Supersets have flooded the fitness scene in the past decade as a more feasible way to increase the amount of work done in a session without tacking on additional time.
This day and age, if you haven’t yet gravitated towards putting yourself through a superset in your training out of sheer physical curiosity, it’s safe to say you need to start reading more articles right here on Muscle & Strength.
Appreciating the economics of training is generally considered a good thing.
However, if you’re combining random movements together to create quick hitting workouts, you may want to rethink the way you’re putting your training days together. Especially if you’re constantly incorporating supersets into your workouts.
Before you try to rationalize the use of poorly programmed supersets and continue to remain mentally lazy, it’s important to remember that improperly programmed paired movements won’t necessarily build muscle or target fat loss.
And in the worse case scenario, poor programming of these back-to-back movements may even leave you broken down and injured in the process.
Setting up appropriate workouts isn’t brain surgery, nor does it need to be. But, it’s important to appreciate a few key principles that can’t be overlooked when it comes to maximizing the results of your supersets.
Before we get into how to setup proper supersets, here are a few key tips to live by when it comes to pairing movements together:
Know the Difference Between Supersets and Compound Sets
When putting together true supersets, it’s important to define the term before the confusions ensues. A superset is defined as two paired movements that are placed next to each other in a workout that target two different muscle groups. Working two paired movements together in the same muscle group is a compound set and not what we are focusing this article on.
Related: Arnold's Chest & Back Superset Workout
While supersets can be designed many different ways and tapered to specific goals, one thing that all supersets should include is the synergy between the two movements. The movements chosen should be strategically placed together to work off of each other. This creates a novel training environment for muscular strength, growth, and also metabolic stresses in targeted tissues.
Set a Goal For Your Superset Training
There are a million and one ways to create supersets, but many of these seemingly ok supersets have no goal in mind. This isn’t a good thing when you are looking to build gains, expedite training time, and keep tempo and intensity at as high of a level as possible.
Is your goal to focus on one of the two paired movements for strength development? In that case, you may want to use an activation drill plus a compound strength movement to synergize the two.
Want to burn a maximal amount of calories and increase the compound density of your training session? Place two opposing compound movements together with minimal rest periods.
The point is you should be defining a goal for your training. When you don’t define your goals and match those goals with the proper execution of your program, you are leaving your results up to chance. And since we’re training two movements at a time, this chance is exponentiated.
Closely Monitor Your Rest Periods
Supersets are absolutely great for increasing the amount of total work that is completed in a given time period. But as rest periods become drawn out and randomized, one of the most important factors is minimized.
In most traditional supersets, there should be little to no rest from the first exercise to the second. While this seems pretty straight forward, many lifters end up rushing between supersets to keep the pace of the workout up. In my experience, this is one of the biggest mistakes even experienced lifters make with supersets.
At the completion of your last rep of the first movement, weights should be put down and the change in position/setup before the second exercise should not be rushed. Rushing leads to decreased quality of the second exercise’s set. It ultimately makes that movement more vulnerable as the second movement is usually an anterior chain dominant movement.
There’s no harm in moving slowly between movements. Get setup and mentally locked in on the set ahead and take the time in the setup to ensure maximal effort. The few additional seconds it takes to get setup on your second movement will make the difference in the intensity and effort you place into the movement. That fact makes it paramount for you to take your time.
Related: Intense Superset Chest & Biceps Workout with Joe Donnelly
Some lifters will misconstrue what I just said and turn that “not rushing” between movements as time to BS and lose focus of the set ahead. So how do you get the best of both worlds? Set a timer for 10-15 seconds between movements. That allows just enough time for you to get setup, but not enough time for you to milk recovery. We are trying to add density and cumulative stress to the tissues after all.
Lastly, the rest time between rounds of supersets is also important. Figure out how long it takes you to be 75-80% recovered from the set before, and stick with that time throughout the supersets. A great place to start when using two paired compound movements is around 90 seconds.
Know Your Gym and Have a Plan For Your Setups
When it comes to derailing supersets, nothing takes the wind away from a lifter more than having two exercises 300 yards away from each other in a gym. This alters the strategic rest period between exercises and places you at risk for getting your area stolen because you aren’t there to guard it.
While this tip is far less technical in nature, it may be the most important. We’ve all had a machine taken by another lifter mid-way through a superset. It literally throws off your entire workout. Don’t let that happen to you, figure out the setup of your gym and plan accordingly.
The best-case scenario is that you use the same piece of equipment for both movements. For example, using 100-pound dumbbells for the first and second movements of a superset. No changing weights, no walking around the gym, no problems. It’s just you, your weights, and a clock to monitor your rest periods.
Using the same equipment isn’t always feasible. Another great option is to use a big piece of equipment for one movement and pair it with another exercise that uses a mobile piece of equipment like light dumbbells. Place these setups right next to each other, and reap the benefits of not getting your weights stolen mid set.
Don’t Forget to Load Up
With your goals set, equipment picked out, and rest periods determined, don’t forget about the actual execution of the sets ahead. There is no faking proper execution, period.
When it comes to supersets, many people think because they are increasing the training density of their workout they don’t have to load up as heavy. They go extremely light and lose any benefit of strength or hypertrophy based training.
Yes, there is a time and place for higher rep hypertrophy or muscular endurance work, but be sure that you are choosing loads that challenge you. The hormonal influx of growth factors, metabolic stress, and overall intensity of the workout is dependent on it.
Knowing your exercises, sets, and rep scheme going in, you should be able to make an approximation on your loads. On the last work set, you should hit failure on each of the two paired movements in the superset. Yes, the first set or two may feel a bit lighter, but in supersets we are focused on density and the cumulative effects of metabolic stress.
Going too heavy will have you missing reps and decreasing effectiveness. Going too light will have you breezing through supersets with no real benefit in creating mass or strength. The best coaches and athletes take time when choosing loads and make notes of performance week to week. I suggest you do the same.
A Simple Superset Template
Without being overly complicated with specific supersets for strength and hypertrophy, I want to focus on how you can build your own training supersets that meet all the above criteria.
When focusing on upper body training, having an appreciation for the planes of motion that your body moves through is very important when creating viable supersets. The upper body can be broken down into three general planes of motion:
1. Horizontal Plane
2. Vertical Plane
3. Oblique Plane
Examples of exercises that move through the horizontal plane of motion would be flat bench press variations and rowing variations.
For the vertical plane of motion, the overhead press and pull up would be great examples.
Finally, the oblique plane would be an incline bench press or low row variation. The list could go on and on, but these examples are just to get you thinking about the endless possibilities with your training.
Now we are going to focus on pairing a pull emphasis movement with a push emphasis movement that both happen in the same plane of motion. Remember, examples above are a good place to start, but you can feel free to add variation in:
1. Body Position
2. Hand Position
3. Equipment Used
4. Set/rep Schemes
5. Types of Muscle Contraction
Related: Never Stop Making Gains! Use Micro-Progressions for Growth
There could be an endless list of possibilities that all meet the criteria. This is why sometimes planning your own workouts is the best way to create notable results, as you know your body better than anyone. When fueled with the right information, you can be your own best personal trainer.
Below are two of my favorite supersets that pair two movements moving through the same plane of motion. Give these a try to start with, then go back and start building your own supersets tapered to your goals!
Programming Pull-Push Supersets
If your focus is pairing two big compound movements together, the best bet is to place the pull emphasized movement first in the superset. Follow it with the push emphasized movement. This will activate the postural stabilizers in the pull movement that translates into better stability once you start pressing.
The superset below places the single arm dumbbell row and the slight incline dumbbell bench press together in a superset that takes place in the horizontal plane of motion. Shoot for 10-15 reps on the row and 8-12 reps on the press.
Programming Push-Pull Supersets
If you want to place extra attention on the strength or total body capacity of a movement that is considered a primary push in nature, place a push in front of a pull in the superset. This will challenge the stability of the shoulder complex and allow you to move into the first movement without putting yourself at risk for injuries.
Also, if you have a purely stretch based movement that you want to place into a superset, like a pull up variation that is executed with accentuated range of motion, put that exercise second in the superset.
The example superset below places the half kneeling dumbbell overhead press with the neutral grip lat pulldown which both occur in the vertical plane of motion. The press is very much postural in nature, dependent on a strong hip and core position, thus is a good choice for being placed first in the pair.
The second movement, is stretch based, and is a great fit for ending a set out of the full stretched position. Give it a try!