The term supersetting is becoming a mainstay in fitness vocabulary, and with good reason—pairing exercises in sets is an efficient way to work out because you can get more done in less time. It’s often used as a catch-all term to describe doing two different exercises back-to-back, then taking a quick breather before repeating the two exercises again for another set. By minimizing the rest between the moves your heart rate will rise quicker, and you’ll also be challenging your muscles.
There are three main ways to work your muscles in pairs, and knowing the difference between the training styles means you’ll be sweating it out in the most efficient way for your personal goals.
Working two completely different muscle groups (like one lower-body and one upper-body move), this would be considered a circuit, which is great for burning fat.
Supersets and compound sets have traditionally been for a specific joint or muscle area, whereas if you’re going from upper body to lower body, now you’re getting more of the total body involved. For example:
Circuits are great for increasing all-over muscle mass (rather than in a specific muscle group), because you’re targeting more muscle groups in a shorter period of time. This is why it’s great if you can only strength train three times a week.
Another major benefit is that they’re great for burning fat, because they drive your heart rate up (especially if you’re moving between a floor move and a standing move, like push-ups and squats). You’re increasing blood flow throughout more of the body, whereas with a super set or compound set you’re increasing blood flow in a specific area of the body. But if you’re doing, say, a chest exercise followed by a lower-body exercise, you’re challenging the heart to work harder to pump blood to the working muscles, so you’re actually creating more of a cardiorespiratory load. This means a bigger calorie burn, so it’s a good option if weight loss or fat loss is your goal.
True supersets pair two exercises that work opposing muscle groups and are ideal for building strength.
Opposing muscle groups are muscles that are “opposite” of each other. Think, your chest and back, your hamstrings and quads, and your biceps and triceps. For example, you could do a chest press followed by a back row. As your chest muscles are contracting during the chest press, your back muscles are lengthening to allow the contractions to occur. Then the back is warmed up and can work harder, and while you’re using the back during a back row, the chest muscles are resting and renewing their energy. That mini recovery will help enable your chest muscles to give the same effort level during the next round. Here are some examples of exercises you could pair together for supersets:
- Chest press and back row
- Glute bridge and front lunge (hamstrings and quads)
- Biceps curl and triceps kickback
Supersets are particularly great for building strength, or how much force your muscles are able to produce. Because you’re going to be using different muscle groups, one muscle group is resting [while the other is working], so you’ll be able to lift a little bit heavier and get a few more reps in than you would with compound sets. Simply put, your muscles will be doing more work overall because after a break, they’ll be able to put in more work during the next set. This mechanical overload creates damage to the actual muscle fibers, and they rebuild stronger during the repair process.
Compound sets, on the other hand, work the same muscle groups, and they’re best for improving muscular shape.
During a compound set, you pair two exercises that work the same muscle group (rather than opposing ones). The purpose of this is to fatigue the same muscle group, rather than let it recharge. You’re going to tax that muscle group, so the reps in each set can decrease if you’re compound setting. Here are a few examples of exercises you could pair together in a compound set:
This type of pairing is great for improving muscle definition, which is how the muscle looks, rather than how much force it can produce (strength). The longer that a muscle stays under tension, the longer that muscle stays contracted. If the muscle is under resistance for a longer period of time, then the muscle motor units, which lead to the contraction, are staying more active.