Women in a gym class doing a lunch with dumbbells on their shoulders.

Supersets in strength training: what are they and why you should use them

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From building muscle to spending less time in the gym, there’s big benefits to using supersets in your workouts. Here’s how to know if they’re right for you. 

Supersets are a style of training that you may have used before — whether you knew it or not. Frequently featured in workout programmes (including those within the Strong Women Training Club) as well as in classes and on Instagram workout videos, they’re a popular technique with huge benefits.

“I think supersets are brilliant,” says Tess Glynne-Jones, strength coach and head trainer at ROWBOTS. “You’ll see supersets everywhere because they keep your workload constant and consistent.” 

Don’t just jump in without a second thought though. As with everything you do in your workouts, it’s important to check whether the tool is actually aligned with your goals. 

What is a superset?

Put simply, a superset is two exercises performed back to back without a rest. For example, you would do 10 reps of exercise A immediately followed by 10 reps of exercise B, then rest for one minute and repeat. 

“The main point of supersets is to get more volume into your session. For people who are relatively short for time, it means they can do more without having to rush,” says Tess. 

How to do a superset

First, let’s start with how exactly you implement a superset into your training. According to Tess, it’s not advised to just throw any exercises back to back, but instead be strategic about which moves you pair. 

“I wouldn’t superset my compound exercises because I want to go as heavy as I can and give them all of my focus, rather than burn myself out,” she says. “However, with accessory work, supersets can come in really handy.”

’Accessory’ movements include exercises such as bicep curls, tricep extensions, glute bridges and hamstring curls. Unlike your squats, deadlifts and bench presses, these exercises isolate one or two smaller muscles and are less taxing on the entire body – making it slightly easier to jump into another exercise straight after. 

Whatever exercises you chose, picking the best order is crucial for pay off. Studies, such as a 2017 paper from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, show that performing the exercises of the largest muscle group immediately before the accessory exercise will increase muscle activity. That might mean, for example, doing a leg press that recruits muscles from the entire leg before a leg extension which isolates the quads to reap the best results.

A woman sat on a bench in the gym doing a shoulder press with dumbbells.
Supersets in strength training: the pros and cons

The pros and cons of supersets

Do supersets save time? 

Logically, yes, as pairing the exercises means that you’ll be taking less rest time. A 2010 paper published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning recommended supersets for “lunch-break exercisers, personal training clients, or others who have a fixed period of approximately 30-40 minutes to exercise” due to the fact that the sessions were completed in faster time. However, unless you’re designing your entire workout around supersets or you’re just supersetting a couple of exercises at the end of your session, you won’t be saving heaps of time.  

Do supersets build endurance?

“Supersets can helps to improve your muscular endurance, particularly if you are working the same muscle group,” Tess says. The reason is simply because you’ll be putting the muscle under load for longer, combined with the fact that you’ll be stimulating the muscle in slightly different ways to further fatigue it. For example, if you did a goblet squat followed by a reverse lunge, you will be loading and fatiguing the quads and glutes for more time. 

Do supersets make you stronger?

If pure strength is your aim, supersets might not be the best technique in your programme. “If you want to build strength you need to be working in a lower rep range at a high percentage of your maximum weight,” explains Tess. “By the end of that straight set, you’d be pretty tired and wouldn’t really be able to go and execute another exercise with good performance.”

Rather than fatiguing the muscles with a huge amount of volume, focus on lifting as heavy as you can in your straight sets with longer rest periods. You’ll recruit more fast twitch muscle fibres which will grow your muscles back stronger. 

Do supersets build muscle? 

Because supersets can increase the volume of a workout (i.e the amount of weight and number of reps you use) it is suggested that they can also improve hypertrophy. “For this to occur, you should be working in supersets of 8-12 reps per exericse,” says Tess. “Because this will be with a lighter weight than your strength reps, your body will be ale to handle a little bit more stress afterwards.”

Supersets increase volume in a shorter time frame, which leads to greater hypertrophy gains. But if time’s not an issue, are your muscle-building goals better served with super or straight sets? Well, by pushing a muscle closer to fatigue, the bigger it will grow back… but if you are fatiguing a muscle so much that you need to reduce the weight or reps in the next set, you’ll be reducing the volume. 

In other words, it’s a balancing act and you need to pick the exercises, reps and weights that work for you. “You don’t want to fly through a superset, but you shouldn’t be going ridiculously heavy. The last two reps should feel pretty challenging, but not so hard you can’t do them,” says Tess.

Ultimately, supersets are a great training tool to use if you don’t have much time or want to mix up your strength training. They won’t rocket launch your muscle-building gains, but using them strategically can support your hypertrophy and endurance training while also getting your heart rate up. Will you give them a go? 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).

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