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Superset Workouts: Twice The Gains In Half The Time

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There are two main reasons to add supersets into your training. The first is that they are a great way to increase the difficulty of your workouts and overload your muscles to promote greater gains. The second is that they are extremely efficient, so you’ll be able to complete effective workouts in less time.

However, both of these benefits are down to significantly reducing your rest between exercises, often to the point where you get no meaningful rest at all between some combinations of moves. This means that beginners should approach supersets with caution, because they are so challenging and require you to switch between exercises rapidly while still maintaining good form. If you are fairly new to the gym and looking for ways to increase the difficulty of your exercises then it’s advisable to make small step changes to the variables of weight, reps, sets, tempo or, of course, rest. Drop your rest periods from 90 seconds to 60 and you’ll feel it the next day, so make sure you’re able to handle that before tackling supersets.

For the experienced gym-goer, there are several ways to use supersets in your training, but there are a couple of standard features. The first is that commonly you get little if any rest in between two sets of exercises, and the second is that you combine exercises to increase their effect. This can be through overloading the muscles targeted with similar exercises, or hitting a variety of body areas quickly by doing complementary moves that work opposing muscle groups.

The standard form of superset training involves combining two moves, where you do a set of the first exercise, then go straight into a set of the second, then rest, before going back to the first exercise and continuing that pattern until you’ve completed all the specified sets. However, you can increase the exercises involved by doing tri-sets (three moves) or even giant sets, where you knock out four moves in a row. Needless to say that last one is for accomplished gym-goers. Below you’ll find more in-depth explanations of the different types of supersets and some examples of workouts you can try.

Antagonistic Supersets

What are they? Supersets that work a muscle and then its opposite number. The biceps-triceps double is a classic, since it’s fairly easy to do, but chest-back and quad-hamstring supersets also work.

What are they good for? They’re a time-saver, but there’s another bonus: thanks to an effect known as reciprocal innervation, as one muscle group works the other (antagonistic) group relaxes, improving recovery. There’s also some evidence that blood flow to the working muscle’s increased, meaning you’ll be able to lift more weight and get more bang for your buck in each move.

What should you be wary of? For best results with big compound movements, make sure you’re working your antagonist muscles through similar planes of motion: for instance, pair a bench press with a bent-over row or pull-ups with an overhead press. Also, don’t sprint straight from one move to the next – a few seconds’ rest might help you shift more weight.

Expert tip “Make sure you’re squeezing the antagonist muscle at the end of the movement – for instance, the biceps at the top of a dip, or the triceps at the bottom of a curl,” says personal trainer Joel Dowey. “That way, you ensure full lengthening of the target muscle before the next rep. The same goes for quads and hams, or any other muscle pair.”

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Agonist Supersets

What are they? A full-on assault on a single muscle group, prompting your muscles into growth by exhausting them. Classics include the old dumbbell bench press/flye double-whammy for the chest and the hamstring curl/Romanian deadlift for legs, but mechanical drop-sets – like switching from a normal to a hammer grip during curls – can work too.

What are they good for? Building muscle. Getting stronger means trying to stay fresh, but for more mass you’ll want to exhaust your muscles. This also means minimising your rest between the two exercises so your muscles can’t fully recover.

What should you be wary of? “I keep agonist superset to larger muscle groups – quads, lats or chest – because smaller muscles generally don’t respond as well,” says Dowey. “My current favourite is leg extensions into Bulgarian split squats using the leg pad of the extension machine – these allow the rear leg to be stretched slightly while the front leg is under tension.”

Expert tip “With these, it’s worth loading the muscle at different lengths,” says Dowey. “Pick an exercise that will load the muscle at its longest, such as seated cable rows leaning your torso forward at all times, then shorten it, so the same move with an upright torso keeping strict form. The weight will have to change but you’ll work the muscle hard at both extremes. Alternatively, switch between a compound and an isolation exercise to combine intensity with total volume for that muscle group.”

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Tri-Sets

What are they? The clue’s in the name. Technically, a tri-set is any three exercises done back to back, with minimal rest in between. There are two main options: use them all to target the same muscle group, or aim for slightly different ones, allowing one muscle to relax while you’re working others.

What are they good for? Maximising training time and kit. If you need to get in and out of the gym in half an hour, a carefully targeted tri-set can work multiple muscle groups in a few minutes, giving you a full-body workout.

What should you be wary of? Overtraining. If you’re relatively new to the gym, it’s easy to push yourself too hard by hammering every muscle group – or by blasting one into the ground. If you overdo it and end up with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), do some cardio that targets the affected area – rowing if you’ve ruined your lats, say – to get the blood flowing and aid recovery.

Expert tip “Use tri-sets that take advantage of a single bit of kit and you won’t have to fight for dumbbells in a crowded gym,” says Geoff Clement of Pure Fitness. “On a cable machine, for instance, you might triple up with a face pull, a triceps extension and a straight-arm pull-down.”

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Giant Sets

What are they? Four or more exercises done with minimal rest, aimed at overloading a single muscle group for super-sized gains – or working the whole body to maximise fat burning.

What are they good for? Completely exhausting a single muscle group in minimal time. If you’ve got a relatively empty gym and the mental fortitude to go after it, they’re a great way to maximise the production of growth hormone.

What should you watch out for? A drop in intensity. The more exercises you include, the easier it is to take your foot off the pedal during the final few. To stay strong, do compound exercises first, and finish with the least taxing movements: for your shoulders, for instance, you might do a dumbbell hammer presslateral raisefront raise and reverse flye. It’s also worth noting that giant sets are definitely an advanced training protocol. This isn’t something you should have a go at the first time you walk into a gym.

Expert tip “Don’t use giant sets every week,” says Clement. “Instead, save them as a jolt when you hit a plateau in your training, and use them once every few weeks.”

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Supersets To Torch Fat

Perform these moves back-to-back for four sets of eight reps.

1. Pull-up and triceps dip

Why This superset will add serious size to your arms

How For the pull-ups, hang from a bar with an overhand grip. Squeeze your lats to pull your chest up towards your hands then lower until your arms are straight again. That’s one rep. After eight reps, move on to parallel bars. Keeping your chest up, bend your elbows to lower yourself as far as you can, then press back up to the start. That’s one rep. Rest for 60 seconds after the final rep, then repeat for a total of four supersets.

2. Back squat and front squat

Why This superset will send your heart-rate rocketing and build bigger legs

How For the back squat stand tall with the barbell across the back of your shoulders. Keeping your chest up and core braced, squat down until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then stand back up. That’s one rep. After eight reps, re-rack the bar, then lift it again so it’s across the front of your shoulders. Follow the same form as with the back squat. That’s one rep. Rest for 60 seconds after the final rep, then repeat for a total of four supersets.

3. Overhead press and bent-over row

Why This superset will add mass to your shoulders and upper back

How For the overhead press hold a barbell across the front of your shoulders. Press the bar directly overhead until your arms are straight, then lower it to the start. That’s one rep. After eight reps, lower the bar to your thighs. From there, hinge forward from your hips with arms straight. Row the bar up towards your chest, leading with your elbows, then lower it under control. Rest for 60 seconds after the final rep, then repeat for a total of four supersets.

4. Deadlift and press-up

Why This superset works your heart harder by alternating blood flow between your upper and lower body

How Stand in front on a barbell, then squat down and grip it with both hands. With your chest up push through your heels to raise the bar. Push your hips forward at the top, then reverse the movement. That’s one rep. After eight reps, get into the press-up position with hands under your shoulders. Bend your elbows to lower your chest, then press back up. That’s one rep. Rest for 60 seconds after the final rep, then repeat for a total of four supersets.

More Superset Workouts

From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.