Whether or not you’re a bodybuilder, the key formula towards increasing muscle mass is hypertrophy. “Supersetting” during a workout is an often touted technique to maximize the efficiency of strength and muscle gains during a workout regiment. In simplest terms, a superset is a set of different exercises performed back to back with little to no rest periods. Generally, supersets are meant to intensify a resistance workout under a time constraint. Supersetting garners support by “bro-science” as the best way to quickly gain strength. However, doing supersets wrong hinders muscle recovery and can reduce the quality of a workout.
There are two main camps when it comes to supersets, grouped supersets and separated supersets. Grouped supersets focus on one main muscle group while separated supersets combine two “opposite” muscle groups. A grouped superset for the pectoral muscles might have a set of bench press immediately followed by a dumbbell fly set. A separated superset might have a set of bench press to target the pectorals, then a set of leg extensions to train the quadriceps.
While many bodybuilders swear by grouped superset training, a recent study by Brentano et. al. suggested that grouped superset training leads to higher levels of creatine-kinase in the muscles and of delayed onset muscle soreness over a 5 day rest when compared to separated supersets. In other words, the study suggests that athletes performing separated supersets recovered faster and performed better than their grouped superset counterparts. Furthermore, both “styles” showed similar muscle activation in the leg muscles and across the chest muscles, the only difference being that the grouped supersets often began activating secondary muscle groups when the main ones burnt out (such as secondary quad muscles during leg exercises or the shoulders during chest). The grouped supersets essentially lowered training quality for the targeted muscle groups.
While separated supersets are a great compromise for time-constrained workouts, most literature agrees that ample rest between sets is actually more beneficial for muscle hypertrophy. This study by Schoenfeld et. al. provides evidence that “longer rest periods [between exercises] promote greater increases in muscle strength and hypertrophy in young resistance-trained men”. The take away here is that if you do have the time of day, don’t try to rush a workout… the perceived increase of intensity without resting can lead
to counterintuitive results. However grouped supersets might have a place in low frequency schedules, where an athlete has long periods of rest between workouts.
As outlined in the Brentano study, a “good superset” is separated (i.e. tackles two muscle groups), and has adequate rest between exercises– meaning 45-120 seconds of rest between exercises, and at least 2-5 minutes before repeating an exercise. This will allow for high quality training while saving time.
A “bad superset” focuses on grouped exercises that use the same muscle group or movement pattern and has short rest periods– meaning less than 30 seconds between exercises and less than a minute before repeating an exercise. When focusing on a specific muscle group in a time constrained setting without allowing for enough rest, training quality suffers.
With these principles in mind, use supersets intelligently to get the most bang during your workout. Supersets (if done right!) are still your busy schedule’s best friend.
Cover Photo Courtesy of: 165th Airlift Wing