A commonly used exercise prescription is the use of supersets - a method in which you alternate a pair of exercises, back to back. Supersets may involve standard rest periods (resting between each exercise) or they may involve reduced or non-existent rest periods (waiting until all sets are done before resting fully).
The point of supersets is to reduce time spent in the gym by allowing one muscle group to work while another one is resting - cutting down on time spent resting. For this reason, supersets can be a huge time saver.
I've also seen many variations on the standard format.
Tri-sets are sets of 3 exercises performed back-to-back instead of 2.
21’s are a special tri-set consisting of 7 reps of a half range of motion bicep curl, 7 reps of the other half range of motion, and 7 reps of the complete range of motion. The justification for these is usually just the incredible pump that they create, and thus the intense feeling of getting a good workout.
Of course, if you know me, you know I'm about to say that feeling alone isn't a good marker for progress.
Chasing “the pump” isn’t always productive. It’s well known that the biggest driver of long-term growth is progressive volume overload, not “how our workout feels”. One of the problems of methods like supersets and tri-sets is that it makes it harder and harder to accurately judge what an effective load is, and then progress that load over time.
For example, if you superset a bicep curl and a tricep extension, you’re working out two opposing muscle groups. But if you’re rushing through 3 sets of each for a total of 6 sets, it’s unclear what the limiting factor holding back your progress is - the biceps? The triceps? The overall metabolic demand on recovery? Which part should we focus on increasing the difficulty of - the weight of the bicep curl, or the tricep extension, or the repetition range of either, or the speed with which sets are completed, which increases recovery demand?
For example, it's highly possible that by adding weight to the bicep curl in this superset, I cause my triceps extension to suffer, because the greater overall fatigue leaves me in a poorer position to progress for the triceps.
It gets worse when we compare more than two exercises, as in tri-sets.
Circuit training, which is also similar but relies on even more exercises, further complicates everything. The more exercises involved, the harder it gets to tell exactly how you can advance the workout in order to continue to get better results.
It’s also a matter of what types of exercises you’re using.
Compound movements, which use a lot of muscles together at once, correspondingly generate a lot of fatigue and tire out a lot of muscles at once. This makes them awesomely effective at making you strong and sexy, but also means that you get tired out more quickly.
When pairing compound movements, even compound movements with no practical muscular crossover (for example, a bench press and a squat, or something similar), the systemic fatigue from one lift makes it hard to complete the other in a practical time frame.
Some exercises simply don’t pair well together. If you paired a heavy deadlift (which is extremely taxing on the lower back) with a heavy standing overhead press (which requires a great deal of lower back stability to prevent injury), you’ve got an easy recipe for disaster.
Another variation is to superset exercises which use the same muscle group. Lifters do this with the expectation of hitting the muscle group hard repeatedly, resulting in greater muscular damage. An example of this is the 21’s I mentioned above - a tri-set of 3 different biceps exercises.
However, this probably isn’t a good idea - damage alone isn’t the goal, and a superset like this can be hard to progress effectively. For example, a recent study found that supersets can increase the typical time required to recover from a workout.
Supersetting isolation and compound exercises is another approach. For example, you may superset a tricep extension (triceps exercise) with a bench press (which uses the triceps, pectorals, and deltoids to move the weight).
The rationale for this is that if you tire out the triceps during the triceps extension, a greater portion of the load will be carried in the bench press by the pectorals and deltoids, shifting muscle activation.
I don’t put much stock in this approach, since we can already shift muscle activation with mental cues, and the added fatigue would again run into the same problem of poor recovery. You’re still hitting the triceps for a great many sets, which leads to greater recovery time.
One of the great benefits of supersets is that it helps us minimize rest time - while one muscle group is working out, the other one is resting, and vice versa. This works great if you’re still getting roughly the same rest time you’d get otherwise, but can be a problem if you take the approach where you completely minimize rest times.
While it used to be believed otherwise, a good rest period for muscular growth is typically about 2-5 minutes between sets. If you’re alternating exercises so quickly that you’re hitting the same muscle group again in less time than that, this is reducing your effective recovery time, reducing the amount of volume you can complete and worsening your results.
So, here are some of the best practices for using supersets intelligently and effectively:
Superset isolation exercises with other isolation exercises for unrelated muscles, or isolation exercises with entirely unrelated compound exercises (a biceps curl with a triceps extension, or a squat, for example).
Ensure that you’re still getting an adequate 2-5 minutes rest before hitting the same muscle group again, no matter how you split up the superset.
Avoid tri-sets, extended circuits, and other methods which string a great many exercises together. This creates too many variables to adequately control for everything involved and properly progress the workout, in addition to tying up a lot of equipment at once. These exercise formats may still have their usage, but not if the goal is to build muscle or strength.
Use pairs of exercises for the same muscle group only if you’ve planned for the fact that it will take longer than normal to recover - for example, if you’re a non-serious exerciser or a serious exerciser who’s training very infrequently.
Supersets can be an extremely valuable tool if the goal is to maximize efficiency and minimize time spent in the gym. That being said, they need to be used carefully if you want to avoid compromising the overall quality of your workout.
You need to be careful about the kinds of exercises you pair and the speed with which you move through the workout. Completing sets too quickly, like with any workout, will result in incomplete recovery between sets, leading to lack of volume and long term failure.
- 6 Ways to Save Time At the Gym
- Why Compound (Hybrid) Exercises May Not Deliver
- When the Leg Press Will Increase Your Squat (And When It Won't!)
- Periodization For Beginners
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