Supersets- Take your training to the next level.
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
A Superset is a method of training which involves performing two exercises with little to no rest between them. (1)
Now you may be asking why I have decided to write about Supersets?
Well most of us have used a Superset somewhere in there training program whether we’ve known about it or not.
But also, in an effort to try and continue my development as a coach I have been trying to increase my knowledge.
And in my quest for knowledge I was watching the Coaches Vs COVID 19 videos, and one of them talked about Supersets and the more advanced way of using them to develop athleticism.
This really got me thinking about how these methods work and how they can be applied, so decided to do some research.
This Blog will talk about the simple way we can use Supersets, so everyone can add them into their training program. But we will also look at some more advanced Supersets that you may have never heard of which you may want to add into your program if you are looking to take you fitness to the next level or have hit a bit of a plateau.
So, first of all why do we use Supersets?
If you asked most gym members why they use Supersets in their program they will give you one of these answers:
· To save time
· Build Muscle
· Decrease Body Fat
· Increase Strength/ Power
· Improve movement
There are two groups of Supersets we are going to look at:
The Advanced- The ones you may not know about.
1. Inhibition – Facilitation
3. Post activation Potentiation (PAP)
The Basic- These are the three most common Supersets used.
4. Upper/ Lower
6. Agnostic/ Antagonist
We all have movement dysfunctions due to our lifestyle, genetics, training history and poor posture. This can cause one muscle group to become over active and the opposite muscle group to become underactive. This can then lead to a number of problems down the line, like increasing the risk of injury’s, mobility/ movement and postural issues.
Reciprocal Inhibition is the inhibition of the antagonist muscles during agnostic contraction, which is controlled by the nerves in the spine. An example of this would be when your biceps contract your triceps must relax and lengthen. This process can become altered due to tight or overactive muscles, which means there will be a decrease in neural drive to the antagonist muscle due to the overactive muscle. This means that an overactive Hip flexor can lead to the glutes not activating when they need to. (4)
The Glutes are assisted by the Hamstring, therefore when the glutes aren’t being activated properly the Hamstrings take over. This is referred to as synergistic dominance. The Hamstrings are not designed to do the work of the Glutes as well as their own and can become overworked and overactivated. This can lead to hamstring injuries and lower back pain.
Now, if we all had the time, we could take 6 months out of training to try and fix all of our dysfunctions.
But who wants to do that!
Well we can use this Superset to help address the issues during our sessions. They work by pairing a soft tissue/ stretching drill with either an isolation exercise.
The Soft tissue exercises works to “turn off” the overactive muscles, then the isolation exercise works to strengthen and activate the underactive muscle. This can help to restore the Reciprocal Inhibition process as it can help to even up the muscles and re co-ordinate the motor-neurons so that they contract when they are meant to. The re-established relationship between the Antagonist and Agnostic will relieve the pressure in the synergist muscles and helping to prevent injuries.
· Hip flexor stretch/ Hip Thrusts
· Can be done in the warm up to activate the right muscles for the session.
· Can be done as a finisher to stay on to of any dysfunctions.
· Consistency is key, doing the Superset once won’t fix anything!
· If you see progression then stop you will soon return to old habits.
This method of Superset works by using an exercise that mimic’s the movement before a big compound lift, this can help to “grove” the exercises before its loaded.
This is a very useful Superset you use if you are a beginner, it gives you a chance to feel the movement before you perform the actual lift.
But can also be useful for an experienced lifter as it can help to re-enforce the movement pattern so you can get in better positions, and helps to create good habits during the lift.
These are very commonly used within Olympic lifting; an athlete may have identified that the shrug phase if their Snatch is a weakness. Therefore, they may decide to do a Hang Snatch High Pull before a Hang Snatch. This will “pattern” the shrug phase before the full movement.
· Bottom Squat hold/ Squat
· Dowel RDL/ Deadlift
· Dowel Bent over row/ Bent over row
· Really good technique for learning a new exercise.
· Can be used to over exaggerate coaching points so they transfer in to the main lifts.
· They are there to assist the compound exercises, so if you are finding you are spending more time on the “patterning” exercises then you should probably regress the compound exercises.
Golas et al (2015) described Post activation potentiation (PAP) as an improvement in performance after a movement that requires a large muscular power output following contraction under near maximal load conditions. PAP can be described as an acute enhancement of performance or an enhancement of factors determining an explosive sports activity following a pre-load stimulus. In practice, PAP has been achieved by complex training, which involves a combination of a heavy loaded exercise followed by a biomechanically similar explosive activity, best if specific for a particular sport discipline
Basically, this is saying is that when we lift something heavy our muscles become “excited” or “potentiated” for a short time and after this it’s a really good time to train some explosive movements like Plyometrics.
A meta-analysis by Seitz and Haff (2015) analysed at 47 studies that looked at the effect of PAP on Jump, Sprint, Throw and Upper Body Ballistic performance. Out of the studies they analysed the main results were that performing a conditioning activity improves subsequent jump, sprint, throw and upper-body ballistics performances, they then went on to state that this is condition to a number of different factors as there are inconsistent findings regarding PAP.
The study states that the level of strength and resistance training can affect the effectiveness of the conditioning activity. They show that the stronger and more experienced exhibited a greater level of PAP than an inexperienced individual. Given the relationship between strength, fatigue and potentiation, Stronger and more experienced individuals may be able to dissipate fatigue quicker after a conditioning activity. This may be because they have a greater capacity to resist fatigue.
The data suggests that to achieve a greater PAP then a higher intensity conditioning activity would be more effective. One of the studies they analysed reported larger increases in jump performance after an ascending heavy squat protocol up to 90% 1RM. Another study showed that Bench Press at 87% 1RM more effective than a 30% effort to produce a potentiate an upper-body ballistic performance. This meta-analysis also states that Plyometrics can potentially have a greater PAP effect when compared with a conditioning activity. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough research to examining this.
Rest period is a big talking point within research regarding PAP and the studies analysed within this meta-analysis discuss this at length. The main finding is that the longer rest periods (5-7 minutes) after a conditioning activity showed the greater potentiation. But this is also conditional to a number of factors like the strength and experience of the individual, the intensity of the conditioning activity and the type of conditioning activity.
· 5-1RM back squat/ Box Jump
· The short-term effect can increase performance in either a training or competitive environment.
· Being consistently exposed to short term increases could lead to a long-term improvement.
· Can be used when your athlete has reached a plateau in their training
· Be wary of fatigue- if you don’t leave enough time between the heavy exercises and the performance exercise then the muscles will still be fatigued and can leave to a decrease in performance. (Unfortunately, no one can decide how long you should rest!)
· Large amounts of rest can be impractical- especially if you are on a time frame.
· Practicality- Would be difficult to do this with in a field sport (Having to get a squat rack beside the track during High jump training)
· Not suitable for beginners
As the name suggests, this method uses an upper body exercise paired with a lower body exercises with little rest between them.
The theory behind this method is that as one muscle group rests the other is working, this can reduce the amount of localised fatigue meaning you can fit more into your session. It also increases central fatigue meaning it keeps the heart rate and demand on the lungs high for a longer period of time.
A study by Weakley et al (2017) investigated the short-term effects of Traditional (TRAD), Superset (SS) and Tri-sets (TRI) resistance training protocols on perceived intensity and physiological responses. 14 male participants completed three resistance training protocols (i.e. TRAD, SS, TRI) with a number of data collected during and 24-H post training. Each training protocol used the same exercises which consisted of Back Squat, Bench Press, Romanian Deadlift, Dumbbell Shoulder Press, Bent-over row and Upright row
(fig. 1- shows the order of exercises).
The results from the study show that SS training protocol was certainly more efficient that TRAD training protocol. As you can see from the table it almost half the time to complete the SS training protocol. SS also showed that the participants where lifting more Kg per minute compared to TRAD, and that the participants RPE was higher indicating that they believed the session as more demanding that TRAD training. The SS and TRI protocols eliminates rest periods which is knows to increase the anaerobic demands which will
impact upon the metabolic fatigue. This study showed that SS and TRI protocols demonstrated a greater rise in peak lactate which means that the SS and TRI showed I greater sign of fatigue, this can cause metabolic responses.
The study goes on to conclude that the SS and TRI training protocols are appropriate resistance training methods during time-constrained sessions. Alternatively, these resistance training protocols could be used as a form of metabolic conditioning when an improvement in total capacity is desired.
· Any Lower body exercises/ Any Upper body exercise
· Front squat/ Shoulder Press
· RDL/ Press Up
Because of the metabolic demand of this Superset it can be used in many different ways-
· Brilliant for people who are looking to lose some body fat
· Can be used as a finisher to a session
· Athletes can use as a metabolic conditioning session.
· Watch the lower back- Doing and Hinge and Bent Over row will put a lot of stress on your lower back.
· Grip strength- performing two exercise which need a lot of grip i.e. Deadlifts/ Chin Ups will put a lot of strain on the forearms and fingers.
· It very important to keep track of your rest periods between and after exercises because take too long and you will lose that metabolic effect.
· High loads to start with can reduce the amount of reps completed in the sets that follow.
The Pre-Exhaust technique are suggested to work by fatiguing a muscle with a single-joint exercise before a multi-joint movement, which then has the potential to increase the level of fatigue to which the muscle is exposed to. The increased fatigue would then directly relate to a greater recruitment of motor units during the second movement as well as increasing the metabolic stress within the target muscle.
A meta-analysis by Howe and Waldron (2007) looked at the research around Pre-Exhaust method for increasing hypertrophy and strength. The research they analysed measure the electromyography (EMG) of the multi joint exercises after a single joint exercise has been performed. The results from the research seem to suggest that after a single joint exercise the muscle activity of the main muscle within the multi-joint exercise decreased. They then suggest that Pre-Exhaust method is unlikely to lead to greater hypertrophy or strength gain.
Within the same study there is research that shows an increase in muscle activity in the multi joint exercises after a single joint exercise. These studies suggest that for this method to work the single joint exercises shouldn’t be performed to momentary muscle fatigue (MMF).
The study did go on to conclude that when time is a factor in the training program that this method may be useful in producing a hypertrophy adaptation. This is because it is easy to increase the volume and time under tension which have both been proven as determining factor for hypertrophy.
Post-Exhaust may be a more appropriate method to increase the muscle activation of the multi joint exercises. Post-Exhaust work in a similar fashion as Pre but the single joint exercise come after the multi joint exercises. This method suggests that MMF of the smaller muscles involved in the multi joint movement will fatigue first and the main muscle will still have some strength left. There for isolating the main muscle after a multi joint exercises can add to the fatigue.
· Pre-Exhaust- Fly’s/ Chest press
· Post-Exhaust- Bent Over Row/ Single Are Dumbbell Row
· Good method to use during off season when trying to pack a load on muscle but don’t want to spend a lot of time in the gym.
· This method can be used anywhere within the program.
· Fatigue will affect how much you can lift with the second exercise so think about the weight you are going to lift. Nobody feels good about incomplete sets/ reps!
This method of Supersets consists of performing two exercises back-to-back that involve antagonistic muscle pairs, which are muscles that are opposite each other. (Bicep/Triceps)
A study by Robbins et al (2010) compared Agnostic/ Antagonist Superset (SS)s to Traditional Sets (TS), looking at their effect on Volume Load (load X reps) and efficiency within strength training. The study uses Bench Press and Bench Pull exercises due to their common use in strength training programs. The TS protocol consisted of preforming 3 sets of Bench Press followed by 3 sets of Bench Pull with a 2-minute rest between sets. The SS protocol was similar to the TS, however the exercises were performed in an alternating manner. All sets were performed to failure using a previously determined 4RM loads.
The results from this study showed that SS training method was more efficient than TS training method as they were able to lift more load during the 10-minute session. This is mainly because the SS method had a 4-minute rest time between the same exercises where as TS only had 2-minutes. Meaning that the muscles had longer to recover while the opposite muscle group worked.
This study concluded that when time is a restraint an Agnostic/ Antagonist training program could be a useful method to develop strength.
With this study showing that SS are able to increase the training efficiency it could increase the levels of fatigue which in turn may contribute to a hypertrophic stimulus.
· Chest press/ Bent over row
· Bicep Curl/ Triceps Pulldown
· High reps and short rest times will increase the metabolic stress on the body helping to burn more calories during session.
· Could be used in an Upper body/ Lower body weekly split
· If strength is a goal then consider your rest times, still need an appropriate amount of rest between the same exercises.
There are loads of different methods of training that you can use to take your training to the next level. Supersets when used right can be extremely beneficial to help you reach your goals but as highlighted within this blog they do come with some consideration.
If you would like any more info or help on how to program Supersets into your program then get in contact.
(1) Baechle. T.R and Earle. R.W, 2008. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning: National Strength and Conditioning Association. 3rd Ed. United States of America: Human Kenetics
(2) Golas. A., Maszczyk. A., Zajac. A., Mikolajec. K., Stastny. P, 2015. Optimizing Post Activation Potentiation for Explosive Activities in Competitive Sports. Journal of Human Kinetics. (52)2016, 95-106
(3) Howe. L., Waldron. M. 2017. Advanced Resistance Training Stratgies for Increasing Muscle Hypertrophy and Maximal Strength. Professional Strength and Conditioning. 47, 7-13
(4) Lundy-Ekman. L, 2018. Neuroscience: Fundementals for Rehabilitation. 5th ED. Saunders: United States of America
(5) Robbins. D.W., Young. W.B., Behm. D.G, 2010. The Effect of an Upper-Body Agonist-Antagonist Resistance Training Protocol on Volume Load and Efficiency. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24(10), 2632-2640
(6) Seitz. L.B., Haff. G.G, 2015. Factors Modulating Post-Activation Potentiation of Jump, Sprint, Throw and Upper-Body Ballists Performance: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Journal of Sports Medicine. 46, 231-240
(7) Weakley. J.J., Till. K., Read. D.B., Roe. G.A.B., Darrel-Jones. J., Phibbs. P.J., Jones. B, 2017. The Effects of Traditional, Superset, and Tri-sets Resistance Training Structures on Perceived Intensity and Physiological Responses. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 117, 1877-1889