Here’s Exactly How To Superset At The Gym
The term supersetting is becoming a mainstay in fitness vocabulary, and with good reason—pairing exercises in sets is an efficient way to work out because you can get more done in less time. It’s often used as a catch-all term to describe doing two different exercises back-to-back, then taking a quick breather before repeating the two exercises again for another set. By minimizing the rest between the moves your heart rate will rise quicker, and you’ll also be challenging your muscles.
However, there are a few misconceptions about what supersets actually are, and how they can benefit your training. There are three main ways to work your muscles in pairs, and knowing the difference between the training styles means you’ll be sweating it out in the most efficient way for your personal goals. All three methods described below are great for different reasons, says McCall. Here’s how to tell the difference—and how to incorporate the training style into your next workout.
True supersets pair two exercises that work opposing muscle groups and are ideal for building strength.
Opposing muscle groups are muscles that are “opposite” of each other, explains McCall. Think, your chest and back, your hamstrings and quads, and your biceps and triceps. “For example, you could do a chest press followed by a back row. “As your chest muscles are contracting during the chest press, your back muscles are lengthening to allow the contractions to occur. Then the back is warmed up and can work harder, and while you’re using the back during a back row, the chest muscles are resting and renewing their energy.” That mini recovery will help enable your chest muscles to give the same effort level during the next round. Here are some examples of exercises you could pair together for supersets:
- Chest press and back row
- Glute bridge and front lunge (hamstrings and quads)
- Biceps curl and triceps kickback
Supersets are particularly great for building strength, or how much force your muscles are able to produce, says McCall. “Because you’re going to be using different muscle groups, one muscle group is resting [while the other is working], so you’ll be able to lift a little bit heavier and get a few more reps in than you would with compound sets,” explains Rebecca Kennedy, a Barry’s Bootcamp master trainer. Simply put, your muscles will be doing more work overall because after a break, they’ll be able to put in more work during the next set. This mechanical overload creates damage to the actual muscle fibers, explains McCall, and they rebuild stronger during the repair process.
Compound sets, on the other hand, work the same muscle groups, and they’re best for improving muscular shape.
During a compound set, you pair two exercises that work the same muscle group (rather than opposing ones). The purpose of this is to fatigue the same muscle group, rather than let it recharge. “You’re going to tax that muscle group, so the reps in each set can decrease if you’re compound setting,” says Kennedy. Here are a few examples of exercises you could pair together in a compound set:
- Triceps kickback and overhead triceps extension
- Deadliftand squat
- Chest press and chest fly
This type of pairing is great for improving muscle definition, which is how the muscle looks, rather than how much force it can produce (strength). It comes back to something called time under tension, explains McCall. “The longer that a muscle stays under tension, the longer that muscle stays contracted. If the muscle is under resistance for a longer period of time, then the muscle motor units, which lead to the contraction, are staying more active.” This effect lasts even after you’ve rinsed off and moved on with your day explains McCall—it’s kind of like when your mom told you if you held a funny face for too long it’d stay that way.
And if you’re working two completely different muscle groups (like one lower-body and one upper-body move), this would be considered a circuit, which is great for burning fat.
While many people would call, say, a pairing of squats and bench dips a superset, this is a major misconception, says Kennedy. When you’re working two totally different muscle groups that aren’t opposing, it is considered a circuit, both Kennedy and McCall explain. “Supersets and compound sets have traditionally been for a specific joint or muscle area, whereas if you’re going from upper bodyto lower body, now you’re getting more of the total body involved,” adds McCall. For example:
- Push-upand squat
- Bench row and lunge
- Triceps dip and deadlift
Circuits are great for increasing all-over muscle mass (rather than in a specific muscle group), because you’re targeting more muscle groups in a shorter period of time. This is why it’s great if you can only strength train three times a week, says McCall.
Another major benefit is that they’re great for burning fat, because they drive your heart rate up (especially if you’re moving between a floor move and a standing move, like push-ups and squats). “You’re increasing blood flow throughout more of the body, whereas with a super set or compound set you’re increasing blood flow in a specific area of the body,” explains McCall. “But if you’re doing, say, a chest exercise followed by a lower-body exercise, you’re challenging the heart to work harder to pump blood to the working muscles, so you’re actually creating more of a cardiorespiratory load.” This means a bigger calorie burn, so it’s a good option if weight loss or fat loss is your goal, adds McCall.
Circuits can also be great for improving definition, but the reason for this is different than why compound sets improve definition. By reducing the body fat surrounding your muscles, they’ll naturally look more defined, says McCall.
For all three of these strength-training methods, there are some general reps and sets guidelines to use as a baseline.
The number of reps and sets you do with an exercise depends on a number of factors including how much weight you’re using, the muscle groups you’re working, and your personal fitness level, explains Kennedy. However, as a starting point, here’s a format she suggests for all three types of exercise pairings:
- Exercise 1: 10-15 reps
- Exercise 2: 10-15 reps
- Rest: 20-30 seconds
- Repeat 3x total
When you’re choosing your weights, as a rule of thumb they should be heavy enough that the last couple of reps are challenging, but not so heavy that you can’t complete them with good form (here are some more guidelines on how to choose the right weight for you).
Ultimately, one of these methods of strength training isn’t better than the other—the types of sets you do really just depends on your goals, says McCall. For pure strength, supersets are the way to go. For improved muscle definition, compound sets are best. And for building overall muscle mass and reducing body fat, circuit training is very effective.
And no matter which you focus on, you can switch it up—at the end of the day, all three are extremely efficient ways to work out your muscles, says McCall. Game, set, match.