Motivation-rich and time-poor? If your workmates take a dim view of extended lunchtime workouts, then supersets are the solution. By combining two, three or four moves at once you’ll work harder and improve your results in less time. The key? Doing more moves doesn’t always mean bigger gains, depending on your aims. Here are the four main types you should think about.
1. Antagonistic Supersets
What are they? Supersets that work a muscle and then its opposite number. The biceps-triceps double is a classic, since it’s fairly easy to do, but chest-back and quad-hamstring supersets also work.
What are they good for? They’re a time-saver, but there’s another bonus: thanks to an effect known as reciprocal innervation, as one muscle group works the other (antagonistic) group relaxes, improving recovery. There’s also some evidence that blood flow to the working muscle’s increased, meaning you’ll be able to lift more weight and get more bang for your buck in each move.
What should you be wary of? For best results with big compound movements, make sure you’re working your antagonist muscles through similar planes of motion: for instance, pair a bench press with a bent-over row or pull-ups with an overhead press. Also, don’t sprint straight from one move to the next – a few seconds’ rest might help you shift more weight.
Expert tip “Make sure you’re squeezing the antagonist muscle at the end of the movement – for instance, the biceps at the top of a dip, or the triceps at the bottom of a curl,” says personal trainer Joel Dowey. “That way, you ensure full lengthening of the target muscle before the next rep. The same goes for quads and hams, or any other muscle pair.”
Do this: 1A press-up, 1B bent-over row
What are they? A full-on assault on a single muscle group, prompting your muscles into growth by exhausting them. Classics include the old dumbbell bench press/flye double-whammy for the chest and the hamstring curl/Romanian deadlift for legs, but mechanical drop-sets – like switching from a normal to a hammer grip during curls – can work too.
What are they good for? Building muscle. Getting stronger means trying to stay fresh, but for more mass you’ll want to exhaust your muscles. This also means minimising your rest between the two exercises so your muscles can’t fully recover.
What should you be wary of? “I keep agonist superset to larger muscle groups – quads, lats or chest – because smaller muscles generally don’t respond as well,” says Dowey. “My current favourite is leg extensions into Bulgarian split squats using the leg pad of the extension machine – these allow the rear leg to be stretched slightly while the front leg is under tension.”
Expert tip “With these, it’s worth loading the muscle at different lengths,” says Dowey. “Pick an exercise that will load the muscle at its longest, such as seated cable rows leaning your torso forward at all times, then shorten it, so the same move with an upright torso keeping strict form. The weight will have to change but you’ll work the muscle hard at both extremes. Alternatively, switch between a compound and an isolation exercise to combine intensity with total volume for that muscle group.”
Do this: 1A biceps curl, 1B hammer curl
What are they? The clue’s in the name. Technically, a tri-set is any three exercises done back to back, with minimal rest in between. There are two main options: use them all to target the same muscle group, or aim for slightly different ones, allowing one muscle to relax while you’re working others.
What are they good for? Maximising training time and kit. If you need to get in and out of the gym in half an hour, a carefully targeted tri-set can work multiple muscle groups in a few minutes, giving you a full-body workout.
What should you be wary of? Overtraining. If you’re relatively new to the gym, it’s easy to push yourself too hard by hammering every muscle group – or by blasting one into the ground. If you overdo it and end up with delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), do some cardio that targets the affected area – rowing if you’ve ruined your lats, say – to get the blood flowing and aid recovery.
Expert tip “Use tri-sets that take advantage of a single bit of kit and you won’t have to fight for dumbbells in a crowded gym,” says Geoff Clement of Pure Fitness. “On a cable machine, for instance, you might triple up with a face pull, a triceps extension and a straight-arm pull-down.”
Do this: 1A diamond press-up, 1B press-up, 1C incline press-up
What are they? Four or more exercises done with minimal rest, aimed at overloading a single muscle group for super-sized gains – or working the whole body to maximise fat burning.
What are they good for? Completely exhausting a single muscle group in minimal time. If you’ve got a relatively empty gym and the mental fortitude to go after it, they’re a great way to maximise the production of growth hormone.
What should you watch out for? A drop in intensity. The more exercises you include, the easier it is to take your foot off the pedal during the final few. To stay strong, do compound exercises first, and finish with the least taxing movements: for your shoulders, for instance, you might do a dumbbell hammer press, lateral raise, front raise and reverse flye. It’s also worth noting that giant sets are definitely an advanced training protocol. This isn’t something you should have a go at the first time you walk into a gym.
Expert tip “Don’t use giant sets every week,” says Clement. “Instead, save them as a jolt when you hit a plateau in your training, and use them once every few weeks.”