Supersets aren’t super – here is why!

Anyone who has ever picked up a dumbbell is familiar with the concept of supersets, which is the pairing of two exercises. Arnold used them and so did many others. So, they work right? The answer to that is not as clearly cut as one thinks.

Let’s break down the two different kinds of supersets:

  • antagonist supersets:The athlete combines exercises for opposing muscle groups, such as bench and rows,  curls  and pressdowns… You get the idea.
  • conventional supersets: Here you add exercises for the same muscle, such as skull crushers and close grip presses for the triceps, flyes and presses for the chest, etc.
As to its efficiency, we must dive into the biology of gains, namely metabolic accumulation. It measures your level of muscle fatigue by looking at the muscle-contraction waste products such as metabolites. Some examples of metabolites include chloride, potassium, lactic acid, ADP, magnesium (Mg2+), reactive oxygen species, and inorganic phosphate. The more metabolic accumulation you create, the more repair work is needed, and consequently, the bigger the gains.
But, here is where the antagonist superset falls short:
  • you cannot go heavy enough to sufficiently train two muscle groups, especially if you are training large muscles such as chest and back.As an example: It would be impossible for an advanced athlete to do rows with 300 lbs and then perform incline presses with a similar weight straight away. Therefore both exercises will suffer.
  • when training smaller muscles such as biceps and triceps, it would be possible to train them with sufficient weight. However,since one muscle is at rest during the set, the metabolites would be flushed out during that period. This would lead to less muscle damage, making it a second tier choice.
Conventional supersets do have the following benefits:
  • even though you are not training as heavy as you would with a single exercise, you can still exhaust the muscle quite efficiently, due to the accumulated stress caused by the consecutive exercises
  • since the same muscle is being worked during the prolonged set, there is no opportunity to rest during the set. If you want to take it a step further , take look at my piece on mechanical dropsets.
The main arguments for supersets usually are:
  • they save time. Well, so does running a red light but is that your goal or do you want to get the most out of your workout?
  • they give a great pump. While getting a pump is fun, it is not indicative of the amount of damage the muscle sustained during the set.
  • they are hard. This is one of my pet peeves as personal trainer: never confuse activity with productivity! Only because something feels hard or it feels like it is working does not mean it makes sense.  It would be pretty hard to dress up as a mariachi band at a Trump rally, but that does not mean you should do it.