Supersets: Good or Bad for Muscle Growth and Strength?

A few days ago, we received a question about supersets from a reader named Agneta:

“Could you talk about the good vs. bad when it comes to supersets?

I find that they are time-savers, but I don’t really see many people talking about them.”

You are absolutely right, Agneta: supersets are time-savers! But how do they affect your performance, muscle growth, and strength gains? And are some supersets better than others? Let’s take a look!

I talk about supersets in the video below, but if you’d rather read, just skip below!

What Is a Superset?

Supersets can be defined as a pair of sets from two different exercises.1

Common forms of supersets are two exercises that targets …

If you were to perform three exercises back-to-back in this fashion, it is usually called a tri-set, and four or more exercises together are usually called a giant set or simply circuit training.

Supersets are commonly performed with little or no rest between exercises, but as we’ll get into later in this article, you don’t necessarily have to do so.

Supersets Are Time-Efficient

Is time a limiting factor in your training, is the gym about to close, or do you simply feel like getting home faster? By supersetting exercises, you are able to pack in more training in the same time-frame.2

However, if you use supersets as a way to shorten your training time, you might run the risk of getting so tired that it hurts your performance, with fewer reps or less weight lifted per set than if you would have taken longer rest periods. That, in turn, might lead to inferior muscle growth and strength gains.3

But, most (all?) training is better than none, and if supersets mean the difference between you not having the time to train a muscle at all, or getting some sets in (albeit when you’re tired), then that is obviously going to be beneficial for your muscle and strength.

The dumbbell rack is ripe with opportunity for supersets.

Supersets Are Better Than Resting Too Little!

Some people simply don’t like resting long between sets. After 30 seconds, they start to get jittery, and before the first minute is over, they have already hit the weights again. While the zeal is admirable, it is not necessarily the best thing for your training results.

This is because most people probably plan their training around the number of sets they’re going to do (“I’m going to do 5 sets of bench press today”) rather than the time (“I’m going to train bench press for fifteen minutes today”). And, resting too short between sets can seriously diminish the amount of reps you do in those few sets.

For example, in one study, participants did 44% more reps in the bench press over five sets, when they rested three minutes between sets instead of one.4

And those reps can make quite a difference. In another training study that spanned over eight weeks, participants resting three minutes between sets increased their muscle mass and strength twice as much as participants who rested only one minute between sets.5

So – while supersets done with little or none rest between exercises might potentially hurt your performance, supersets that lead to you taking longer time between sets of the same exercise could actually help your performance:

  • In one study, participants trained bench press and seated row. One group did traditional training where they first completed all three sets of bench press before moving on to seated row. They rested for two minutes between each set of each exercise. The other group alternated between the two exercises, so they did one set of bench press, rested for two minutes, then did one set of seated row, rested for two minutes, then one set of bench press, and so on, effectively getting four minutes of “rest” between each set of the same exercise. Both workouts took just as long, but the group alternating between exercises were able to lift 13% more weight in total than the group who completed all sets of one exercise before moving on to the next.6
  • A second study, similar in design, had one group of participants train three sets of bench press with two minutes rest between sets, followed by three sets of seal rows, also with two minutes rest between sets. Another group had the same rest between sets, but alternated the exercises, and thus getting four minutes of “rest” between each set of the same exercise. Even though both sessions took the same amount of time to complete, the group that alternated exercises lifted 27% more weight in the bench press and 21% more weight in the seal row.7
  • In a third study, supersets consisting of bench press immediately followed by lat-pulldown and then resting for 180 seconds before the next superset, resulted in 10% more weight lifted than traditional training with 90 seconds of rest between each set: first three sets of bench press, then three sets of lat-pulldown.8
Bench press
Bench press combined with lat-pulldown or row are classic supersets.

Some Supersets Might Even Boost Your Performance

Additionally, and quite oddly, some supersets might even increase your performance, beyond what you could have lifted otherwise.

One study had participants try each of the following protocols, in randomized order:9

  1. Maximum reps of leg extensions.
  2. Maximum reps of leg curls immediately followed by maximum reps of leg extensions.
  3. The same as above, but with 30 seconds of rest between leg curls and leg extensions.
  4. Same again, but with 1 minute of rest between leg curls and leg extensions.
  5. Same again, but with 3 minutes of rest between leg curls and leg extensions.
  6. Same again, but with 5 minutes of rest between leg curls and leg extensions.

A weight corresponding to 10RM was used in all tests for both exercises.

As it turns out, protocol number one, where the participants did their leg extensions fully rested, was not the one resulting in the greatest number of reps. Instead, it was the worst one:

  • In the protocols where the participants did one set of leg curls either immediately, 30 seconds, or one minute before the leg extensions, they completed about 25–32% more reps of leg extensions than in protocol number one.
  • In the protocols where the participants did one set of leg curls either three or five minutes before the leg extensions, they only completed about 6–9% more reps of leg extensions than in protocol number one. However, this difference was not statistically significant.

So: training leg curls shortly before leg extensions improved performance compared to just going straight to leg extensions.

Similar results comes from a study where doing seal rows 90 seconds before bench throws increase the power output in the latter by a statistically significant 4.7%.10

Don’t Put The Wagon Before The Horse

If you are going to superset, just make sure to have your priorities in order: If you want to get stronger in the bench press, don’t tire out the working muscles by doing isolation exercises for them before your main lift. For example, one study found that participants training pec deck before machine chest press only managed about half as many reps in the chest press, as when they tried the same workout but switched the order of exercises and did chest press first.11

And for those of you into pre-exhaustion: there were no difference in pec activation between the two groups. However, the group that trained pec deck before chest press had significantly higher tricep activation in the chest press.

Summary and Practical Applications

So, how does all this add up?

  • Supersets are time-effective. You already know this, but it bears repeating. If time is a limiting factor in your training, using supersets might be one way around that bottle-neck, allowing you to almost double your training volume in the same time frame.
  • Supersets are exhausting. Supersets might be tiring, to the point where your performance is impaired. On the other hand, three mediocre sets are still better than none.
  • Alternating exercises with supersets might allow you to rest longer between sets of the same exercise than you would otherwise do. Don’t have the time or patience to rest five minutes between important sets of bench press? Throw in another exercise between sets. If this leads to you getting longer “rest” between sets of bench press than you would have gotten if you did your bench sets back to back, then it could likely improve your performance.
  • It’s different and fun. Going back and forth between exercises with a little higher tempo than usual might be a way to breathe new life into your training. Turning up the intensity with supersets might reignite a little spark of fun you didn’t know you were missing.

Supersetting is a useful technique that you could probably benefit from keeping close at hand in your tool-box. It does not have to be a question of all or nothing, instead you can pick and choose:

  • You can train traditionally (one exercise at a time) for the whole workout, except for the two last exercises which you superset.
  • You can do your most important lift first, with uninterrupted rest, and then superset the rest of your workout.
  • Or, you could devise an entire workout around supersets, choosing exercises that go well together, and dazzle yourself with how much more training this lets you do in your usual workout time.

Why not try it out the next time you train?

If you have a question that you’d like us to answer in the future, just leave a comment or send a message, and we’ll do our best to help you!


More reading:

References

  1. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec; 16(24): 4897. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods.
  2. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017; 117(9): 1877–1889. The effects of traditional, superset, and tri-set resistance training structures on perceived intensity and physiological responses.
  3. Sports (Basel). 2019 Jan; 7(1): 14. Repeated Bouts of Advanced Strength Training Techniques: Effects on Volume Load, Metabolic Responses, and Muscle Activation in Trained Individuals.
  4. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online 15(5):96-106. Influence of Different Rest Interval Length in Multi-Joint and Single-Joint Exercises on Repetition Performance, Perceived Exertion, and Blood Lactate.
  5. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1805-12. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men.
  6. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Oct;31(10):2777-2784. Volume Load and Neuromuscular Fatigue During an Acute Bout of Agonist-Antagonist Paired-Set vs. Traditional-Set Training.
  7. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2632-40. The effect of an upper-body agonist-antagonist resistance training protocol on volume load and efficiency.
  8. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2019 Dec;59(12):1991-2002. Neuromuscular responses for resistance training sessions adopting traditional, superset, paired set and circuit methods.
  9. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Sep;28(9):2529-35. Effects of different rest intervals between antagonist paired sets on repetition performance and muscle activation.
  10. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 Feb;19(1):202-5. Acute effect on power output of alternating an agonist and antagonist muscle exercise during complex training.
  11. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1082-6. Effects of exercise order on upper-body muscle activation and exercise performance.

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