This is one of the most commonly known and used methods in bodybuilding training. The main concept of super-sets is simple- Doing two exercises consecutively, with no rest whatsoever.
These two exercises are mainly done for antagonistic pairs, located on your limbs. This principle is one of the most famous creations of Joe Weider, which he came up with back in the 1950’s.
However, a hundred years earlier, Ivan Sechenov, also known as ‘The father of Russian physiology’, gave a physiological explanation of this phenomenon.
He explains this physiological paradox in the following way:
The muscle fatigue causes a retention process in the nerve centers of the exhausted muscle groups, and activating other muscle groups leads to a stimulation in their respective nerve centers, which, through means of negative induction, deepen the retention processes in the nerve centers of the already exhausted muscle groups.
In other, words, simply speaking, super-sets are based on the idea of active rest, that is a tool for overcoming exhaustion and speeding up the recovery processes.
Example- If you do a set of bicep curls, followed by a set of bench dips for its antagonist, the triceps, the second set will cause the bicep to stretch, deepen the retention processes in the nerve centers of the bicep, and therefore, recover faster for the next upcoming set.
This principle, that has been tested and proven to work for size, shape and symmetry, can successfully help trainees along their journey to a balanced physique, due to the fact that there are antagonistic muscle groups in every joint in our body.
Even more to that, it is important to note here, that it is not mandatory for the supersets to be done in an antagonistic order, which gives us even more room for experiments while training.
Types of super-sets
Below, we will give you the two main options, when it comes to doing super-sets.
This super-set is made out of two exercises for antagonistic pairs in one joint. Mainly the elbow joint- Biceps and triceps, or the knee joint- Quadriceps and hamstrings. Other options are- Chest and back musculature as well as abdominal muscles and spinal erectors.
This super-set is made out of two exercises, that target two muscle groups that are not antagonists.
Example- Dumbbell shoulder presses and leg raises.
It is more than obvious, that while using the traditional option, we get a much bigger blood-filling of the musculature (aka muscle pump), which is not so strongly pronounced for the combined super-set method.
The quality pump of the musculature, combined with a high protein diet that is compliant with the individual recovery and hyper-recovery is the process that every trainee aims for during the off-season, mainly because it grants the so-desired muscle hypertrophy.
Traditional super-sets not only create a stimulus for hypertrophy, but due to the high blood volume in the muscle, they create a stronger visual effect of the musculature, that is, a psychological reward for the trainee, in a sense. This logically leads to a more enthusiastic and motivated approach to your current and future workouts.
Besides the fact there are numerous options when it comes to combining muscle groups during your super-sets, another trait of this principle, is that the exercises are done through their full range of motion when applying this principle.
This way, another key benefit that is created while using super-sets, is maintaining the flexibility levels of your musculature, as well as the joints and tendons.
Another thing that contributes to this benefit, is the fact that training antagonistic muscle groups does not allow a unilateral, partial activation and mobilization of the given joint, and therefore we do not restrict its full range of motion.
A specific trait of the traditional version of this principle, is the nerve-muscle coordination, that is controlled by the CNS, and is shown by the fact that when the flexor muscle receives a contraction impulse, the extensor receives a relaxation impulse. When we do consecutive super-sets, using the traditional principle, both muscles achieve a faster recovery in time.
Bodybuilding competitors use other additional techniques, linked to the neuro-muscular coordination, through which they increase the quality of their workout. What we mean here, is the so called “tonic reflexes” (check our Priority principle).
This way, if we take the exercise “Barbell back squats”, and keep our head up throughout the set, tensing our neck muscles, we will realize that doing that, not only will we have an increased bio-mechanical stability, but also an increased activation of more and more muscle units (fibers).
These proven to work methods, that have a positive effect upon the neuro-muscular apparatus and its coordination, are used for shaping up every part of our body, by using all the principles and methodologies, but are especially effective when combined with the principle of super-sets.
Among the other positive sides of using this principle, besides helping shape up a balanced, symmetrical physique, another key benefit is the fact that you can implement it when you have a limited time frame for the workout, and still have a great training session, high in volume. It is not hard to calculate that if you organize your workout well, super-sets allow you to shorten the time spent in the gym by nearly 50%.
So, why would you need to shorten your workout to a smaller time window?
We can look at the time limitation from two perspectives:
We link the problem with time, directly to the modern day, dynamic social life, that gives us less and less opportunities to find time for a workout- We all know that most of the younger trainees we see in the gym, are students, or simply work on a full-time job, hence, the need for a shortened period of time spent in the gym.
The second perspective we can look at, is the fact that our muscles’ energetic reserves get exhausted relatively fast, which imposes the organism to break down the muscle protein in order to compensate for it’s energetic needs, which, from it’s side, is extremely ineffective from a body building point of view.
This is the reason as to why the 45-60-minute workouts are most effective, when done with a higher density, using specialized, quality body building principles like super-sets.
Other means of applying this principle
More advanced trainees know for a fact that super-sets have a bigger effect on the muscle shaping, rather than hypertrophy.
This makes the super-set principle applicable mainly during our “Shredding” (fat loss) phase. However, there are certain ways of using it towards the goal of strength and hypertrophy development. An example is the principle we call “Super multiplied sets”
Using this principle, we still do two exercises for antagonistic muscle groups, however, we do NOT combine the exercises.
First exercise- Leg extensions, done in 3 sets, 15 reps each.
Rest time between sets- 2 minutes
Second exercise- Hamstring curls, done in 3 sets, 20 reps each.
Rest time between sets- 2 minutes
This style of partial application of the “Super-set principle”, is a premise to an overall muscle development, as well as strength and strength endurance development.
During the traditional super-sets, we have no rest between the two exercises, and very little rest between the super-sets. This style of training forces the muscles to use more and more oxygen and recover their energy, therefore, increasing their anaerobic capabilities.
Compared to the super-sets, the super multiplied sets have a period of recovery in between the sets and exercises, which allows applying more effort and intensity during the lift, therefore, creating the needed stimulus for hypertrophy and strength development.
Example super-sets for each antagonistic pair of muscle groups
- Cable rows + pec deck
- Lat pulldowns + Dumbbell flys
- Incline barbell bench press + Barbell rows
- Flat dumbbell bench press + Wide grip pull ups
- EZ-Bar preacher curls + EZ-Bar skull crushers
- Seated dumbbell curls + Rope pushdowns
- Parallel bar dips + Barbell curls
- EZ-Bar overhead French press + Consecutive seated dumbbell curls
- Front squats + Laying dumbbell curls
- Leg press + Romanian deadlift
Abdominals/Spinal erectors (lower back)
- Seated crunches + Lower back hyperextensions
- Hanging leg raises + Deadlifts
What to remember when using these principles?
- If you have just started using these methods, the goal must be to engage muscles, far from the previously trained groups, in order to avoid excessive exhaustion, caused by the secretion of lactic acid.
- Super multiplied sets are a perfect tool for myofibril stimulation, meaning, they can be used when the goal is hypertrophy and strength, while super-sets are perfect for local muscle endurance.
- If your goal is overall development, try to intelligently apply both types of super-sets in your workouts.
- The choice for each super-set must be compliant with the individual weaknesses and capabilities.
- We should know that two exercises for the same muscle group, DO NOT form a super-set, but a ‘combination set”.
As a conclusion, we can say that there isn’t a sport discipline that uses the phenomenon of ‘Active rest’ more than bodybuilding does.
As we already mentioned, super-sets can be formed by a wide variety of exercises, however, it is important to note here, that it’s not recommended to use exercises that require the consecutive use of each limb (Concentration curls, one leg leg press, etc.)
If, we decide to use these exercises however, we should put them as the second part of our workout. This principle that combines the potential for optimal muscle shaping, as well as hypertrophy and strength development, can logically be used during every stage of your yearly cycle.
From this, we can point out that it can be well combined with other body building principles and methods, like progressive overload, isolation and priority.