As we speed into the future and the past slips away almost as fast as it comes, time is becoming our most important currency. When 24 hours in a day just doesn’t seem like enough, we need to maximize the hours as best we can.
In this blog post we will discuss the best scientific way to maximize your workout: supersets. People generally spend 30 minutes to 2 hours in the gym, and if all you have is 30 minutes to spare in your day, you better know how to make the most out of that time.
Before we dive into it, let’s first explore exactly what a superset is. Most reading this will know already, but for the layperson or anyone just starting out, it could be gym jargon that you nod along to without actually understanding. A superset, by definition, is two exercises done back to back without resting in between. Not only does this maximize our time, it increases our metabolic rate (metabolism), which has many benefits to our health including how quickly and effectively we digest food. Plus, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that if we do exercises back to back without rest, it will decrease the time we’re spending in the gym, naturally increasing the total exercise volume in any given gym session.
There are many ways to perform supersets, and the programming of your session is particularly important here. This will depend entirely on your goals. If you’re training for hypertrophy (increased size) of a specific area, you might want to do more compound sets – using two exercise back to back that activate the same muscle group will ultimately lead to increased size of that muscle group. If your aim is muscle strength however, this type of set is not ideal, as your muscles will fatigue, rendering you unable to lift your maximum load, therefore impeding your total volume ability.
If you’re training for weight loss, muscular balance and you want to increase your metabolism, antagonist supersets are for you! Contrary to popular belief, compound sets and supersets are not quite the same thing. A compound set is similar in nature, but means doing two exercises that activate the same muscle group. Supersets are mostly used when training antagonist (opposite) muscle groups. The most important thing to consider here is how you’re programming your session, as overtraining the same muscle groups can cause soft tissue damage and fatigue, which will only slow you down. Working opposing muscle groups tends to have more benefits as you won’t fatigue a particular muscle group, which will not limit your ability to lift your maximum load and activate the body’s anabolic hormone response. Keep in mind: even muscle groups you might think are opposing end up working the same muscles. For example, a squat paired up with an ab crunch. Squats are just as much of a core exercise as anything else, so if you follow this up with an isolated abdominal exercise, it will overwork the core and you could hurt yourself. Overall, it’s important to educate yourself on how to perform these sets properly.
Here is a great resource for good pairings: https://breakingmuscle.com/fitness/everything-you-need-to-know-about-supersets-for-hypertrophy
So we know what supersets are and how to perform them. What’s really interesting here is what’s happening inside our bodies when we work them in this intense way. Constant energy output with little rest makes the heart rate increase and stay increased, burning more calories. Also, the prolonged elevation of the heart rate leads to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), which continues the calorie burning for hours after you finish your workout. All of this works together to increase our metabolic rate (metabolism), which is of course, what we want. A high metabolism equates to a healthy individual – this is why we always feel extra hungry when we’re training hard! So yes – supersets do increase metabolic rate, and they can also keep your body burning calories when you’re home from the gym and zoning out on Netflix!
The most important thing to take away from all this is that you are in control. You have the power to structure your exercise regime in a way that will benefit you most. Just remember, limiting or eliminating rest during your workout will cause fatigue, so you might need some extra rest later on. After all, as we discussed in our previous blog about the parasympathetic nervous system, recovery time is of utmost importance to muscle gains.
J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jul;24(7):1782-9.