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Supersets

Challenge your body with supersets

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Updated July 07, 2014

Woman lifting weights in a gym
Cavan Images/Digital Vision/Getty Images

When I started lifting weights a long (long) time ago, there was pretty much one way to do it:  You picked up some weights, did an exercise for 10 or so reps, rested and then did it again...and again...and again.  We did this because that's what the bodybuilders were doing and that was our only real resource for how to lift weights.

These days, we know there are more methods of training  - Ways to lift weights that will give us the results we want without the same old boring straight-set training.  One of my favorites is using supersets - The perfect way to save time, add intensity and help you bust through weight loss plateaus.

Superset Basics

Supersetting is a more advanced way to lift weights involving doing two exercises, one after the other, with no rest in between. The exercises can be for the same muscle group, which is my favorite way of using them, for different muscle groups or even using different activities - e.g., a strength exercise followed by a cardio exercise. The idea is to do one exercise and, instead of resting and doing another set, doing a different exercise and alternating those exercises for your desired number of sets.

The Benefits of Supersets

It's a good idea to change your strength workout every 4-6 weeks to avoid plateaus, and supersets offer a great way to completely change what you're doing. Supersets help you:

  • Save time. Going from one exercise to another without rest will make your workouts shorter and more efficient.
  • Increase intensity. If you choose supersets that work the same muscle, but with different exercises, you'll add intensity to your workout and recruit your muscle fibers just a bit differently, so it feels like you're getting a whole new set of exercises.
  • Overload your muscles. By working the same muscle with one exercise right after another, you can overload your muscles without using heavy weights. This is great if you don't have a spotter or don't want to lift very heavy weights.
  • Make things interesting. If you've been doing straight sets forever, supersetting can make weight training more interesting and more challenging.
  • Easily set up a workout. All you do is pick two exercises, either for the same muscle or by using some of the other ideas listed below, do them one after the other. Rest about 30-60 seconds between supersets and repeat.
  • Incorporate more variety into your workouts. You don't have to do exercises for the same muscle group. You can do opposing muscle groups or even two complete different parts of the body.

Bottom line? Supersets are an excellent choice if you're ready for a change.

Types of Supersets

You may be surprised at how many options you have when it comes to supersetting. Some of the basic supersetting training methods include:

  1. Pre-Exhaustion Supersets. This involves two exercises for the same muscle group. The first exercise is an isolation move, which targets one muscle group, and the second is a compound movement, which targets multiple muscles. Example: Leg extensions, which target the quads, followed by squats. The quads are tired, but the other muscles used in squats (glutes, hamstrings and inner thighs) are fresh.
  2. Post-Exhaustion Supersets. This is the opposite of pre-exhaustion. You start with the compound movement and follow that with the isolation exercise. Example: Bench press followed by dumbbell flies.
  3. Compound Superset: This is a tough way of training since you're putting together two compound exercises, requiring more energy and strength. Remember, compound exercises are those that work several muscle groups at a time. Example: Squats followed by lunges.
  4. Isolation Supersets: In this type of training, combine two isolation exercises. Example: Dumbbells flies followed by a cable crossover.
  5. Opposing Muscle Groups: When you do two exercises that target opposing muscle groups, one muscle gets to rest while the opposite muscle works. You can pair back and chest, biceps and triceps, hamstrings and quadriceps, etc. Example: Biceps curls followed by triceps kickbacks.
  6. Staggered Supersets: In staggering, you do an exercise for a different muscle between sets. For example, do a set of chest presses and, while you're resting, do a set of calf raises or planks before going on to the next set of chest presses.  This saves time, allowing you to work smaller muscle groups while the bigger ones rest.  Choose the right exercises, and you can even keep the heart rate elevate, which will help you burn more calories.
  7. Tri-Sets: This is the same as a superset, except you're doing three exercises rather than two.  Try a set of pushups followed by chest presses and chest flies and you'll really feel it.
  8. Cardio and Strength Supersets: Another option for supersetting involves pairing a cardio exercise with a strength exercise. Putting these together in a certain way can add intensity to your workouts, overloading your muscles and forcing them to adapt and grow stronger. For best results, try working the same muscles for both exercises. For example:
    • The stairmaster or stepping targets a variety of muscles, specifically the quads, so pair that with strength moves that involve the quads such as squats, lunges or step ups
    • Cycling uses the quads quite a bit as well, so pair that exercise with leg extensions or leg presses
    • Treadmill walking targets all the lower body muscles, but involves the adductors (or inner thigh muscles) more than other cardio exercises. Consider pairing this with moves that target the inner thigh such as plie squats
    • The elliptical targets the glute muscles quite a bit, so pair this with squats or other glute exercises

Obviously, there are many choices for setting up a superset workout. To see it in action, try one of these superset workouts:

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