HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
-Improper programming of supersets can lead to increased incidence of traumatic and overuse injuries, while overtraining specific functional muscle groups and units alike.
-Programming supersets isn’t quite as simple as throwing together 2 exercises and crushing yourself with as little rest as possible. The key to successfully supersetting for goal attainment is to synergize two exercises together, and reap the benefits of the superset as a whole.
-The use of intense supersets with minimal rest can lead to a cascade of anabolic hormone release including; Growth Hormone (GH), Testosterone (T), and Insulin Like Growth Factor-1 (IGF1).
One of the easiest ways to cut time off your workouts, and add a metabolic component to lifting heavy loads, is by the intelligent programming of supersets and compound sets within your specialty workouts. Not only will supersets allow you to nearly double your overall workload and volume, its practice can synergistically enhance the overall performance of all exercises in your routine.
If that’s not convincing enough, intensely loaded supersets using short rest periods can sky rocket your anabolic hormone response during and after exercise, launching you towards your strength and hypertrophy goals one workout at a time! Almost sounds too good to be true, right? That’s because it just might be.
Improper programming of supersets can lead to increased incidence of traumatic and overuse injuries, while overtraining specific functional muscle groups and units alike. Using a few simple tips before choosing your exercise routine could be the difference between PR’s and injuries- the choice is yours!
SUPERSET- the performance of two exercises of opposing muscle groups back to back, with little to no rest in between.
COMPOUND VS SUPER SETS
It is common practice for compound sets and supersets to be used interchangeably. This may be OK for general terminology, but knowing the true difference between these vastly differing programming strategies can be the difference between plateauing out with your strength and hypertrophy gains, and continuing to throw iron on the bar month after month.
A compound set is set up similar to a superset, but with the use of two exercises that activate the same muscle group. While supersets are used primarily to ramp up the metabolic nature of a workout while saving time in the form of shorter rest periods, compound sets have an entirely different goal: add overall volume to a muscle group.
Compound sets will decrease the overall load that you’re able to handle for an exercise due to fatigue, but increase your overall set/rep scheme for a given pair of exercises. Simply said, they will fry the muscle group being isolated!
MORE GROWTH HORMONE ANYONE?
The efficacy of back to back multi-joint exercises with minimal (under 3o seconds) rest as a muscle builder is mainly due to your bodies endocrine response during and and after intense bouts of super or compound sets. In short, heavy loads plus little rest increases your circulating blood lactate levels that, in turn, increase the acidity of your blood. This increase in blood pH will trigger the release of growth hormone (GH) from one of the body’s most powerful endocrine organs, the pituitary.
Growth hormone is just one hormone in the complex equation of muscle hypertrophy and strength. Testosterone, the more popularized anabolic hormone, is also released at an increased rate during the performing near maximal superset programming protocols.
Directly after a bout of intense training, Insulin Like Growth Factor- 1 (IGF-1) will be circulating at increased levels for up to 40 hours. This leaves the anabolic window wide open for more growth potential and recovery.
Programming supersets isn’t quite as simple as throwing together 2 exercises and crushing yourself with as little rest as possible. The key to successfully supersetting for goal attainment is to synergize two exercises together, and reap the benefits of the superset as a whole. Here are some of the most common mistakes that are made when programming supersets, and why they may do more harm than good when performed over time:
1. Pre-Fatiguing Stabilizing Musculature
Challenging the core during loaded compound lifts is usually a great way to link up body segments, and increase overall functionality and performance. The muscles of the anterior and posterior core are phasic in nature, and only able to perform at optimal levels for short periods of time.
If two exercises both challenge the core from a isometric or dynamic stability standpoint, the core will become fatigued, increasing the chance of injury and overuse. A great example of a bad superset practice that I commonly see in the commercial gym setting, is supersetting a squat/deadlift with an isolation core exercise such as crunches or ab wheel. If you are squatting to near maximal intensities, your core will be on fire. No need to kick a horse while it’s down and throw in some crunches on top of it!
2. Over Compressing the Spine
Performance of two exercises that both add compression of the spine is commonly seen in poorly programmed superset combinations. Before programming your exercises, classify each exercise into two categories, spinal compressors and spinal decompressors.
An example of a spinal compressor is a squat; vertebral segments are loaded, and forces are bringing them closer together under loads. A spinal decompressor adds space between vertebral segments such as a chin up or pull up where the feet are in an open chain position.
Think of this equation when choosing your combos of exercises:
Compression + Decompression = No Back Pain!
Give your back a break. You’re probably already sitting 8 hours a day in a slouched posture. The last thing you need to do is test your spine’s limits, over and over again, during a superset.
3. Ordering of Exercises
The most popularized exercise in the gym is undoubtably the bench press. This is the first, and sometimes the only exercise that’s done on a daily basis for upper body emphasis. It is no surprise that when putting together supersets, the chest exercise always precedes the back. Bro logic would have you thinking that because you cannot see your back in the mirror, it does not actually exist. If you can’t see it, it’s pretty much useless, right? So wrong on so many levels!
By programming a posterior chain exercise before an anterior chain, the completion of the pull will enhance the performance of the push. By activating stabilizers in both the posterior scapular region, along with the posterior pelvic girdle, exercises such as upper body pressing and quad dominant leg work will be more effective due to increasing reciprocal inhibition and dynamic stability. Remember, Pull -> Push! Your shoulders and hips will thank me later.
BEST UPPER BODY SUPERSET COMBOS
Pull Up / Barbell Standing Overhead Press
Single Arm Dumbbell Row / Barbell Bench Press
Cable Rope Face Pull / Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
BEST LOWER BODY SUPERSET COMBOS
Romanian Deadlift / Front Squat
Hip Thrust / Alternating Forward Lunge
Glute-Ham Raise / Leg Press
BESST UPPER/LOWER BODY SUPERSET COMBOS
Back Squat / Chin Up
Front Squat / Parallel Bar Dips
Deadlift / Dumbbell Floor Press
Programming of supersets are dependent on your specific goals. Here are some common goals, and how to program according to the types of gains you are working to achieve. Follow each prescribed rest period for the type of training focus you are currently programming for:
Rest Periods (seconds) Between Exercises / Rest Periods (seconds) Between Sets
Endurance: 10 / 20
Hypertrophy: 15 / 30
Strength: 30 / 60
Power: 45-60 / 75-90
Because supersets can be extremely demanding from a metabolic and muscular stress standpoint, the frequency of training specific groupings of exercises and/or functional body units, should be limited to 2-3 times per week. Adequate rest and recovery are the key to progressing your strength goals for the long run, with the use of a program developed around supersets.
Supersets can be a game changer for your strength and hypertrophy training. That is, only if they are performed intelligently, using the simple components of program development. Don’t let yourself become stale, continue to challenge yourself, and get more out of the basic compound lifts you know and love. Fitness isn’t about reinventing the wheel, it’s about getting that wheel turning as quickly and efficiently as possible. Put your own spin on supersets, and reap the gains you’re about to receive. I would love to hear back on the combos you love and are having the most success with!
Contributed by Dr. John Rusin, PT, DPT, CSCS, FMS1/2, SFMA, ART