efficient for those short on time or with an inconsistent workout schedule.
Tips for Supersetting
- Find a plan that works for you. Not everyone will have the same goals, nor are all gyms set up with the same layout. I recommend creating your own plan or tweaking an existing one to make it work for you. This is especially important because supersets require close proximity of equipment when performing back to back sets.
- Set all distractions aside. You’re constantly moving with supersets, jumping from one workout to another. Additional downtime from distractions start to defeat the purpose of supersets.
- Use a watch or timer app. The goal of supersets is to maximize time spent at the gym. Stay on top of your intervals, including your rest periods with a digital watch or timer app. I typically strive for 1 minute and 30 seconds to perform my superset, followed by a 30 second break.
- Don’t superset everything and give your muscles a break every now and then. Remember quality over quantity.
Check out some of the superset programs below to help you get started! Don’t forget to adjust them to fit YOUR circumstances!