WHAT IS A SUPERSET? (IT MAY NOT BE WHAT YOU THINK!)
If you’ve been training for any length of time, you’ve likely done your share of supersets.
But your idea of what a superset is and its purpose may have only been partially correct!
First, let’s take a look at what a superset actually is. There are two criteria to be called a proper superset:
- You have to have two (or sometimes more) exercises.
- You need to take minimal rest between exercises.
Some people think the pair of exercises always has to be opposing muscle groups.
That’s just not correct!
It’s also NOT a drop set. First let’s take a look at the difference between superset and drop set.
In a drop set a single exercise is performed with progressively lighter weight with each successive consecutive set. In a superset two or more different exercises are performed with a minimal rest period in between. Supersets can be done with the same muscle group, complimentary muscle groups, or opposing muscle groups. They can also be used to speed up the pace of your entire workout routine (giving you a shorter exercise session), increase workout intensity, or both.
I’m going to show you my 8 favorite supersets, each of them different types of supersets, that work all of these muscle group combinations. I’ll also throw in some specific strength training techniques that you may never have thought of.
Remember, supersets are not just things you do for your “bi’s and tri’s”.
I’ll show you something you should do after every set of squats that doesn’t even involve your legs at all!
Below I’ve outlined 8 different ways to use supersets, and you’ll see examples of supersets for each of these superset types/uses.
SUPERSET #1: OPPOSING MUSCLE GROUPS – BICEPS & TRICEPS
When we talk about the opposing muscle groups type of superset, there’s nothing more classic than biceps and triceps.
Opposing muscle groups (also known as antagonist supersets) is one of the most common supersets, and arms is also a common target.
My favorite superset combination for arms is the Dumbbell Incline Triceps Extension, right into the Dumbbell Spider Curl.
DUMBBELL INCLINE TRICEPS EXTENSION
DUMBBELL SPIDER CURL
The reason I like this superset workout combo more than any other is because we’re getting the all-important stretch on the triceps in the extension. Then immediately, without even having to change weights, you go right into the inverted incline position on the bench and you start repping out in the Dumbbell Spider Curl.
The Dumbbell Spider Curl provides a nice benefit because we get peak tension in the contracted position of the biceps, which we don’t get with traditional biceps curls. This is great exercise for muscle growth. If you’re not used to doing this exercise you’re going to get a good stimulus from it for that one reason.
SUPERSET #2: COMPLEMENTARY MUSCLE GROUPS – BACK
Next, we’ll hit the back with a superset designed to work complementary muscle groups that prefer to work together.
This is one of my all-time favorite supersets to add to a workout program.
It involves two upper body exercises that many people neglect to do because they just don’t realize how important they are!
It’s the Straight-Arm Pushdown, right into a Face Pull.
With the Straight-Arm Pushdown we are not only strengthening the lats, but we’re also working straight arm scapular strength which helps us perfect proper form on some of the bigger lifts for major muscle groups like the deadlift, and even some more advanced bodyweight exercises like levers.
We perform a Straight Arm Pushdown and then immediately change the position of our hands on the rope attachment and move right into a Face Pull. The Face Pull incredible for building muscle mass in the upper back and the often-overlooked rear delts.
This is one of the best sets of exercises for the most underappreciated exercises, and some of the most overlooked muscles of our body!
SUPERSET #3: SAME MUSCLE GROUP W/COMPLEMENTARY ACTION – CHEST
Now we’ll move on to same muscle group supersets with a little bit of complementary action. These are also referred to as agonist supersets.
It’s one of my favorites for the chest muscles!
We’re all familiar with the classic bench press into pushup superset.
Well, I prefer the superset I’m about to show you because it will allow us to hit the chest muscles in a different way with just a single dumbbell. It’s the UCV Raise into what’s been dubbed the ‘Cavaliere Crossover.’
The UCV works the tie in between the front delt, and the upper chest muscle fibers. We angle our arm up, and then across our body. You can see the upper chest activated and working here.
Both the UCV Raise and the Cavaliere Crossover help make sure we’re getting that all-important adduction component of the chest, which is lacking when we go from bench press to pushup. That is why I love this chest exercise combination above all others.
With the Cavaliere Crossover I can usually reach for the dumbbell on the rack immediately below the one that I’m working on when the weights are put back correctly. In my case, I’ve gone from 20 lbs to 70 lbs.
For the crossover, lift and drag the dumbbell up and across your body, and really try to work on adduction from the bottom up. You can see that my entire chest is activated.
Yes, it feels like it’s going to explode at this point, but that is the premise behind supersets. You can take it take it to failure and then beyond failure using these two exercises.
SUPERSET #4: SAME MUSCLE GROUP FOR PRE-EXHAUSTION – SHOULDERS
The beauty of supersets is that we don’t always have to select them based on the muscles we’re working. We can also do them for a specific purpose.
We’re going to superset two shoulder exercises with the purpose of an intensity technique, using the first one to pre-exhaust you for the second one. We’ll do this with the Dumbbell ‘L’ Raise and the Dumbbell Overhead Press.
DUMBBELL ‘L’ RAISE
DUMBBELL OVERHEAD PRESS
I like the Dumbbell ‘L’ Raise because we get the benefits of a front raise and side raise for both the front and the middle delt.
Then we’ll use the same weight for the Dumbbell Overhead Press, which would normally feel challenging at all on a dumbbell press. After you’ve reached failure on the Dumbbell ‘L’ Raise, that ‘light’ weight feels really heavy when you get to the Dumbbell Overhead Press.
You’ve effectively pre-exhausted the shoulder muscle with an exercise that makes the second exercise – which normally wouldn’t be so tough – a lot harder. Therefore, it gives you a stimulus that your body is not used to.
SUPERSET #5: MECHANICAL SUPERSET – TRICEPS
We can use a mechanical superset to take advantage of mechanical differences between exercises to allow us to take a muscle to failure and then train it beyond failure.
The best mechanical superset for triceps is the Pancake Pushup into a Divebomber Pushup into a Diamond Cutter Pushup.
The Pancake Pushup places the triceps at a greater mechanical disadvantage, so it’s a harder exercise that you can take all the way to failure.
Instead of stopping there, you can change the position of your body to allow for a bit more help for the triceps at that critical time when they’re most fatigued, to get even more reps done.
We’ll do this by shifting to the Divebomber Pushup.
This should be slightly easier, allowing you to continue that set, again until failure.
Typically supersets consist of two exercises, but in this case we’ll go into a third variation, the Diamond Cutter Pushup.
DIAMOND CUTTER PUSHUP
This should be easier again, and you can continue on until failure.
If you’re doing all three exercises, it makes for a more challenging superset workout combo for you.
However, if you want to stick to the true definition of a superset with just two exercises, the more advanced would stick to the Pancake Pushup and the Dive Bomber Pushup. If you’re less advanced you would start with the Divebomber Pushup and go into the Diamond Cutter Pushup.
SUPERSET #6: CLOSED-CHAIN / OPEN CHAIN SUPERSET – CHEST
Now we’ll look at a categorical drop set, which is a classic closed-chain / open-chain superset.
First let’s define open-chain and closed-chain so that we’re all on the same page.
In an open-chain exercise, the body is stationary while the limb moves, such as when you’re using most gym machines. In a closed-chain exercise, the limb is stationary while the body moves like in most movements that we perform with dumbbells or barbells. Closed-chain movements involve more muscles and joints and therefore are preferable for helping to create stability around a joint.
So, if I was doing a squat with my feet in contact with the ground that would be a closed-chain exercise, versus a leg extension where my legs are free to move in space, not in contact with the ground which would be open-chain.
We can apply the same with our upper body, and this is one of my favorite ways to train the chest. We’ll do it with an Iron Cross Dumbbell Pushup to a Floor Fly.
IRON CROSS DUMBBELL PUSHUP
In the Iron Cross Dumbbell Pushup, I’ve got my hands on the dumbbells in contact with the ground, which makes it a closed-chain exercise.
Then I move over to the open-chain Floor Fly. You may know that this is the only version of the fly I like.
I feel that it’s the variation that provides the best resistance to accomplish the exercise without sacrificing the health of the shoulder, because in this version, we have the safety net of our elbows against the floor.
But this is an open-chain exercise because our arms are not in contact with the floor at this point, but floating free in space.
The fact is, these open-chain / closed-chain combos provide a hell of a challenge.
This one in particular, happens to be my favorite!
SUPERSET #7: LOADING AND DELOADING – LEGS AND BACK
This next superset showcases how you don’t have to train the same muscle group AT ALL to have an effective superset!
In this case the purpose of the superset is what makes it so valuable.
We’re talking about the pairing of Squats with a Hanging Scap Pull.
You might be thinking, “What is the relationship here?”
This is a superset that loads and then deloads your body.
HANGING SCAP PULL
When we get under the squat bar for this quadriceps exercise, we know that we have a bit of load directed down on our spine which creates spinal compression.
We can counteract this if in between sets we grab a pullup bar and hang, and also perform a small scapular pull. The Hanging Scap Pull uses a contract/relax technique to reinforce the decompression that happens when we actually just let go. It’s much more beneficial to do this between sets instead of just standing around!
When you let your legs hang here you can feel the spine elongate, which will help you feel ready to attack the next set of squats.
This load/de-load, or compression/decompression combo is a great way to use supersets for a specific purpose you might not have considered.
SUPERSET #8: POST-ACTIVATION POTENTIATION
Our final way to use supersets is to enhance the effects of the second exercise by preceding it with an explosive exercise that excites the nervous system.
This is called post-activation potentiation.
We’ll do this with a Depth Jump into a Deadlift.
For the Depth Jump we stand on the bench close to the bar that we’re going to deadlift. We’re looking to do two key things in this exercise.
First, we want to create a neurological excitation of the legs. We want to go down into that stretch reflex, and then explode out of it, trying to be as high and explosive as we can in our jump.
The second thing you want to work on is trying to allow the legs to load up by hinging at the hips. You want to drop into the squat by reinforcing the mechanics you’re going to use in the deadlift itself.
When you approach the bar to do your set of squats, you will see that you are much more explosive!
The excited state of the nervous system allows you to realize more power when you lift that bar off the ground.
Those are my 8 favorite supersets, all chosen for a different reason. When this form of strength training is done at the right time, for the right purpose, supersets can be incredibly effective for helping you do more effective workout regimens and taking your training to the next level.
If you’re looking to take your training sessions to the next level let me help you choose the ATHLEAN workout program that’s best suited to your current goals. We’re always going to put the science back in strength and help you use the right training principles at the right time.
- Most people who train have likely done some supersets, but their idea of what a superset is and the purpose behind it may have only been partially correct.
- There are two main criteria for a superset: it must include two (or sometimes more) exercises and there must be no rest time between exercises.
- Many people think that supersets are for opposing muscle groups only, but that’s not the case. Supersets can be also used for the same muscle group or complimentary muscle groups. They can also be used to speed up your workout time, intensify the effects of your training, or both.
- I’ve shown you my 8 favorite supersets that cover the gamut of muscle group combinations and different purposes so that you can understand the variety of ways that supersets can be used.
Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.