When designing training programs, we can strategically vary the nature of the training session by simply altering how we prescribe our sets. This can have key ramifications in our program design and impact both the feel and outcomes of the training session itself.
The most common and classic mode of set prescription is to prescribe straight sets. This is a simple yet highly effective approach which is often very well suited to a busy commercial gym setting.
Yet there are multiple other ways we can prescribe sets too and the most notable alternative is a superset approach. However, the meaning of supersets along with the variations at our disposal are commonly misunderstood.
Supersets simply involve two exercises which are paired together to form a double station exercise pairing.
So, you alternate between two different exercises and perform all sets prescribed for each respective exercise. This superset approach can be used for just some or all of the training session too.
Crucially though, superset workouts can be prescribed in very different ways which can impact the potential training adaptations from the session itself. To alter the nature of a superset we simply need to change the exercise prescription and/or the training variables we prescribe too. So, when considering different superset methods, your 3 main options are:
Option 1 – Agonist supersets (same muscle group pairings)
Example: BB Hip Thrust + DB Romanian Deadlift
Option 2 – Antagonist supersets (opposing muscle group pairings)
Example: BB Hip Thrust + Leg Extension
Option 3 – Upper / Lower supersets (full body pairings)
Example: DB Lateral Raise + 45° Back Extension
So, by understanding what a superset is and knowing that there are different types of them, we have greater flexibility in our program design. To illustrate this, the example below shows how we could even keep the same exercise prescription yet dramatically alter the nature or feel of the session simply by shifting from straight sets to agonist supersets, to antagonist supersets.
Yet often supersets are only viewed as pairing two exercises together from the same muscle group. This is not correct! Antagonist supersets are vastly different to agonist supersets and can have more benefit in certain scenarios to agonist pairings, typically due to the reduced fatigue impact of prescribing opposing muscle group pairings. Whilst all supersets can allow for a higher degree of training session efficiency and a shorter session duration, you still want to pick the right type to match the scenario.
Plus, when it comes to superset workouts, often you’ll see the rest periods used consist of no rest after the 1st exercise as you immediately move to the 2nd exercise, then a longer rest occurs. For instance:
A1 – BB Hip Thrust 4 x 10, rest 10 seconds
A2 – DB Romanian Deadlift 4 x 12, rest 90 seconds
Whilst this is indeed one way to use supersets it is not the only way! With this example here it is simply an agonist superset pairing. Yet as always, it’s essential to remember that we can manipulate all training variables in our program design, with our rest, rep, exercise order, etc. having important ramifications.
In this scenario featuring the Hip Thrust and Romanian Deadlift, the rest period after the Thrust is very insufficient before you begin the Romanian. This ensures a higher degree of fatigue and metabolic stress will be present when performing the A2 – Romanian Deadlift. Assuming sufficient effort, this will naturally result in less total load used or reps performed and a higher discomfort.
This will only increase with subsequent sets of this pairing, especially because the rest period after the A2 – Romanian Deadlift is also 90 seconds. Whilst this is contextually more rest than is programmed after the A1 exercise, there will be a much higher amount of fatigue that needs to dissipate due to the double station pairing.
Whilst less loading and more potential discomfort from this prescription doesn’t necessarily equal better or worse, it is crucial that you remember two key things:
1) What is the client’s goal?
2) What is the objective of the training phase?
If the client’s goal is to increase their relative strength and hit a new 1 rep max on the Deadlift, well this training prescription likely would be suboptimal. Why? Because it lacks the specificity needed to support the achievement of the client’s goal.
Yet if the client had a goal of hypertrophy, this agonist approach could have greater benefit and more justification for use. Still, even though this style of agonist superset here may result in more subjective discomfort, that doesn’t equal more muscle growth either. This is because we can trigger muscle growth using highly varied training stimuli.
So, next time you’re pondering supersets it’s crucial you remember what exactly you’re trying to achieve, and which superset style may have the most benefit to suit the client’s goal and need. Whilst we love our supersets at Carroll Performance, they’re just one way to design programs. Superset workouts, if used intelligently, can have key benefits.
If you’re interested in learning more about supersets and other training methods to help you design superior training programs, then you would love our Program Design Course. It dives deep into all things training and will help you better understand the why, how, and when to help you achieve superior results.
Thanks for reading,