It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Supersets!

I’ve previously gone over some basic terms related to weight training including sets and reps. The topic of supersets isn’t something that the beginner, senior or otherwise, really needs to be concerned about, but eventually, you may want to expand your workout routine by including this method.

dumbbell flyes
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As you probably already know, a set is performing a sequence of weight lifting repetitions (reps) until you reach failure or a pre-determined number of reps. Then you stop and rest a certain amount of time before beginning the next set of the same exercise (assuming you are performing more than one set). The rest period can be a minute or two or whenever you are able to catch your breath.

A superset is performing one set of a particular lifting exercise and then without resting, immediately performing a set of a different lifting move. Only then do you rest for a particular amount of time and when your rest period is done, you repeat the superset, doing one lift, immediately performing the other lift, and then resting again.

Supersets can get a lot more involved according to FLEX Magazine, but then again, they’re writing for bodybuilders, not the senior weight trainer:

Well, supersetting is not the be-all and end-all of training techniques, but it’s certainly in the conversation when you’re talking about the most effective ways to increase your intensity. Supersets are simply two sets of different exercises performed one after the other without resting between the two. Officially, under the Weider Training Principles vernacular, “supersets” refers to sets done alternately for opposing muscle groups, such as triceps and biceps, and “compound sets” refers to doing two movements for the same muscle group; these days, however, “supersets” is the more commonly used term for any back-to-back exercise combo.

I periodically add and then remove supersets from my overall workout. I originally added them for three reasons: to break my weight training plateaus, to add more intensity to weight training, and to save time.

Sooner or later, your body is going to adapt to your weight training workouts so that you can’t seem to lift any more weight or can’t exceed a certain number of reps for a particular weight and exercise. One way to break a plateau is to go lighter and then go heavier for a while, and another is to go heavier and then go lighter. You can change things up every other day or every other week.

There are actually all kinds of ways to break a plateau and adding supersets is one of them. I can’t do supersets for everything, largely because adding too much intensity would be exhausting. For instance, adding supersets to my leg day routine would probably knock me flat. My legs are still sore from yesterday (I’m writing this on Thursday morning) and if I tried to superset my leg exercises, I probably would have trouble walking (or worse) when it was over.

concentration curls
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I usually superset my delt and trap workout as well as my triceps and biceps day routine. For instance, on delt and trap day, I’ll grab two different sets of dumbbells, a lighter pair for seated shoulder presses and a much heavier pair for seated shrugs. I’ll perform the shoulder press exercise, put down the weights, then immediately grab the heavier dumbbells and perform shrugs. Then I’ll rest for about a minute and go into the second superset, wait another minute, and perform the third one.

Granted, delts and traps aren’t complementary muscle groups like triceps and biceps are, but it’s still pretty easy to match up a delt lift and a traps lift for almost my entire workout.

The upside, as I said, is that I can perform more exercises faster because I’m reducing the amount of wait time involved. I’m also lifting for a longer period of time per superset because I’m really doing two different exercises in one series. Since I’m working different muscle groups between one set and the next, one muscle group rests while I’m working another.

This isn’t so clean cut supersetting delts and traps as it is for triceps and biceps since there’s some overlap in working the former groups. However, there is a downside: not being able to lift as heavy or for as many reps per exercise as if I were performing them in single sets. That’s the reason I’ll do supersets for several weeks (or several months) and then go back to single sets. I’ll do a little lighter for supersets, and then go heavier in the single sets.

Since the muscles in my arms are smaller than my legs, I’m less drained by these lifts, making them ideal for supersetting. You can also superset chest and back lifts, but since I work chest on one day and back on another, that’s not an option for me currently.

Supersets aren’t ideal for the beginner since you’re still trying to accustom your body to lifting in general and testing the limits of workout intensity. Also, since beginners tend to use LifeFitness or Nautilus machines, it’s tough to move from one machine immediately to another and then back again. There’s always the possibility that when you move from the first to the second weight machine, someone will start using the first one, pretty much messing up your entire superset routine. I’ve seen people do supersets using machines, but it’s not common, at least at my gym.

If you decide at some point to add supersets to your weight training program, you don’t have to superset everything. In fact, you can start just by supersetting two separate lifts, let’s say Concentration Curls for the biceps and Seated Dumbbell Triceps Extensions for the triceps. This is actually one of the supersets I use every Friday. You can start with either the biceps curl or the triceps extension. The order doesn’t really matter. While you’re working the second muscle group, the first rests and vice versa.

For the rest of your workout, you can perform regular sets. It’s a way to try out this technique and see if it’s right for you. But as I said, it’s a lot easier to do with free weights, particularly dumbbells, than with machines. Just make sure you rack your weights when you’re done rather than leaving them on the floor around your bench. Racking your dumbbells when you’re finished using them prevents people from tripping over them and makes the weights available for the next person who wants to use them (I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone into the weight room first thing in the morning just to find someone had left a pair of dumbbells on the floor the previous night).

Mr. IncredibleLike I said above, you don’t have to do this as a beginner. Heck, you don’t have to do supersets at all. Depending on your exercise and health goals, you may never attempt to do supersets and that’s perfectly okay. But then again, the same old workout day after day, week after week gets a little boring after a while. Sometimes you need to spice things up a bit.

Don’t be afraid to give up the good to go for the great.

John D. Rockefeller


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