How to Use Supersets for Better Workouts

Challenge your body with supersets

Woman doing a dumbbell row
Woman doing a dumbbell row. Inti St Clair/Getty Images

In the early days of strength training, the typical approach was to pick an exercise, pick up a set of weights and did and exercise for 10 or more reps. You rest for 30 or more seconds, pick up the weights again and do another set.

The way we learned to lift weights originally came from what the bodybuilders were doing. They were lifting weights for individual muscle groups to make them as big and strong as possible and the fitness world took that approach and adapted to the regular exercise who was trying to get fit and lose weight.

These days, the fitness world has expanded. We've learned that there are more methods of training — Ways to lift weights that will give us the results we want without the same old boring straight-set training.

One of the best options is by using supersets. This type of training not only saves time, it's a great way to add intensity to your workouts and push your body past weight loss plateaus.

The Basics of Supersets

Supersetting is a more advanced way to lift weights involving doing two or more exercises, one after the other, with no rest in between.

The exercises can be for the same muscle group, for example doing an overhead shoulder press followed by a lateral raise, which is the most intense way to use supersets. Because you're working the same muscle group, those muscle fibers get more time under tension.

Increasing that time under tension means you're optimizing muscle growth and getting the most out of your workouts.

Supersets can also involve working different muscle groups or even using different activities - e.g., a strength exercise followed by a cardio exercise.

The idea is to do one exercise and, instead of resting and doing another set, you do a different exercise and alternate those exercises for your desired number of sets.

The Benefits of Supersets

It's a good idea to change your strength workout every 4-6 weeks to avoid plateaus, and supersets offer a great way to completely change what you're doing. Supersets help you:

  • Save time. Going from one exercise to another without rest will make your workouts shorter and more efficient.
  • Increase intensity. If you choose supersets that work the same muscle, but with different exercises, you'll add intensity to your workout and recruit your muscle fibers just a bit differently, so it feels like you're getting a whole new set of exercises.
  • Overload your muscles. By working the same muscle with one exercise right after another, you can overload your muscles without using heavy weights. This is great if you don't have a spotter or don't want to lift very heavy weights.
  • Make things interesting. If you've been doing straight sets for a long time, supersetting can make weight training more interesting and more challenging.
  • Easily set up a workout. All you do is pick two exercises, either for the same muscle or by using some of the other ideas listed below, and do them one after the other. Rest about 30-60 seconds between supersets and repeat.
  • Incorporate more variety into your workouts. You don't have to do exercises for the same muscle group. You can do opposing muscle groups or even two completely different parts of the body.

    Bottom line? Supersets are an excellent choice if you're ready for a change.

    Types of Supersets

    You may be surprised at how many options you have when it comes to supersetting. Some of the basic supersetting training methods include:

    1. Pre-Exhaustion Supersets. This involves two exercises for the same muscle group. The first exercise is often an isolation move, which targets one muscle group, and the second is a compound movement, which targets multiple muscles. Example: Leg extensions, which target the quads, followed by squats. The quads are tired, but the other muscles used in squats (glutes, hamstrings and inner thighs) are fresh.
    1. Post-Exhaustion Supersets. This is the opposite of pre-exhaustion. You start with the compound movement and follow that with the isolation exercise. Example: Bench press followed by dumbbell flies.
    2. Compound Superset: This is a tough way of training since you're putting together two compound exercises, requiring more energy and strength. Remember, compound exercises are those that work several muscle groups at a time. Example: Squats followed by lunges.
    3. Isolation Supersets: In this type of training, combine two isolation exercises which means you're working one muscle group and one joint rather than multiple joints and muscles at the same time. Example: Dumbbells flies followed by a cable crossover.
    4. Opposing Muscle Groups: When you do two exercises that target opposing muscle groups, one muscle gets to rest while the opposite muscle works. You can pair back and chest, biceps and triceps, hamstrings and quadriceps, etc. Example: Biceps curls followed by triceps kickbacks.
    5. Staggered Supersets: In staggering, you do an exercise for a different muscle between sets. For example, do a set of chest presses and, while you're resting, do a set of calf raises or planks before going on to the next set of chest presses. This saves time, allowing you to work smaller muscle groups while the bigger ones rest. Choose the right exercises, and you can even keep the heart rate elevated, which will help you burn more calories. For example, try a chest press, squat jumps and then another set of chest presses.
    6. Tri-Sets: This is the same as a superset, except you're doing three exercises rather than two.  Try a set of pushups followed by chest presses and chest flies and you'll really feel it.
    7. Cardio and Strength Supersets: Another option for supersetting involves pairing a cardio exercise with a strength exercise. Putting these together in a certain way can add intensity to your workouts, overloading your muscles and forcing them to adapt and grow stronger. For best results, try working the same muscles for both exercises. For example:
      • The Stairmaster or stepping targets a variety of muscles, specifically the quads, so pair that with strength moves that involve the quads such as squats, lunges or step ups.
      • Cycling uses the quads quite a bit as well, so pair that exercise with leg extensions or leg presses.
      • Treadmill walking targets all the lower body muscles ​but involves the adductors (or inner thigh muscles) more than other cardio exercises. Consider pairing this with moves that target the inner thigh such as plie squats.
      • The elliptical targets the glute muscles quite a bit, so pair this with squats or other glute exercises.

    The sheer variety of how you can use supersets in your routine shows you just how much you can change your workouts to make them more interesting and challenge your body in new and different ways.