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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!

Supersets are a basic building block of classic bodybuilding workouts. You'll find them in almost every bodybuilding magazine, every bodybuilding book and every bodybuilding blog and bodybuilders of the golden era such as Franco Columbu, Frank Zane and Arnold swore by supersets.

But how effective are supersets really? And how do they compare to simpler muscle building techniques like increasing volume (reps), frequency or intensity (load)?

Well, the short answer is that supersets are neither inherently good or bad - it all depends on how you use them. Use them correctly and you'll be able to finish your workouts faster without compromising your performance. Use them incorrectly and they will slow down your progress.

Let's start by defining exactly what a superset is.

What is a superset?

A superset is a training technique where you perform two exercises in a row with little or no rest between exercises. For this reason, supersets are sometimes referred to as paired sets.

When more than two exercises are combined in this way, it is usually referred to as a circuit or, in the case of 3 sets, a triple set. You may also have heard of mega sets, which typically describe a circuit of 4 or more exercises.

Sometimes supersets are used to target the same muscle group with the goal of activating all muscle fibers in that muscle group as fully as possible.

An example of this would be a superset consisting of a set of barbell curls and a set of dumbbell hammer curls, both of which target the biceps but load them slightly differently.

Supersets are also often used to target different (usually antagonistic) muscle groups, usually with the aim of saving time.

For example, you could perform a set of bench press supersets with barbell rows to target your pulling and pushing muscles.

After completing a superset, you usually rest for one to two minutes before moving on to the next set, exercise or superset of your training session.

In an arm training session, the use of supersets could look like this:

  • Barbell curls: 10 - 12 reps.
    • Immediately followed by
  • Tricep presses: 10 - 12 reps.
    • 1 to 2 minutes rest

Repeat the whole thing two to three times.

Do supersets help you build muscle faster?

Many people believe that supersets are better for building muscle mass than traditional training methods and their reasoning usually includes one or more of the following points:

  1. "Supersets are heavier and harder than traditional sets"
  2. "Supersets help you complete more repetitions during a training session"
  3. "Supersets give you a stronger pump"
  4. "Supersets stimulate a release of growth hormones and testosterone"

Let's take a look at each of these claims below and see if they stand up to scrutiny (and science).

"Supersets are heavier and harder than traditional sets"

There's no getting around the fact that building a well-developed body takes a lot of hard and unpleasant work.

"No pain, no gain" may not necessarily be advice for practitioners, but this statement isn't completely inaccurate either. If you don't continually push your body and stress your muscles beyond their comfort zone, then you won't get far in your muscle building efforts.

This is the reason why many people believe that supersets are highly effective. They are heavier, more strenuous and more painful than traditional sets. However, this does not necessarily mean that they are better for building muscle.

The main reason supersets feel more strenuous and harder is because of the short rest intervals, which make the weights seem heavier, promote a pump and greatly increase the heart rate (1). However, these things are surprisingly not a powerful muscle-building stimulus (2).

"Supersets help you complete more repetitions during a training session"

This statement is true. By combining exercises into a superset, you can do more work in a shorter period of time and since accumulated volume (total reps) is an important part of muscle building, this sounds good at first glance (3).

The problem, however, is that just as one calorie is not equal to one calorie when it comes to optimizing body composition, one repetition is not equal to one repetition when it comes to optimizing strength and muscle gains.

In other words, there is such a thing as higher and lower quality volume and if you want to build muscle and strength as quickly as possible, then you need to emphasize and prioritize the former as much as possible.

One of the key factors that determines the quality of repetitions you perform is the intensity or amount of weight relative to your one repetition maximum (1RM) that you use. Simply put, if you're not moving heavy enough weights, you're not going to get as much out of your workout as you could.

I don't want to ramble on too much at this point and to make a long story short, scientific research shows that you should focus on weights in the range of 75 to 85% of your 1RM weight if you want to maximize your gains in strength and muscle mass (4).

The only way to achieve this is to ensure that you get enough rest between sets, as your performance will decline rapidly if you don't rest long enough between sets (e.g. 1 minute between heavy sets of a strength workout).

If your rests between sets are too short, you will either have to use lighter weights or you will only be able to perform fewer repetitions, which will slow down your progress over time. Scientific research shows that people who rest longer between sets are able to build more strength and muscle mass than those who rest less time between sets (5).

Although supersets can help you increase the volume of your training sessions, they are not usually the type of high quality volume that will have a strong impact on strength and muscle mass gains.

"Supersets give you a stronger pump"

The term pump refers to a temporary increase in muscle size that occurs when you move weights and is particularly strong when you use higher repetitions and shorter rest intervals.

When you contract your muscles, higher concentrations of metabolic by-products such as lactic acid (lactate), hydrogen ions and phosphates accumulate around the muscle cells (6).

In response, your body pumps more blood into the muscle to remove these chemicals and supply the muscle with more oxygen and nutrients. Some of this blood remains "trapped" in the muscle, resulting in a noticeable and visible pump.

However, these chemicals do not only contribute to the pump. Some of them also directly stimulate muscle growth through a process known as metabolic stress (7).

Supersets are good for achieving a strong pump as they usually involve 10 or more repetitions and short rest intervals, which greatly increases the production of metabolic waste products and blood flow to the muscle.

As a result, they also cause more metabolic stress than traditional sets, so it is theorized that they may also stimulate greater muscle growth.

The problem, however, is that metabolic stress is not a strong stimulus for muscle growth (8). This stimulus is not nearly as strong as mechanical stress, for example, which represents how hard your muscles have to contract to move a weight.

In other words, metabolic stress and mechanical tension are two different muscle building pathways (9) and when you train your muscles, both are involved to some extent.

How much one pathway is emphasized over the other depends on what you're doing. Supersets emphasize metabolic stress more than mechanical stress, while heavy strength training emphasizes mechanical stress more than metabolic stress.

This is why relying too heavily on supersets is a mistake - you produce a lot of metabolic stress (which is a weak muscle-building stimulus) at the expense of mechanical tension (which is a stronger muscle-building stimulus).

This has been demonstrated by several studies, including one conducted by researchers at the University of Central Florida that compared a higher repetition "pump" training program to a lower repetition strength training program (10).

Both training programs resulted in the same amount of muscle growth, but there was a small trend towards greater gains in the strength training group.

Similar results were observed in another study conducted by researchers who compared training at 30% of 1RM weight (maximum weight for one repetition) with training at 80% of 1RM weight (11).

They found that even though both groups built roughly the same amount of muscle, the group training at 30% of 1RM weight had higher levels of fatigue that would likely require a longer period of time to fully recover (reducing potential training frequency).

In addition, the more supersets you perform during your workout, the more fatigued you will be, which will reduce your performance when training with heavy weights and reduce the amount of mechanical tension you can expose your muscles to during the rest of your training session.

All of this is why the correct way to use supersets is to save them for less important (isolation) exercises and perform supersets later in the training session after you've already done the heavy work of the day.

So even though pump training can produce a good amount of metabolic stress and a weak muscle building stimulus, it's not nearly as effective as increasing mechanical tension (progressive overload) and can furthermore interfere with the type of training that increases mechanical tension.

"Supersets stimulate a release of growth hormone and testosterone"

Scientists have known for some time that shortening rest periods and using higher repetition ranges generally produces a greater increase in levels of anabolic hormones such as growth hormone and testosterone (13).

A good example of this is a study conducted by researchers at Kennesaw State University and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (14). This study compared the changes in testosterone levels in people who performed supersets with the corresponding changes in people who used traditional sets.

The researchers found that the group that paused for 1 minute between sets (the superset group) had 25% higher testosterone levels immediately after training than the group that paused for 2.5 minutes between sets.

This is the reason that some bodybuilding gurus say you can use supersets to optimize your hormone levels and build muscle faster.

Body and temporary increases in anabolic hormone levels are nice, but how much can they actually affect muscle growth?

Well, while some research suggests that the effects of this are significant (15), the majority of studies conducted to date on the subject say the opposite (16).

In short, a review of the available research on this topic shows quite clearly that temporary, exercise-induced increases in anabolic hormone levels do not significantly contribute to additional gains in strength or muscle mass.

A good example is the study referenced above (14). Ironically, the group that took shorter rests between sets built significantly less strength and muscle mass than the group that took longer rests - even though the group with the shorter rest intervals experienced a stronger increase in anabolic hormone levels after training.

In the second part, we will look at other potential benefits of supersets and then show a better way to use supersets.




By Michael Matthews

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