Superset for Superior Gains

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Want to break out of that gym plateau you've been in for the last… decade? Try adding supersets to your workout regimen. Supersets are generally defined as a workout in which you do two or more exercises, one right after another, with little or no rest in between. The exercises can be for the same muscle group—such as chest—or for two or more muscle groups—such as biceps and triceps. Supersetting offers many benefits, including a more intense workout, muscle overload without using heavy weights, plateau breakthrough, elevated heart rate and calorie burning, and even shorter workouts and time saving.

To help define and expand the concept of supersets into a program you can use, we asked Rance Hayes, an IFPA-certified personal trainer, athlete training specialist, and owner of Constant Elevation Personal Training, to give us the low-down on supersets. Follow along to learn more about supersetting, and be sure to try out Hayes's sample superset chest program to see how same-muscle supersets can add intensity to your workouts.

Supersets Defined: An Intro
In a sense, supersets are simply a high-intensity version of a standard workout program. Most trainers define supersets as the principle of going straight from one exercise into the next, without a recovery period—and while that's a great starting point, it’s really too limiting an idea for the broader, most useful tool belt of superset training.

The primary goals of supersets are twofold: keep your heart rate elevated while you do your resistance training, and get every ounce of work out of your muscles while you do it. With these guiding principles in mind, you can add multiple elements to your superset training that increase the intensity of your workout:
  1. Go for the whole: Do multi-muscle combination exercises that challenge larger portions of your body. This will elevate the intensity of your workout, reduce your muscles' recovery time further, and keep your heart rate up. It will also force your body to use stabilizer and other less-used muscles.
  2. Add intensity: Choose intense exercises, such as plyometric exercises in which you use explosive power to challenge your entire body. The Plyometric Push-up in Half Circle is an example of this type of tough exercise.
  3. Isolate and broaden: Start with a muscle-isolating exercise such as a hamstring curl, and then follow it immediately with a squat or a lunge, which work all of the leg muscles. Or go vice versa, starting with the broad exercise and then isolating after the muscle is fatigued.
  4. Start in reverse: Reverse the order of your conventional weightlifting regimen by moving from heavier weights and fewer reps for the first set to light weights and more reps for the last set.
  5. Do a threesome (or a foursome): Take out the recovery period between multiple exercises, creating a superset circuit.
All of these versions of the superset share two crucial elements—they keep your heart rate up for a sustained period and work your muscles more intensely.

When Do Supersets Make Sense?
Supersets are ideal for people trying to lose weight and replace fat with lean muscle mass. “Most of the time when I refer clients to a superset program, it’s because I’m aiming to have them maintain a high heart rate while doing anaerobic training—because that’s when you burn fat,” says Hayes. Supersets raise your heart rate right from the beginning, by demanding that you really go to work on the first set—you don’t break in with a nice long set of reps with low weights, for instance. You can then take that higher heart rate into the second set and maintain it throughout the workout. Ideally, you give yourself very little recovery time between sets; as Hayes explains, “Ordinarily, you attach your weight plates, lift as much as possible, then take a break and recover; but in a superset, you don’t allow yourself that rest time, so your heart rate stays up.” And, because you’re not repping out on every set, you don’t need as much recovery—you recover from each set while doing the next set.

Some people looking to build a lot of mass in a short period of time have been taught to avoid supersets, because the elevated heart rate, lighter weights, and subsequent calorie burn may work against the goal of bulking up. But that's not necessarily true. “If you’re in a program to build a certain amount of mass over a long period of time,” Hayes says, “supersets are a good thing to mix into your program, because they keep your body off balance.” Any weightlifting program hits plateaus; supersets can help shock your body off that plateau, and make your usual regimen more effective when you return to it, if for no other reason than that every change makes your body work at lower efficiency—that is, harder.

“The supersets won’t build mass in their own right,” Hayes says, “but you want to think over the long term, and in a long-term program they’ll let your body develop more progressively because they’ll change the routine—they’ll help build muscle but indirectly.” The greatest strength of the superset, it turns out, is the surprise it gives your muscles, forcing them to work harder to cope.

Safety and Injury Prevention
There’s a final reason to try out supersets, and that’s good old-fashioned safety. It’s tempting to give in to what Hayes calls “the machismo culture” of the gym, where you feel obligated to grab the heaviest weight you can and swing it as hard as you can, and just go up from there. Because they do not allow long muscle recovery periods, supersets demand that you use lighter weights and take them seriously—and that, ultimately, may help save you from injury. “Too often we confuse size with strength," Hayes says. "But with too much weight and poor form, you [can easily] tear a rotator cuff or throw out your back, because you’re compromising your form to swing that weight around. Worry about your form, not the weight itself. Otherwise, you won’t develop properly and you’re more likely to hurt yourself.”

To start out with supersets, don’t try to kill yourself on that first set. Remember, the most important thing is to lift weights that are heavy enough to get your heart rate up and keep it up, but not so heavy that you can't maintain form and risk injury. As a general starting point for a program that uses increasingly heavy weights, start out with a weight that you can lift 10 to 12 times while maintaining form for your first set, with the last two reps a serious challenge. As you develop strength over time you can increase that starting weight—but you want to start with what you can handle and increase over time, rather than going excessively heavy to start and risking injury.

You should warm up before starting a superset, because you are not going to be using that first set as a warm up in the way that you ordinarily might. If you go in cold for that first set, you run the serious risk of injury. Also, to reap the full cardio rewards of the superset, you should already have your heart rate heading toward your target zone when you start—don’t try to jumpstart from zero. Spend a few minutes on a treadmill getting your heart rate up, carrying light weights, and pumping your arms in a controlled fashion as you go.

Superset Program for Chest
On the following pages you'll find Hayes's four-exercise chest superset workout program—it focuses on the chest but will give you an intense upper-body workout. Complete one set of each exercise, moving immediately from one exercise to the next with no rest in between. After you have completed one set of each exercise, rest for 30 seconds and then do a second circuit of all four exercises. To ensure you don't rest between sets, you should have the exercises set up before you even start to avoid unnecessary downtime between exercises. Note that this is a relatively advanced program; reduce or increase the intensity of the workout based on your own individual fitness level, and don't be discouraged if you find the program too hard to complete. For more challenging versions of the superset, add in one of the following challenges:
  1. Start heavy: Modify the program by inverting the standard weight-to-repetitions ratio. In other words, start out with heavier weights and fewer repetitions, and with each set reduce the weight and increase the repetitions. Keep the transition between exercises very short and do two sets of each exercise, one shorter set with heavy weights, followed by a second set with lighter weights. For the first set, choose a weight that you can do eight to 10 reps while maintaining form, but where the last two reps are a serious challenge.
  2. Start hard: For additional challenge, reverse the order of the exercises—as listed, they go from least intense to most intense. Start by doing the most difficult fourth exercise—plyometric push-ups in half circle—first to replicate the effect of starting out with heavier weights. In this case, set fewer cones and do not do as many of the plyometric push-ups—but try to get good explosive power off the floor. Then do medicine ball push-ups for more repetitions, open-up push-ups with medium weights and an intermediate number of reps, and one-arm dumbbell presses with light weights and more reps. By starting with the hardest and most full-body exercise first, you will surprise your muscles and elevate your heart rate from the get go.
Superset Exercise Quick Links
  1. One-Arm Dumbbell Press on Stability Ball
  2. Open-up Push-ups on Dumbbells
  3. Medicine Ball Push-ups
  4. Plyometric Push-ups in Half Circle
  5. Supersets Training Overview