What are supersets?

Phil Goulding Phil Goulding Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer
Nuffield Health Senior Personal Trainer Phil Goulding explains what supersets are, what they're good for and when to do them.

Supersetting refers to performing two exercises back to back with no rest period between. There are typically two different ways of performing supersets. The first is to use two exercises which use opposing muscle groups (non-competing supersets) or to use two exercises which use predominantly the same muscle groups (competing supersets). 

What are supersets good for?

The main benefit of supersets is that they are very time efficient. You can effectively halve the amount of time you spend in the gym, which is ideal for busy people or those wanting to train on their lunch break.

Non-competing supersets should allow you to use the same amount of weight that you would if you performed the exercises individually due to the minimal effect one exercise has on the other, and may even be beneficial.

The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that people who supersetted leg extensions and leg curls could save time but also performed better. They were able to complete more reps on the leg extension when the leg curl was done immediately beforehand than when it was done alone, despite getting no rest in between lifts.

The study in fact showed that when the subjects did rest, even just for 30 seconds, they completed significantly fewer reps and were shown to be activating less muscle in their quads. The explanation for this is that some muscles work in pairs and working the opposite muscle group increases the nervous system’s activation in the muscle about to be used, therefore training the hamstrings allowed the quads to work better.

When should you do supersets?

1. When you are short on time

Non competing supersets can be used by any gym goer and are a great way to save time.

2. When you need to lose weight

They help you perform more work in your session and keep your heart rate higher, which will lead to burning more calories and greater fat loss.

3. When you want to build muscle

Supersets are great when working in the hypertrophy (muscle building) rep range (8-12 reps) as the rest period between exercises will generally be around a minute by the time you have performed your second exercise and then had a short rest before returning to exercise one.

Supersets are excellent for isolation exercises as you can select two truly opposing muscles and work them together. For compound exercises there may be a lot of different muscles performing the movement and some may fatigue to the detriment of the second exercise.

If you are specifically training for strength (typically less than six repetitions per set with heavy weights) with movements such as a deadlift, squat or bench press try doing single sets instead of supersets and putting your sole focus into that one movement.

Examples of supersets

  • Push ups and inverted rows
  • Leg curls and leg extensions
  • Bicep curls and tricep pushdowns

Last updated Wednesday 23 October 2019