Peanut butter and jelly. Bows and arrows. Popcorn and movies. Some things just work better in pairs. And so it is with exercises—if you’re a careful matchmaker. By pairing a set of one exercise with a set of another exercise the synergistic effect of the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. And these couplings get the coolest name in the gym: supersets. Let’s explore how adding the right dynamic duos to your routine can shrink your workout time and grow your workout effectiveness.
WHAT IS A SUPERSET?
A superset is the pairing of two different exercises performed without resting. So, for example, do 10-12 reps of leg extensions followed immediately by 10-12 reps of seated leg curls. These 20-24 reps count as one superset, and only after them do you pause for your between-set rest.
Note: More than two different exercises performed without resting is a giant set.
Joe Weider branded everything, not just his every product, but even ideas. In the ’50s, he and his small staff were literally writing—or, more often, rewriting—the language of weight-training, defining or redefining everything from going heavier (The Weider Progressive Resistance Principle) to getting help from a spotter (The Weider Forced Reps Principle). “I gave my principles and techniques exciting new names that stuck in the mind, so they were easy to teach and talk about,” the muscle mogul explained. The best-titled was the Weider Supersets Principle, which arrived, faster than a speeding bullet, in 1951 when Superman comics and, soon thereafter, a TV show were all the rage. Combining two exercises without resting was forever imbued with the aura of Clark Kent morphing into the Man of Steel.
This is the original recipe, coupling two exercises for antagonists: chest with upper back, quadriceps with hamstrings, or biceps with triceps. Example: incline dumbbell curls (biceps) supersetted with incline dumbbell extensions (triceps). This combo has the advantage of allowing you to use the same weights and bench and just go from arms down to arms up. Though most supersets won’t provide such rapid transitions, pick exercises or set up equipment to minimize downtime between exercises.
Pair dissimilar exercises for the same bodypart. Example: hack squats followed by walking lunges. Choose a second exercise you can keep cranking out even after reaching near-failure in the first. So, in our example, you should be able to do 20-30 strides of bodyweight lunges even after 10 hard reps of hack squats.
Immediately follow each set of an isolation exercise with one of a compound exercise for the same bodypart. Example: cable crossovers before dips. The first exercise works only pecs before the second exercise enlists triceps and anterior delts in the pec work, so the already stressed pecs give out sooner than usual while dipping, better concentrating those reps on just your chest.
See: Pre-exhaust Training
This flips the previous script: compound exercise before isolation exercise for the same bodypart. Example: barbell shoulder presses before dumbbell front raises. The latter extends and better targets the work begun by the former, and, unlike pre-exhaust, the isolation exercise won’t diminish your strength in the compound exercise.
Finally, you can combine two dissimilar bodyparts. Often called staggered sets (another Weider name), this is a great way to save time or target something you might otherwise neglect. The best work-in candidates are abs with anything, calves with an upper bodypart, and biceps, triceps, or forearms on leg day. For examples, slip in a set of calf raises between each set in your back routine or do crunches or leg raises just after each set of bench presses. Neither exercise will rob any strength from the other, and, as always with supersets, you can double the workload you’d otherwise do in a given period.
See: Staggered Sets: Workout Multitasking
With no rest between two sets, you can maximize gym time and minimize workout length. Do an entire superset workout, alternating, say, biceps and triceps sets without rest and you can really crank up the pace for a quick and intense arm session.
Combining sets of two dissimilar exercises essentially creates one big set, unique from either of the two exercises alone. Typically, it’ll also localize the pump, either by pairing antagonists or by focusing on two different movements for the same bodypart.
Without proper planning, scenarios like this become all too common: You’re supersetting preacher curls and machine dips, but while you’re on the triceps dipping machine someone hops on the only available preacher curl bench and strips the iron off the bar you were using. To combat these gym muggings, you may need to either use the same equipment for both paired exercises or choose two workout stations that are close together.
With what is essentially one big set of two exercises which typically lasts for 16 or more reps, intensity can wane and focus can wander. To combat this, think of each exercise’s reps as its own set and push that set to failure or near failure. Work to increase intensity, and don’t let it fizzle away.
SUPERSET TRAINING TIPS
🔹 When performing antagonistic supersets, pair similar exercises, such as leg extensions (for quads) and leg curls (for hamstrings).
🔹 When performing bodypart supersets, pair diverse exercises, such as leg extensions (isolation, machine exercise) and walking lunges (compound, non-machine exercise).
🔹 To minimize downtime, choose exercise stations that are close or set up equipment so you don’t need to move more than a few feet before starting the second half of the superset.
🔹 Think of each half of the superset as a set and push it to failure or near failure. This is also necessary for computing the volume of your routine. One superset equals two sets, so if you typically do 15 sets in a routine, count four supersets as 8 sets.
SUPERSET ARM ROUTINE
EZ-bar Lying Triceps Extension — 4 sets x 8-12 reps
↕️ superset with
EZ-bar Curl — 4 sets x 8-12 reps
Dumbbell Kickback — 4 sets x 10-12 reps
↕️ superset with
Incline Dumbbell Curl — 4 sets x 10-12 reps
Rope Pushdown — 4 sets x 12-15 reps
↕️ superset with
Rope Hammer Curl — 4 sets x 12-15 reps
SUPERSET TRICEPS ROUTINE
EZ-bar Lying Triceps Extension — 4 sets x 8-10 reps
Bench Dip — 4 sets x 10-15 reps
One-arm Pushdown — 3 sets x 10-12 reps
One-arm Triceps Extension — 3 sets x 10-12 reps
All photos: Samuel King, Jr.
See also: Giant Sets for Giant Gains