Supersets are a popular training tool used by elite athletes and average lifters alike to maximize the efficiency of their training sessions.
But like any training tool or method, simply integrating supersets into your workouts doesn't automatically mean you're training smarter. It all comes down to how you use them.
Before we dive in too deeply, what exactly are supersets? Supersets are two exercises performed back to back with little or no break between. This can be done for a number of reasons, but they are most commonly used to decrease the amount of time a workout takes and/or to increase training density (amount of work done each session). When used appropriately, supersets can be a fantastic training tool.
The most common superset of all time is the push/pull superset. This is where one pushing exercise is paired with one pulling exercise. For example:
A1. Chest Press 3x8
A2. Seated Row 3x12
This classic pairing allows for maximal work and recovery of opposing muscle groups. This can be done for both the upper body and the lower body, with one lift focusing on an anterior muscle group (meaning located on the front of the body) and another focusing on a posterior muscle group (located on the back). Now that you understand the basic concept, let's discuss some other tips on how you can make the most of supersets in your workouts.
Fill Your Rest
While supersets are a great tool and push/pull supersets work well for accessory lifts, big lifts that require a lot of energy should not be paired with an additional taxing exercise. This does not mean, however, that you cannot superset big lifts like Squats and Deadlifts. I often have athletes superset big lifts with a low-energy mobility drill. These supersets are used as "fillers" during the rest time of big lifts. I'm a big fan of using fillers between heavy compound lift sets. Rather than just standing around, this is time that we can get some additional mobility/stability work in. These low-energy drills are great because they allow you to work on weaknesses without negatively affecting the primary lift.
A simple example would be:
A1. Deadlift 4x3
A2. Mobility Drill of Choice
In larger team training settings, between sets often becomes a period of chatting and horsing around if athletes have nothing else to do. Fillers help to keep that to a minimum.
In general, a 20-30 second gap between the main lift and filler is acceptable, and fillers should be completed in a focused but still relaxed, active rest, manner.
Be Cautious of Forearm Burnout
One of the drawbacks of using supersets is that there's an increased potential to inadvertently overwork certain muscles or muscle groups. The forearms tend to be most susceptible to this.
When designing supersets, it is important to consider all of the factors that play into a given lift. One may think by supersetting an upper-body exercise with a lower-body exercise that they are avoiding this dilemma, but if both tax your grip strength (such as pairing a Row or Pull-Up with a Dumbbell Lunge), those forearms are going to fatigue quickly! Keep that in mind when implementing supersets.
Giant Sets Should Include Mobility
While technically not a "superset," giant sets are in the same family and are also a good training tool when used properly. A giant set is three or more exercises performed together with little or no break in between (giant sets are sometimes also referred to as "circuits.")
As with supersets, it is important to keep our end goal in mind. We want to enhance gains and improve performance, not just make ourselves exhausted. Almost every giant set I use is a way to integrate more targeted mobility work into my session. A typical giant set may look like:
A1. Push: Floor Press
A2. Pull: Seal Row
A3. Targeted Mobility: Prone 1-arm Trap Raise
The example above could be modified with any mixture of exercises, but the key point is there are two strength lifts and then one mobility drill. For athletes at all levels, it is difficult, if not impossible, to put max effort into three lifts with no break. That is why when I do use giant sets, I only program a maximum of two strength-based lifts into the set and always integrate at least one mobility drill as part of an active recovery.
Unilateral Supersets Can Get Exhausting
Any good, well-rounded training program incorporates both bilateral and unilateral exercises. Bilateral exercises are those that utilize both arms or both feet simultaneously, while unilateral exercises target just a single arm or foot at once. Unilateral exercises can be paired for a superset, but it's important to remember that group two of them together can make for a very long, very tiresome set.
A1. Landmine Press 3x8 each arm
A2. Single Arm DB Row 3x10 each arm
That equals 36 total reps per set! That's a lot of reps to stay focused on and have enough energy for. Including one unilateral exercise in a superset is fine but, in general, I would avoid pairing two together.
Use Supersets Wisely
It is important to note that while supersets can be a great and effective tool, sometimes the best superset is no superset. If you've just performed a max effort strength or power exercise, there's no reason you have to immediately go into a superset. Remember, sloppy, tired reps are never the goal! Use these tips to help you utilize supersets wisely and you'll reap the most benefit.