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Should you use supersets to build muscle faster? Here's what 18 studies say on the subject!

Solltest Du Supersätze verwenden, um schneller Muskeln aufzubauen? Hier ist das, was 18 Studien zum Thema sagen!

In the first part of this article, we first took a look at what exactly supersets are and then looked at whether supersets can help you build strength and muscle faster than traditional sets. As studies have shown that this is not the case, in this second part we will look at other potential benefits of supersets and then look at a better way to use supersets.

Can supersets help you build strength faster?

Supersets are usually seen more as a bodybuilding training technique than a strength training technique, but some people claim that they can also be used to get stronger faster.

The reasoning for this is usually quite flimsy and usually comes down to the fact that more reps and sets will result in more strength over time, which is not inherently wrong. Increasing volume over time is indeed a valid way to increase your strength (1).

However, as we've seen before, your body doesn't respond to all that volume in exactly the same way. Some repetitions are more 'anabolic' than others.

We should also remember that in the case of supersets, we sacrifice intensity and performance by reducing rest intervals, which is great for increasing pumps and metabolic stress, but terrible when it comes to achieving maximum progressive overload.

To achieve the latter, you need to use as much weight as you can for the repetition range you're training in (2), and to achieve this, you need to rest longer than usual between sets to ensure your body and muscles have fully recovered and are ready for another set of intense effort (3).

As you can see, supersets are at odds with this.

However, you can focus on increasing your full-body strength while incorporating supersets into your training program. Read on to find out how this can work.

Can supersets help you lose fat faster?

If you've done any research into training and fitness, you'll know that you need an energy (calorie) deficit to lose fat. So anything that helps you burn more calories can help you lose fat by helping you maintain that energy deficit.

Many people believe that supersets are better than traditional sets in this regard because they are more strenuous and involve performing more repetitions in a shorter period of time.

This is partially true.

The primary factor that determines how many calories you burn during a training session is how much total work you perform during that training session (4). So if you use supersets to perform more repetitions during your training session, then you will also burn more calories.

Depending on how many extra reps you can pack into your training session, this can add up to a significant amount (5) - perhaps as many as 100 to 200 extra calories burned per session.

On the other hand, if you use supersets simply to complete a training session faster, you won't burn any more energy than you would have burned with longer rest intervals.

So if you take what is normally a 60 minute workout and change nothing except the rest intervals to make it a 45 minute superset workout, you won't burn any extra calories.

In fact, you will probably burn fewer calories than with a traditional training session, as you can use heavier weights (6).

Provided you follow a sensible diet, every extra calorie burned through supersets can indeed lead to slightly more fat loss over time. The problem, however, is the price you have to pay for this extra energy expenditure, which we have already discussed in detail.

By replacing heavy traditional sets with supersets, you can burn more calories, but you can't maximize progressive overload at the same time, and therefore you can't maximize your gains in strength and muscle (which is probably the reason you're training with weights in the first place).

Of course, you could argue that this doesn't matter because you can't build significant amounts of strength and muscle mass while losing fat anyway, but this is not entirely true.

Advanced exercisers shouldn't expect big gains during fat loss, but most gym-goers can actually build muscle and lose fat at the same time if they know what to do.

In addition, scientific research suggests that heavy, traditional training with weights may be best for advanced exercisers who want to maintain a maximum amount of muscle mass during fat loss (7).

Some people also claim that supersets can somehow improve muscle definition and produce cuts.

However, even though supersets can make your muscles burn more, this does not lead to better muscle definition, which is primarily a product of what level of muscle development you have achieved and how low your body fat percentage is.

You can't lose fat in a targeted area (at least not to any significant degree) by performing specific exercises for those areas of your body or specific muscle groups, so the only way to improve the definition of your arms, chest, abs or any other area is to reduce your body fat percentage.

Can supersets replace cardio?

If you train with weights, then you probably won't be a big fan of cardio. And even if you like cardio, there's only so much time you can invest in your pursuit of the perfect body and cardio only plays second fiddle here because training with weights can do so much more for your body composition.

This is the reason why many people claim that you don't need cardio training if you make your workout harder with weights through supersets.

Well, while there are some benefits (8) to including cardio in your training program, there's not really a reason to do so as long as you're doing several hours of resistance training per week.

However, even though supersets can turn you into a sweaty, breathless heap of misery with a pounding heart, much like cardio, this doesn't necessarily mean they work just as well when you look at the underlying physiology.

We can find evidence of this in a study conducted by scientists at Southampton Solent University (9), which involved two groups of strongmen and powerlifters who completed the following training protocols:

  1. One group performed a high repetition training program of squats and deadlifts with short rest intervals, which is basically equivalent to superset training.
  2. The other group performed HIIT cardio training sessions on an exercise bike.

After 8 weeks, the researchers found that both groups had built roughly the same amount of leg strength, with the HIIT cardio group significantly improving their aerobic fitness.

Other studies on this topic have reported similar results (10).

So the bottom line on the topic is this:

Strength training can do many wonderful things for your body (11), but it can't deliver the same benefits as cardiovascular training (cardio).

Cardio training with at least moderate intensity burns more calories per minute than training with weights (12) and is also the better choice when it comes to improving blood lipid levels, blood pressure, heart health and blood sugar levels (13, 14, 15, 16).

Thus, supersets cannot replace cardio training. In a sense, nothing can replace cardio training. Either you do cardio and reap the benefits, or you don't.

A better kind of superset

Taking all this into account, supersets, when performed in the way they normally are, are not particularly beneficial.

They are no better for muscle growth than traditional sets, they make it harder for you to use heavy weights and increase the weight on the bar and they don't save you that much time (do those 15 minutes really matter?).

So what are supersets good for?

Well, I like supersets when they are used as supersets with antagonistic pairing. In an antagonistic-pairing superset, you perform one set of an exercise, followed without rest by a set of an exercise for the muscle group that trains the antagonist of the muscle group that was trained in the first set.

Technically, a muscle that contracts is considered an agonist and the muscle responsible for the opposite movement is considered an antagonist. An antagonist muscle is simply a muscle that has the opposite function of another muscle.

For example, the biceps serves to flex the arm, while the triceps is its antagonist, as it causes the opposite - an extension of the arm.

If both of these muscles were to contract hard enough at the same time, it could cause serious damage to muscles, ligaments and tendons, which is why our bodies generally inhibit one muscle group while contracting another.

The difference between traditional supersets and supersets with antagonistic pairing is as follows:

  • In traditional supersets, you increase the fatigue of a single muscle group
  • In supersets with antagonistic pairing, you train two muscle groups and simply perform more sets in less time without increasing fatigue in either muscle group compared to single sets.

Basically, in supersets with antagonistic pairing, you use the sets for one muscle group as rest intervals for the other muscle group, which is not involved when the agonist takes control.

This also works for muscle groups that are not antagonists but are far enough apart that training one muscle group does not affect the other muscle group.

For example, you can easily switch back and forth between shoulder exercises and calf exercises without affecting the performance of the other muscle group.

This has also been observed in scientific studies. A 2010 study review conducted by researchers at the University of Ballarat concluded that sets with antagonistic pairing allowed athletes to complete their workouts in less time while using weights that were just as heavy (or in some cases heavier) than traditional training programs (17).

With this information, let's take a look at how you can perform supersets the smart way.

1. use traditional sets for your heavy multi-joint exercises

Although you can use supersets with antagonistic pairing for your multi-joint exercises, I don't recommend it.

Exercises such as squats, bench presses and deadlifts are full body exercises, which means that any kind of supersets will reduce your performance on these exercises. Considering the importance of these exercises, it's simply not worth compromising your progress on these exercises just to finish your training sessions faster.

This is also the reason why scientific research shows that it's best to perform your heavy multi-joint exercises in a row, without other exercises in between, and use supersets with antagonistic pairing afterwards in your isolation exercises (18).

Your training session could look like this, for example:

  • Bench press
    • Set 1
    • Set 2
    • Set 3
  • Barbell curls set 1
  • Tricep press set 1
  • Barbell curls set 2
  • Tricep press set 2
  • Barbell curl set 3
  • Tricep press set 3

2. combine exercises as a superset that do not interfere with each other

This of course means antagonists, but as I mentioned before, this also includes muscle groups that are far enough apart to not be connected in their function.

So you can combine exercises for many different muscle groups like the following:

  • Biceps and triceps
  • Quadriceps and hamstrings
  • Chest and back
  • Shoulders and back
  • Back and quadriceps
  • Calves and shoulders
  • Shoulders and quadriceps
  • Triceps and back

When I personally perform supersets, I like to do them as follows:

I perform two heavy multi-joint exercises with traditional sets (finishing all sets of one exercise first before moving on to the next exercise) and then I perform supersets with antagonistic pairing for two or three isolation exercises.

Here's an example of a leg training session:

  • Classic squats: warm up and then 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps with 80 to 85% of my 1RM (max weight for one repetition) and 3 minutes rest between sets - Romanian deadlift: 3 sets of 4 to 6 reps with 80 to 85% of my 1RM and 3 minutes rest between sets
  • Leg press and leg curls as a superset with antagonistic pairing: 3 sets of 6 to 8 repetitions per exercise with 75 to 80% of 1RM weight and 2 minutes rest between supersets

3. rest at least 1 to 2 minutes between supersets

Even if the muscle groups in your superset do not directly affect each other, you will still be a little exhausted after each set.

For example, if you've just done a set of leg extensions, you won't be able to do leg curls as well as after 1 or 2 minutes rest (19). You need to allow your heart rate to drop back into the normal range and mentally prepare yourself for another heavy set.

For this reason, it's best to rest at least 1 to 2 minutes between your supersets - or as long as you need to feel fully ready for the next set (20).

Personally, I rest 1 minute between supersets for biceps and triceps and 2 minutes between supersets for larger muscle groups such as quadriceps and hamstrings.

The bottom line on supersets

A superset is two exercises performed one after the other with minimal rest.

Supersets can help you finish your training sessions faster, but that's almost all they have to offer.

They are no better than traditional sets when it comes to building muscle and if used incorrectly (as most people do) they can actually hinder your progress by making progressive muscle overload harder.

Also, when it comes to strength gains, supersets have nothing to offer. They make it impossible to maintain the intensity, volume and frequency needed for optimal strength gains.

However, supersets can have a place in a well-planned training program. When used in the form of supersets with antagonistic pairing, they can allow you to do more work in a shorter period of time without sacrificing your performance or results.

To do this, simply alternate between agonist and antagonist muscle groups such as biceps and triceps and rest for a minute between supersets.

You can also do this with muscle groups that aren't technically agonist and antagonist, but are far enough apart to be unrelated in function.

As long as you...

  1. Use traditional sets for your heavy multi-joint exercises
  2. Combine muscle groups that don't interfere with each other into supersets
  3. Rest at least 1 to 2 minutes between your supersets can save time with the help of supersets without suffering any disadvantages.




By Michael Matthews

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