What Is a Superset? Plus, How to Add Them to Your Fitness Routine
If you have a goal to build muscle and you value time-efficient workouts, supersets belong on your radar.
By Renee Cherry•
One of the nice things about taking a fitness class is that you can let the instructor worry about the structure of your workout while you focus all your efforts on getting your heart rate up. You can trust them to program your entire workout in addition to hyping you up and providing form cues.
Working out solo is another story. It’s up to you to decide exactly how to structure your sets, reps, and rest times based on what you’re trying to achieve. While you could technically just hop from one workout move to another—completing random quantities of reps along the way—other strategies will probably serve you better. Supersets are one common approach, and they’re worth learning about if you prefer quick but effective workouts.
What Is a Superset?
Adding a superset to your resistance training session essentially involves pairing multiple sets of exercises together. “Supersets are a lifting protocol in which you perform one set, rest a specified amount of time, then perform another set,” says Peloton instructor Andy Speer. “The exercises are non-competitive, meaning they work opposing muscle groups or are split upper body followed by a lower body exercise.”
For example, you might perform a set of chest presses followed by a set of rows, biceps curls then triceps extensions, or shoulder presses with pull-ups then Romanian deadlifts, explains Andy. You may opt to complete the exercises back-to-back without resting, or with short rest periods in between.
What Are the Benefits of Supersets?
Supersets are ideal if you want to fit in a solid workout into a brief gym session. Compared to traditional sets, which require you to complete one set then take ample rest, supersets cut down on the total time of your workout.
“The idea behind supersets is that while you are working [the muscles targeted by] exercise A, [the muscles targeted by exercise B are] ‘resting,’ or at least not being used to move the weights,” says Andy. “This way, you are actually including your rest for exercise A while performing exercise B, so you can maximize your time efficiency while strength training.”
Are Supersets Good for Building Muscle?
Supersets are an ideal choice for people who are seeking muscle growth. While supersets can suit a variety of training goals depending on the exercise selection, rep scheme, and rest, they’re “most beneficial for hypertrophy training, building muscle,” says Andy.
At the same time, they’re not necessarily better than other rep schemes from a muscle growth perspective. In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Science In Sport and Exercise, athletes were separated into groups that performed banded exercises as a superset without resting between, or as traditional sets with rests in between. There wasn’t a significant difference in biceps or triceps muscle growth between the groups after eight weeks. The traditional group also had improvements in strength, while the superset group did not.
Examples of Supersets to Use In Your Workouts
Whether you’re interested in muscle growth, strength, or cardio, you can create supersets that suit your goals. Here are some examples of supersets that you can slot into your workout routine, courtesy of Andy.
For Hypertrophy (to Build Muscle)
As mentioned, supersets are especially useful for those who want to build muscle and create efficient workouts. To target your upper body, you can try this combination, which is an example of a “push-pull” superset. In push-pull supersets, one exercise targets your chest, shoulders, and triceps, and another targets your back, biceps, and forearms.
8–12 reps of chest presses
15–30 seconds rest
8–12 reps of of bent over rows
15–30 seconds rest
Repeat 4 times through
To Increase Strength
If your main priority is to build strength rather than to increase muscle mass, you’ll be better off with traditional sets that incorporate a single exercise with ample rest in between rather than relying on supersets. “Straight sets with 90-second to five-minute rest periods are often a better choice, as they allow more recovery time so your muscular and nervous system are fresh for the next set,” says Andy. Those who are training for maximum strength tend to lift heavy in the three to five rep range, he says.
Research backs the claim that supersets are better suited to muscle-building goals. A 2021 review in Sports Medicine that focused on time-saving methods in workouts concluded that supersets cut training time in half without reducing volume (the total amount of work you’re doing, taking number of reps and weight into account), but that supersets are probably better at inducing hypertrophy than strength.
Still, you can utilize a superset that’s more geared toward building strength, by taking longer rests in between compared to a superset designed for hypertrophy. Here’s one way to do so:
5 shoulder presses
1–2 minute rest
5 weighted pull-ups
1–2 minute rest
For Cardio and Muscle Building
If you’re strictly interested in cardio, then circuit training that incorporates four to five exercises will make more sense than supersets, says Speer. But if you want to increase your cardio capacity and build muscle at the same time, he suggests Peripheral Heart Action (PHA) training, a protocol that alternates between upper body exercises and lower body exercises.
“The idea is that blood flow must travel from your upper body then back to your lower body increasing the demand of your heart to pump blood and in turn your heart rate,” says Andy. “You’ll want to use multi-joint exercises and large muscle groups for this.” Here’s one way to try it out:
8 right single-arm shoulder presses
8 left reverse lunges
8 left single-arm shoulder presses
8 right reverse lunges
Repeat for 4 total rounds, resting 20 seconds between each round.
Make it harder: Instead of completing 4 rounds, complete as many rounds as you can in 8 minutes, without resting between rounds.
How to Add Supersets to Your Fitness Routine
You can use supersets as often you please, mixing and matching them with other rep schemes. “The best way to think about it is [to] use supersets for the training goal you’re working towards,” says Andy. “Changing the exercises, reps, and rest periods will add enough variety that supersets will continue to challenge you. Mix them with other training methods such as straight sets and circuits for a well-rounded training routine.”
Whether you’re a beginner or more advanced, you can take advantage of supersets with exercises you’re familiar with, says Andy. “The three aspects to keep in mind are rest periods, weight selection, and overall volume,” he says. “Choose a weight that is challenging for the final two to three reps but not going to high fatigue or failure. Start with a minimum of 30 seconds rest between sets and start with three to four sets per exercise. Increase weight, decrease rest and increase volume as you become more experienced.”
Bear in mind that if you gravitate toward superset-heavy workouts, your body may take longer to recover compared to a plan that relies more heavily on traditional sets. In a 2017 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, athletes who’d used supersets or trisets (supersets with three or more exercises) had greater lactate responses from exercise compared to athletes who’d used traditional sets. Lactate response is an indication of the intensity of exercise in relation to someone’s conditioning, and the study authors concluded that athletes that use supersets and trisets may require additional recovery to minimize the effects of fatigue.
Mistakes to Avoid When Doing Supersets
Typically, supersets pair together exercises that target opposing muscle groups. “One big mistake I see when programming supersets is using competitive exercises,” says Andy. “Supersets should use non-competitive exercises, giving [the muscles involved in] exercise A time to rest while [the muscles involved in] exercise B [are] working. If you pick two exercises that use the same muscle groups like the chest press and skull crusher, you are using your triceps in both moves.
That said, it isn’t unheard of to perform sets of exercises that work the same muscle group back to back, to maximize the fatigue of that muscle group. “These are a subcategory of supersets specifically designed to maximize fatigue on the synergistic muscles called compound sets,” says Andy. “These are a fantastic way to train for a slightly different training effect.” Since both sets of exercises are taxing to the same muscle group, you may need to reduce the amount of weight or reduce the number of reps in each set to ensure your form doesn’t suffer during compound sets.
In short, supersets are a smart addition to a well-rounded workout routine, especially if you want to build muscle and keep your workouts efficient. Many approaches to supersets exist, so you can create combinations that suit your fitness level and current goals. And if you’d prefer to have someone else do the work for you, know that supersets are a common element in many of Peloton’s strength classes.