What Is a Superset? Here’s How to Do the Exercise Burner That’s Way Less Scary Than It Sounds
If you’ve dipped your toes in the fitness world, you’ve probably heard the term “superset” thrown around at your local gym—or when you’re 30 minutes in to your favorite HIIT class (lookin’ at you, Barry’s). Sure, it might sound like something only a Schwarzenegger would do, but with a few simple tips it can completely change how you exercise. In fact, supersets are ideal for burning fat, building strength and challenging your endurance, all while cutting your workout time in half (seriously).
What Is a Superset?
Simply put, a superset combines two exercises performed back to back with no rest time in between. Let’s say it’s leg day. If you want to end your workout with a thigh-burning superset you’d flow through one set of goblet squats and then one set of deadlifts, continuing with this pattern until you’ve completed all the sets.
Easy, right? Ideally, but one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding supersets is that you can take any two moves and throw them together. That’s not the case. Exercise selection is key to an effective superset, and being goal-oriented will help you hone in on what moves make the most sense. “The best exercises for a superset really depend on the individual and what your goals are,” Danny Saltos, an L.A.-based celebrity trainer tells us. “For me, I love combining push and pull movements, like a bicep curl and a tricep dip,” to better target individual body parts without blowing a single muscle group out of the water.
As for what to avoid, steer clear of back-to-back compression exercises. The reason? Your back is already bearing a ton of weight and daily stress. If you do a barbell back squat followed directly by a weighted lunge, you're subjecting your spine to a whole lot of stress without sufficient rest. If you’re starting with a compressive exercise, follow it up with a decompressive move like pull-ups or tricep dips.
What Are the Benefits of Supersets?
When planned correctly, supersets can be a major game-changer. “Supersets are a great tool for keeping your heart rate elevated during a workout session,” Saltos explains. “Not having a full rest period between exercises allows one muscle group to recover while the other continues working. Engaging in supersets can also help build lean muscle because they create a hypertrophic environment in the body that promotes muscle building.” Challenge your body, and your cells will respond. Muscle gains aside, supersets have been continually proven to be more effective than your standard circuit. This 2010 study conducted by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that superset workouts resulted in more calories burned both during and after workout completion as compared to traditional resistance training. And, according to this 2017 study published by the European Journal of Applied Physiology, the continuous movement can get you the same results while spending less time in the gym. Now that’s what we call a workout workhorse.
Are There Different Types of Supersets?
The beauty of a superset is that you can really make it your own, but there are tried-and-true combinations that fitness professionals swear by. To help you find what works for you, Saltos shared his top three supersets as well as how to do each one:
- Post-Exhaustion Superset: “With this style, your goal is to combine a compound movement with an isolation exercise,” he explains. A compound exercise involves two or more muscle groups in a single move, but doing the isolated move after the compound exercise is key here. You’ll exhaust your efforts and then further fatigue a single muscle group while the rest of your body rests. Compared to plateauing with stagnant repetitive reps, this is a much more efficient way to strengthen a single body part. One of Saltos's favorite post-exhaustion supersets combines deadlifts (that work your hamstrings and glutes) with an isolated butt-burning exercise, like fire hydrants or leg circles.
- Pre-Exhaustion Superset: “With this one,” he says, “we’ll flip it around. You’ll start with an isolation exercise followed by a compound movement.” This works to fatigue the smaller muscles before moving into the heavier exercise so that your body works to adapt in a weakened state. Athletes often use this to hit new personal bests, but you can use it to help burn fat, build muscle and increase your overall rep amount. “My go-to with this method is a set of bicep curls that immediately flow into pull-ups.”
- Upper Body/Lower Body Superset: As the name implies, this type of superset involves an upper body exercise followed by a lower-body exercise. “This is one of my favorite protocols to use with clients,” Saltos admits, “because it’s challenging, efficient and promotes growth of lean muscle mass.” To give it a try, do one set of bent over dumbbell rows followed by one set of step-ups on an exercise box or chair.
What Mistakes Should I Avoid When Doing Supersets?
Exercise selection is key to avoiding aches, pains and (yikes) potential injuries, but there are a number of other mistakes people make when engaging in supersets. “Supersets are great when utilized the right way,” Saltos explains, but overdo it and you’ll land yourself on the sidelines. Supersets are meant to fatigue you, but they’re only beneficial when you can maintain proper technique. As you flow through your workout, monitor your performance and keep an eye on form, Saltos says. If it starts to falter, it might be time to switch to lighter weights, a lower rep amount or an increased rest time.
Another thing to be wary of is your core. Supersetting your abs to get a killer six-pack might seem like a good idea, but in reality, it’s not. Your core is your main stabilizer, and it’s involved in almost every move you make. Overextending it in conjunction with other compound moves (that rely on that stability to perform) will only put you at risk for getting hurt.
How Can I Incorporate Supersets Into My Workout Routine?
Start with a few moves you can confidently perform and then work up to incorporating heavier weights or a higher rep count. Saltos also suggests you be your own personal trainer and plan your workouts in advance. “Writing out your routine and supersets will build the foundation necessary for success so that you can ultimately reach your goals.”
Not sure where to begin? Here are three of our favorite superset combinations. For each move, complete three sets total at the recommended rep amount (though you can always adjust as needed):
1. Bicep curls to overhead tricep extension
Step 1: Begin in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms at your sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Rotate your palms so they’re facing forward. Keeping your elbows close to your body, curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders then lower. Complete 10 to 12 reps before moving on to the overhead tricep extension.
Step 2: Holding one dumbbell in both hands, begin with your arms extended up over your head. Keeping your elbows tucked in and your biceps near your ears, lower down behind your head to the top of your back then lift. Complete 10 to 12 reps.
2. Goblet squats to glute bridge
Step 1: Begin in a standing position with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart and your toes angled out. Hold one dumbbell in both hands at the center of your chest. Press your hips back and squat down until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Press through your heels to reverse the motion and return to standing. Complete 10 to 12 reps before moving on to the glute bridge.
Step 2: Lie on your back with your arms out to your sides, palms facing down. Bend your knees until your feet are flat on the floor, about hip-width apart. Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings to lift your hips off the ground until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Hold here, then lower. Complete 10 to 12 reps.
3. Romanian deadlifts to overhead press
Step 1: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding one dumbbell in each hand. Position the dumbbells in front of your thighs, palms facing your body. Keeping your knees slightly bent, press your hips back as you hinge forward at the waist and lower the weights to about mid-shin height. Squeeze your hamstrings and glutes to push your hips forward and rise up, returning to the starting position. Complete 10 to 12 reps before moving on to the overhead press.
Step 2: Begin with your arms bent, hands just outside of your shoulders with your palms facing forward. Press the dumbbells up over your head until your arms are straight, then lower to the starting position. Complete 10 to 12 reps.