I’ll be blunt about this: One of the dumbest things you can do is a superset.
The rather unbelievable point about them is that they are touted as an ADVANCED training technique for ADVANCED trainees!
Take a look around the web and you’ll no doubt come across several websites advising you that supersets will ignite new growth for those who have plateaued. I say they do no such thing.
Before I go any further, let me state that this article is talking about supersetting DIFFERENT body parts, not back-to-back sets of the same muscle group, which I will talk about a little later.
Most web sites that promote this method often do so without any explanation whatsoever. They tell you it’s good, but not WHY it’s good. The sites that do give reasons usually say something like the following:
1) Doing the same workout over and over again leads to plateaus. Supersets break the monotony by SHOCKING the muscle and forcing new growth.
This is total B.S. No-one should ever be doing the same workout anyway because you should always be adding more reps and/or more weight to the bar. This is progressive overload, which underpins all success in bodybuilding.
Changing your routine often in order to shock your muscles is a strategy doomed to failure. Muscles don’t get shocked. Secondly, changing a routine too often leads to a slowing down of REAL strength and size gains for reasons I’ve outlined in this article about so-called “muscle confusion”.
2) You’ll Save Time In The Gym.
What!? Come again!? Pardon me!? Are you kidding me!? Last time I checked the purpose of a bodybuilding workout wasn’t to try and get it over with as soon as possible, but to intelligently impart the precise stimuli that stimulates new muscle growth.
While a workout for a natural trainee should come in at around an hour or less, that’s actually more than enough time when you know what you’re doing. Doing things properly creates MAXIMUM overload. Supersets actually decrease the intensity for reasons I’ll cover a little later.
3) Higher Production of Anabolic Hormones. By not taking breaks between sets the body will release more testosterone.
I doubt it. Firstly, I think the “hormone theory” of bodybuilding has been laid to rest (RIP). The homone theory says that a workout that causes the highest production of anabolic hormones ends up producing the most muscle growth. I talk about this in the “Compound & Isolation” section of THT 4, leaving you in no doubt that compound-only routines are INFERIOR to workouts consisting of both compound and isolation exercises.
Secondly, there’s just no way that a superset workout would end up producing more testosterone. Why not? Because you end up using lighter weights because of the fatigue involved. You’re not going to be able to maximally overload 2 muscles groups when you take no rest between working them. This leads us on nicely to the last nonsensical point…
4) You Can Use Lighter Weights.
Now don’t laugh. This is actually being touted as a benefit, can you believe that? Apparently you can push your body “to the limit” with lighter weights than normal because of the higher fatigue involved in back-to-back sets.
Isn’t that a good reason why a bodybuilder should never dream of doing supersets? You need adequate rest between sets to allow for both localized recovery of the muscle (flushing out lactate) and systemic recovery (getting your breath, getting your heart rate down, feeling energized and motivated for the next set).
This is a bodybuilding workout after all. You need to be at your best in each set. You need to have the capability to push the heaviest weight you can for the maximum number of reps possible. Supersets just don’t allow you to do that. And some bozos see this as a benefit!?
The Goal of a Bodybuilding Workout
As we’ve seen in point 4, supersets lead to a DECREASE in intensity because of the negative impact on both local and systemic recovery.
Since the goal of a bodybuiliding workout is to perpetually increase the overload and intensity placed on our muscles over time, straight sets achieve this much better than supersets.
Now I need to be 100% clear about this. Supersetting 2 different bodyparts is totally different from performing a pre-fatigue set on the same muscle e.g. my shoulder pre-fatigue set, which involves back-to-back sets of overhead press and lateral raises.
A pre-fatigue set will INCREASE intensity by forcing a muscle beyond positive failure e.g. if you take the lateral deltoid head to failure with a set of lateral raises, then perform the compound movement Overhead Presses, the lateral head will be pushed beyond its normal levels of intensity as more deltoid muscle fibers, and even the triceps, are called into play to perform the 2nd exercise.
However, even in workouts where I recommend this method, (shoulders, chest, biceps in Volume Cycle 1) you’ll note that there is always a straight set prior to the pre-fatigue sets so you can still establish new bests in the big lifts. The pre-fatigue will more than likely cause you to use a lighter load in the overhead press for example, so you should always begin the workout with a straight set or 2 before beginning the pre-fatigue technique.
So that should clear up any confusion between supersets of different body parts and pre-fatigue sets, which some people refer to as supersets. There is a world of difference. One is effective, the other is counter-productive.
Bodybuilding gains are essentially caused by progressive overload and have nothing to do with attempting to increase the volume of work done per unit of time.
Other forms of training with completely different goals may utilize this strategy, but it is NOT something to be carried out by those wishing to increase the strength and size of their muscles.
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I heard supersett is good, because if you work antagonist muscle group (bic-tric) the worked muscle can rest while you’re working the other muscle.
Well it would rest if you just rested it too, right? But the point is the issue of local and systemic recovery eating into the amount of overload you can generate. See my articles on optimum rest between sets for more.
Just so we’re clear, this article doesn’t contradict your encouragement of doing supersets in your earlier work? By this I’m referring to your TSPA workout where a number of exercises involve supersets.
great article mark. i see guys in the gym using this technique as a way to “shock their muscle” and i tell when i ask them if it helped them with muscle size, they just say “not yet but i read it will”. as you said the overall poundage use is much more effective and better for testosterone production. i use the antagonist bodypart supersetting when my goal is fat loss as ive gotten excellent results with full body workouts done in very short time. ive been following your stuff for quite a while, and have been very impressed by your no b.s. posts. keep it up
@Kamran. No, not at all. Read the whole article, I addressed that issue.
I’m glad you’re smarter than me. Thank you once again.
Great artical Mark. So to cap Pre-Fatigue/Extended Sets are fine as long there are some straight sets combined. I do like doing one to two Pre-Fatigue leg extensions with back squats followed by three straight sets of fronts squats I take that’s ok.
@John. No probs, man.
@krs. Yes that’s ok but a straight set should come first because that’s when you’re at your strongest and can set a new best for squats. Do 1 set of barbell squats before doing any pre-fatigues.
Thank you for addressing this grossly overstated training concept, Mark! I tend to treat it the same as “21s” – cool in theory, but reality shows it to be the washout that it is.
Great article Mark, you always seem to post an article about topics I see in the gym and think about. I see super sets often at the gym and wondered what the benefit or use was. What I found was, it was never the super “ripped” guys doing them, just the new comers or College/University students. Which made me wonder what they were doing and the theory why.
How about Mentzer’s approach using 1 straight set to failure as opposed to using multiple sets of an exercise? Is that effective for hypertrophy?
@Adam. You got that right!
@Tony. I notice the same thing.
@Andrew. Yes, 1 set to failure does stimulate growth. There is in fact a HIT-style THT cycle based in this principle. You should really download my free book to get all the cycles.
Hi Mark, the one argument you haven’t mentioned is it forcing more blood into the target area which maximizes nutrients for that area. I don’t know how you would prove or disprove that, though it does make for a good pump (which doesn’t necessarily equate to growth). It does make sense though that you are more tired when doing antagonistic supersets it results in less intensity for the targeted area. In the past I’ve done biceps & triceps only, hitting the area needing more development first immediately followed by say triceps and then at least a 3 minutes rest. At least it’s good for the ego…
Mark, lest say you are doing regular curls,then after your curls you immediately do a extra fatigue set of lets say iso curls. is that considered a super set. after the two exercises you have your proper rest and do it again.
thanks for all the time you put into all this mark,learned so much from you and i hope to keep learning.you are a legend
I see this without the same eyes: while doind supersets youre stretching the muscle that is pumped couse youre working agonist and antagonist.
the “excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC)” is highter with supersets too.
They, supersets, definetly don’t work. Neither does a lot of crap out there. I was one of those missinformed lifters for some years. Been MuscleHacking for a year and a couple months now, and you will NEVER Get me away from it!!! Thank You Mark McManus for all your hard work!!!
I have 30 years of training mistakes (or lessons) under my belt and I can say that Mark is spot on, supersets dont work !
The reason I think some say supersets work are:
1. They may be overtrained and the superset fatigue forces less reps or weight which acts as a ‘deload’ , their bodys recover from overtraining and they grow – they couldve just reduced the weight or rested and had the same effect ?
@Dan. I believe that more blood/bigger pump can certainly come from pre-fatiguing but not from supersetting different body parts. Whether that’s even helpful anyway is up for debate. I get awesome pumps from regular THT workouts.
@mikey. Yes, some people would refer to that as a superset. If you’re going to do that, it would be best as a finisher at the end of the workout.
@Mike Huber. Awesome comment, Mike 🙂
@James. Yes. A lot of guys are definitely overtrained and simply need to take some time off, allow their body to rest and fully recover, then get back at it with an intelligent training system like THT.
Good article & discussion, thanks everyone.
Why is it that everyone wants to find something “new” “different” or “sexier” than progressive overload? Probably because it’s hard, takes consistency, and is simple. The exact opposite of what useless “miracle workout” musclemag articles are trying to peddle in order to increase magazine circulation. Thanks, Mark, for continuing to preach the ground truth of muscle-building.