When it comes to maximizing fitness gains from your workout routine, you have many programming options to get the most out of your time in the gym.
In this context, you’ve probably heard about supersets in weight training.
Supersets are frequently used to boost the aerobic intensity of your regular lifting program and reduce the total time you need for each workout.
This article breaks down everything you need to know about supersets, including what they are, how to perform them, and the benefits and risks of this programming method.
Put simply, a superset is performing a set of two different exercises back-to-back with minimal rest in between.
Traditional resistance-training programming has you perform all assigned sets of the first exercise before moving on to the second exercise.
With supersets, you perform the first set of the second exercise right after completing the first set of the first exercise, before doing the second set of the first exercise.
The total number of sets is often the same with both methodologies; however, the amount of rest is reduced because you’re performing the sets back-to-back before taking the typical rest between weightlifting sets.
This results in an overall shorter workout time and increased aerobic intensity from the short rest period.
Supersets involve performing a set of two different exercises back-to-back with minimal rest.
There are several types of supersets that you can use, depending on your goals.
Push-pull supersets involve performing two exercises that use opposing muscle groups.
- bench press followed by barbell rows
- quadricep extension followed by hamstring curls
- barbell overhead press followed by pullups
Push-pull supersets are great for reducing your total workout time when performing resistance training for muscle growth.
Because you’re using opposing muscle groups, your strength on the second exercise will be less diminished from the first exercise despite a short rest period.
By the time you start your second set, the muscles used in the first exercise should have had enough recovery time between your rest periods and the time spent on the second exercise set.
Recent research supports the use of supersets for enhanced training efficiency and reduced training time. However, more rest may be required after the training session before the next training session due to the increased metabolic demand of the supersets (
Overall, push-pull supersets are the most commonly studied superset protocol.
The second type of superset is performing an upper body exercise followed by a lower body exercise or vice versa.
With this method, you can use large muscle groups in the lower body and get the upper body training in the same time frame.
Upper-lower supersets are a good way to reap aerobic benefits alongside strength training, particularly when rest periods are very short.
Additionally, if your goal is to perform a full-body workout in one session, upper-lower supersets are a good choice.
Pre-exhaustion compound-isolation sets
The third superset method is to perform an isolation exercise followed by a compound exercise that utilizes the same muscle group. For example, performing bicep curls followed by seated rows.
You can perform the isolation movement first or second. If performed first, your pre-exhausted biceps will have less output on the rows, theoretically requiring greater use of your back muscles for the row.
Performing an isolation exercise after a compound one, which is known as a post-exhaustion superset, will add an extra blast of work to that muscle, and you’ll certainly feel the burn.
However, there’s not a ton of research on the effectiveness of pre-exhaustion supersets.
Compound or cluster sets
Cluster sets are the most advanced type of superset and involve performing a high resistance compound exercise in multiple mini-sets instead of one longer set.
For example, a cluster set may include doing a mini-set of 3–4 repetitions, resting for 30 seconds, doing another mini-set followed by rest, and then repeating this pattern a third time.
When the cluster set is complete, you have completed the same volume of repetitions as you would in a traditional set. But with the added rest time, you’ll theoretically have more power. For example, instead of lifting at 75% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM), you may be lifting at 90%.
This makes cluster sets a challenging and effective way to achieve progressive overload without burning out.
Some research suggests cluster sets may help power and velocity maintenance when training for sport, as they allow you to work closer to your maximal output for more reps.
Other recent research has shown relatively little benefit from cluster sets compared with traditional programming (
As a general rule, only perform cluster sets under supervision from a qualified strength and conditioning coach.
Different types of supersets focus on certain goals. All methods involve performing two exercises back-to-back.
The biggest benefit of supersets lies in the overall reduced workout time for a given number of exercises, compared with a traditional resistance program in which you complete all sets of a single exercise before moving on.
Additionally, if you’re looking to combine your resistance training with aerobic training, you may benefit from utilizing supersets.
Research suggests that push-pull supersets elicit greater aerobic and metabolic responses than traditional programming while simultaneously reducing overall exercise duration (
Beyond the reduced time and increased aerobic effect of supersets, research is fairly equivocal on the additional benefits of supersets.
Supersets reduce workout time and provide increased metabolic demand.
Other than the baseline risks of any resistance training, supersets are fairly safe overall.
The biggest risk of supersets is that fatigue may make maintaining proper technique more difficult.
The more technically demanding an exercise, the more fatigue may hinder your ability to maintain proper form.
To avoid this, consider selecting exercises with less technical demand when performing supersets. For example, choosing leg press over barbell back squat, or dumbbell chest press instead of barbell benching.
If you can maintain good form on your exercises while supersetting, this is less of an issue.
However, if your technique begins to go downhill as the fatigue builds during your superset, either stop and rest, select easier exercises, or decrease the resistance.
Regardless, always consult your healthcare professional before beginning an exercise program.
Supersets are safe provided the fatigue does not result in diminished technique.
Although supersets are safe for most healthy individuals, there are a few reasons you might avoid them.
With the possible exception of cluster sets appropriately supervised by a qualified coach, supersets are not great for maximal strength and power activities.
If your goal is to exert maximal or near-maximal strength and power, you want to avoid fatigue.
Longer rest periods will allow you to maximize output on each repetition, ultimately leading to greater gains in these specific elements of performance.
As such, you should avoid supersets when training for maximal strength and power.
Additionally, if you’re very new to the gym, supersets can needlessly complicate your beginner’s fitness routine.
If your trainer has you doing supersets while supervising your form, that’s fine.
However, learning proper exercise technique is the top priority for new fitness enthusiasts, and if the fatigue and complication of doing supersets reduces your technique gains, you should save supersets for later in your fitness journey.
Supersets are not appropriate for training maximal strength and power and may impede technique development during the early phases of weight training.
Given that push-pull sets are the most studied form of supersets, you should focus any superset work on this method.
With that in mind, the best exercises for supersets are those with clear opposing muscle groups. Most upper body exercises are good candidates for this, as they’re typically either push or pull exercises.
You can further break down the exercises in terms of horizontal or vertical pushing and pulling.
For push-pull supersets, focus on pairing a horizontal push with a horizontal pull, or a vertical push with a vertical pull.
The following are a few example exercises from each.
- barbell overhead press
- dumbbell overhead press
- seated military press
- shoulder press machine
- lat pulldowns
- reverse grip lat pulldowns
- cable pulldowns
- barbell bench press
- dumbbell bench press
- seated chest press
- TRX pushups
- dumbbell rows
- barbell rows
- seated rows
- TRX rows
Isolation exercises can also be paired effectively for supersets. For example:
- bicep curls and triceps extensions
- chest flyes and rear delt flyes
- leg extensions and leg curls
- calf raises and banded ankle dorsiflexion
Major compound lower body exercises are less suitable for this type of superset because they typically use similar muscle groups.
For example, squats and deadlifts both hit the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. As such, they’re not useful for opposing muscle group supersets.
For lower body exercises, consider supersetting with an unrelated upper body exercise.
- back squats and pullups
- deadlifts and overhead press
- lunges and bench press
Supersets should use opposing muscle groups or entirely different muscle groups for each respective exercise.
If you want to implement supersets in your workout, consider picking two or four exercises to superset within your current program.
For example, if you already do bench press and rows, try supersetting them in your next workout.
You do not have to perform supersets for every exercise in your program. Start by picking the most obvious exercises to pair in your program.
If you’re focusing on maximal improvement in a single exercise like the bench press, you could do traditional sets on the bench press and then superset your other assistance exercises, such as bicep curls and triceps extensions.
Feel free to get creative with your supersets as needed.
There’s no minimal or maximal number of supersets to include in your workout, and as you experiment, you can pick and choose where this training method best fits into your current program.
You can add supersets into a standard workout program or adapt your current program to superset appropriate exercises.
Supersets are one of many techniques to modify your resistance workout for specific goals.
Supersets involve performing a set of one exercise immediately followed by a set of a second exercise.
The biggest benefit of supersets is decreased overall training time and increased aerobic demand. However, supersets are not appropriate when training for maximal strength and power in most circumstances.
Consider adding supersets into your current workout program for more variety, efficiency, and aerobic benefit to your resistance-training routine.