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National Council on Strength & Fitness
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Implementing Superset Training
 
 
 

The implementation of a new training system is an excellent way to rejuvenate a workout or add more volume and intensity to a training program that must be completed in a specified period of time. A training system employs a technique that allows an exercise or group of exercises to better serve a defined purpose. One of the most popular of the anaerobic training systems is the superset. Supersets combine two or three exercises (tri-sets) in sequence with only transitional rest between the sets. Transitional rest refers to the amount of time it takes to switch from one exercise to the next with no additional rest. In a superset, the exercises are not combined to form one movement, something referred to as a combination or compounded exercise, but rather are separated to individual actions that remain consistent with the workout parameters. The diversity between the sets is what makes the superset such a viable option in any training program.

 
Example:Combination Exercise 
Front Squat to Overhead Press6 repetitions
 
 Superset 
 Front Squat8 repetitions (superset)
 Military Press6 Repetitions
 

The goal of the training as with any program defines how the superset is implemented. The role of the superset is to exploit a physiological component to maximize the results or to accomplish more work in a shorter period of time. Deciding on the correct superset should always be based on the goal of the training. If the ultimate goal of the training or exercise is to elicit a hypertrophic response from the tissue, the exercise should stress the body in a way that maximizes muscle fiber recruitment while stimulating the appropriate hormone response. This suggests that the exercises used in the hypertrophy superset should tax the same muscle group. In doing so, more muscle fibers fatigue due to longer time under tension and the tissue is forced to recruit additional muscle fibers. The resistance must be at a level that is moderately heavy (70%-85% of 1RM) to stimulate testosterone and growth hormone release, while the lack of rest between sets causes the accumulation of lactate to stimulate mediator and permissive hormones causing the liver to release insulin-like growth factor. Examples of a superset for hypertrophy in the chest musculature are a bench press superset with dumbbell flies or body dips superset with seated chest press.

 

If the goal of the training program is to condition the body for better anaerobic endurance, the body must experience adequate stress in the glycolytic pathway. In this case the muscle groups can differ between sets but the repetitions must occur in the appropriate range with an intensity of 65%-70% 1RM. A set of squat to overhead dumbbell press superset with seated medicine ball rotation or modified pull-ups superset with push-ups both can tax the system appropriately and still be completed in close enough proximity to each other to maintain limited transition time between the exercises. When the superset uses equipment that requires travel between the exercise sets, transitional rest is increased and the benefits of the superset are reduced.

 

Strength training is more challenging for superset programming because the intensity required of appropriate strength training places heavy demand on stabilizers and assistive muscle groups. When the system becomes fatigued, overload is diminished and the reduction in stability often compromises the movement’s performance, thereby increasing the risk of injury. For instance, supersetting squats with Romanian deadlifts would cause significant stress on the muscles of the low back. Therefore strength supersets often use different body segments to attain the best results from greater loads being lifted.

 

When combining exercises in supersets aimed at strength improvements, connecting factors between the lifts, such as the low back with the squat and Romanian deadlift, should be identified to ensure the stress will not result in that connecting factor becoming a limiting factor. Military press and incline bench press for instance use similar stabilizers and therefore maximal force output would be compromised in the latter exercise during the first set and total output would be reduced on subsequent sets. Push/Pull combinations and body segment variations are useful tactics in supersetting for strength. A key area to pay attention to is the spinal segments due to the stability requirements of several joints. In a push/pull superset for strength, alternating dumbbell press would superset better with machine row than pull-ups due to the taxation on joint stabilizers. Similarly, when using upperbody/lowerbody supersets front squats would go better with lat pulldown than bent-over row due to the spinal segment requirements of both the squat and bent-over row. Generally speaking, high force output with high stability requirements should be combined with high force output with reduced stability requirements when the goal is strength-based.

 

When supersets are designed to address power, two thought processes often exist. Combining the ATP/CP system with the glycolytic system or combining strength with power which is referred to as contrast supersets. An example of combining anaerobic systems would be supersetting power cleans with medicine ball chest pass for a well trained individual or box jumps with lunge rebounds for a moderately conditioned person. For an older adult, the combination may be chair stands superset with speed band pulls. The key to power is the velocity of the movement. The intensity is relative to the individual so although higher intensities are used they reflect capability. For instance, 85% of 1RM may sound intimidating for some populations but remember 85% of a low number is an even lower number. If the maximum is 20 lbs. of force, 85% reflects only 17 lbs. Contrast supersets are a little different because a slow heavy set is combined with a lighter set performed at a much faster rate. Normally 85% 1RM is used for 5 or 6 controlled repetitions while 45-60% 1RM is used for 8-15 repetitions. A back squat superset with tuck jumps or bench press superset with medicine ball chest pass are common examples. Regardless of the combination, the exercise pairings have to make sense for the program goals and for the individual.

 

Supersets can also be used as time savers in lower frequency programs or for general conditioning. Modified circuits can use supersets to increase the intensity while still accomplishing higher amounts of work. Consider the following training program.

 
 

Combination exercises or compound supersets can be added to further drive the adaptation response as exercisers become more physically fit. Supersets that utilize greater amounts of tissue to produce larger quantities of accelerated force or that decelerate higher products of mass-velocity require additional consideration due to the physiological demand. Generally grouped in two or three sets, the compound exercises segment force-couples to engage the major muscle groups of the body. Commonly this is accomplished by mixing upper and lower body movements or trunk and limb combinations.

 
COMPOUND SUPERSET EXAMPLES
 

Compound supersets may warrant longer rest intervals between sets depending on the intensity used to perform the movements. Light weight compound supersets are an excellent supplement to a weight management program and can also be used for improved conditioning to enhance cardiovascular based workouts as is typically seen in group exercise classes.

 

Regardless of the defined application, supersets offer numerous options and have a place in any type of exercise program. Due to the fact that they can benefit strength, power, and overall fitness, different types of supersets can even be used within the same program. Supersets will result in increased volume and subsequent adaptations in programs where frequency is a challenge. Supersets also are a viable solution for workout bouts that must be completed in a short period of time. It is not hard to add diversity and difficulty to any available time segment by simply combining exercises in a logical sequence. The keys to successful implementation of supersets are respecting fatigue, the stability requirements, and the client’s capabilities.