Supersets and Combined Sets: What They Are, Types, Why You Should Do Them

Supersets and Combined Sets: What They Are, Types, Why You Should Do Them

Today we explain two advanced training techniques – supersets and combined sets – and how and when to use them.

What is a Superset?

A superset is the continuous execution, without rest, of two exercises that activate mainly opposing muscle groups, or execute two opposite movement patterns.

Example: Bench Press Flat Bar SS Pendlay Row || (Pectoral Major – Dorsal Wide // Horizontal Push – Horizontal Pull).

Where we would do the press bench, and then a Pendlay row, without a rest period; resting once we finish the two exercise sets.

What is a Combined Sets?

A set made up of continued execution, without rest, of two exercises activating principally the same muscle group, or executing two identical or complimentary movement patterns.

Example: Bench Press Flat Dumbbells SS Press/Fly || (Pectoral Major – Pectoral Mayor / Horizontal Push – Horizontal Arm Adduction).

Type of Combined Sets

Combined series can be structured in different ways, by:

  • The movements made (E.g. a set made up of presses or presses and crossovers)
  • The number of exercises (2, 3, 4, or 4+)
  • The importance of the exercises (Pre-fatigue / Post-Fatigue)

This way, depending on the number of exercises performed, the combined series are called:

  • Bi-sets: have two combined exercises.
  • Tri-sets: have three combined exercises.
  • Giant Sets: have four or more combined exercises.
Independent of the number of exercises, if you want to prioritise one exercise over another, it’s called pre-/post-fatigue.

Pre-fatigue

It’s a training system where an analytical (secondary) exercise is performed prior to a global (main) exercise, in order to “pre-stress” the muscle and make the repetitions performed in the global exercise more effective.

Example:
  • I do 15 x 90kg bench press repetitions until concentric muscle failure;
  • I do 20 repetitions on a press machine with an 8 RPE to “pre-fatigue” the pectorals;
  • Then, I do 90kg bench press repetitions until failure and 8.

Post-fatigue

It’s a training system where an analytical (secondary) exercise is performed after a global (main) exercise, to perform high quality repetitions in the global exercise and “exhaust” the muscle worked easily in the analytical.

Example:
  • With 60kg I can do 30 repetitions of quadricep extensions;
  • I perform 4 front squat repetitions with an RPE of 9;
  • Then, I do 60kg quadricep extension repetitions and they come out at 18, to “exhaust” the quadriceps.

Why train with Supersets and Combined Sets?

Because we’re looking to improve the efficiency of our workouts.

If we consider “efficiency” as the relationship between the amount of kg handled per unit of time, we can do two things to improve it:

  1. Move more kilograms in the same amount of time (something usually quite difficult, as we can’t modify it to our will, and there’s a clearly determined capacity limit)
  2. Move the same amount of kilograms in less time (increasing training density, decreasing breaks, e.g. through superseries).
TraditionalSupersetsTri-serts
Efficiency [kg*min-1]275483.3656.5

Table I. Efficiency (kg/min) in a traditional training session, superset-based training, and tri-set based training. Adapted from Weakley et al. (2017).

This is why:

  • Trad < SS = scale of 3.10 standardised effect size.
  • SS < Tri = scale of 1.67 standardised effect size.
  • Trad < Tri = scale of 4.78 standardised effect size..
That is, the more exercises we introduce in the combined sets, the more efficient we are training from a time density point of view.

Benefits of the Supersets and Combined Sets

Efficiency and Time

As I mentioned before, training with supersets and combined sets has a clear advantage, saving time and increasing efficiency (increased density).

Density could be defined as the relationship between working time and rest time.

So, if we increase density, we increase efficiency.

Figure 1

Figure I. Structure of the training protocol and biomarker monitoring carried out by Weakley et al. (2017).

It’s a no-brainer, really, but Weakley et al. (2017) conducted a study where they analysed the physiological responses of traditional strength training, based on Supersets and Tri-sets. They observed that when performing the same exercise regime: 6 exercises x 3 sets (+1 warm-up) / session.

The time the training was completed in was:

TraditionalSupersetTri-set
Time [min]42.32417.7

Table II. Duration of a traditional training session, superset-based training, and tri-sets based training. Adapted from Weakley et al. (2017).

The training based on supersets was performed 45% quicker, and the one based with Tri-sets was 60% quicker.

And if we were to make another one compared to the giant sets, it would still be done in less time.

Not enough time to work out? Try training with supersets and combined sets!

Testosterone

We know that multi-joint/global exercises stimulate the hormonal environment to a greater extent than mono-joint/analytic exercises.

The response of the growth hormone and testosterone secretion is significantly higher after exercises where larger amounts of muscle mass are involved (Hansen et al., 2001; Kraemer et al., 1992).

The magnitude of this acute post-training elevation of anabolic hormones is unknown in the long term, but many researchers hypothesise that it may increase muscle mass.

Figure 2

Figure II. Magnitudes of the effect of the 3 training protocols on testosterone concentrations, immediately post-training, and 24 hours post-training. Weakley et al. (2017).

Superset-based training (but not tri-set based) results in increased anabolic response both immediately post-training and 24 hours post-training.

And why not in the tri-sets?

The reason for the significant non-elevation of testosterone after tri-set based training is possibly due to the reduced muscle mass stimulation..

Let me explain: the combined sets can cause less muscle stimulus compared to the traditional sets, and this will depend on the psychological and cardiorespiratory capacity of the athlete

Supersets are intense, sometimes not at a muscular level, but in a psychological aspect, in the capacity to overcome the fatigue that the body undergoes, which can make us “fail” by a mechanism independent of the real muscle failure, with peripheral fatigue.

This is a hinderance to hypertrophy.

Remember: the better the stimulus/fatigue ratio, the better in the long term. Supersets and combined sets are a good option at the right time, but I wouldn’t always train like this if my target was muscular hypertrophy..

Lactate (pro)

Performing supersets and combined sets can significantly increases blood lactate concentrations.

Figure 3

Figure III. Lactate concentrations after 6, 12 and 18 sets of traditional, superset and tri-set based training Weakley et al. (2017).

There’s a good and bad side to this.

The good is that it’s an indication of extramitochondrial glycolysis in the muscle cells, and, therefore, of high intensity effort.

In addition, extramitochondrial glycolysis generates an accumulation of intracellular protons and other residues such as inorganic phosphate; these elements have been suggested as possible contributors to musculoskeletal hypertrophy through mechanisms conditioned by the well-known “metabolic stress”.

Figure 4

Figure IV. Proposed model of mechanisms mediating muscle hypertrophy through metabolic stress (Schoenfeld, 2013).

So it is possible that this is also an indication of a mechanism by which supersets increase muscle hypertrophy.

Energy use in the session

Superset-based training increases the energy expenditure per session and therefore the calorie consumption.

This evidence is mixed, there are tests that show it to be true and others that do not; the difference is in measuring the absolute or relative energy expenditure.

The absolute energy expenditure (over the whole session) may not be higher, as, after all, by training through combined sets we can train in 50% less time.

The same happens with LISS VS HIIT.

Figure 5

Figure V. Graph representation in curve (A) and bars (B) of the energy expenditure in a training session based on supersets and traditional sets. (Kalleher et al., 2010).

However the relative energy expenditure (per unit of time) is significantly higher, up to 32% more.

Something that is somewhat logical: more muscle mass involved = more metabolic expenditure = more need for oxygenation = more blood flow = more energy expenditure = more metabolic activity.

EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption)

EPOC is the acronym for «Exercise-Post Oxygen Consumption».

And it determines the energy expenditure that our body maintains after finishing the training because of the oxygen debt produced at the beginning and during the exercise.

In this way, more metabolically demanding training significantly increases the EPOC.

You can find out more information about the subject at this link.

This is why for so many years HIIT was touted as a “resting metabolic stimulator”: because it increased EPOC and energy expenditure for the rest of the day when you were not training.

Figure 6

Figure VI. Graphic representation in curve (A) and bars (B) of the post-session energy expenditure of training based on supersets and traditional sets. (Kalleher et al., 2010).

The post-training energy expenditure can be up to a 33% higher in the group that trained with supersets than the one that doing traditional training.

Points to consider

Muscle damage

Muscle damage has been proposed as one of the key mechanisms for hypertrophy.

But its exact role is still not clear.

We know that muscle damage is an effect of myocyte metabolism, where the functionality of the sarcoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria is altered; waste substances are accumulated and the cell membrane is altered.

The magnitude of this alteration may be positive (if small), or negative (if large).

Superset and tri-set based training increased muscle damage significantly more than traditional training; whether this is a good or bad thing we can’t know for sure without more data than that provided by the authors.

Figure 7

Figure VII. Average concentrations of CPK pre-training, and 24h post-training; %delta, effect size, and inference; in traditional, superset, and tri-set based training. Weakley et al. (2017).

What they haven’t measured is how this affects rest. What do you think?

Rest

Well, it affects it negatively.

Figure 8

Figure VIII. Magnitudes of the effect of the 3 training protocols on the height of jump, time of flight:time of contraction, peak power/kilogram of body mass; 24h post-training. (Weakley et al. 2017).

While the group of subjects who performed traditional training recovered full function and muscle power only 24 hours after the session; those who trained in supersets or tri-sets did not, and were still in the recovery process.

So I shouldn’t train with supersets? Is it bad for my gains? No, not as such, but you should keep in mind that you may need a longer recovery period if you train in supersets than if you train in the traditional way.

So if you’re training with frequencies >2, forget about supersets having a big presence in your training.

Cortisol

Cortisol secretion, despite its acute decrease immediately after exercise, increases approximately at the time of training’s stopped (Tsai, 2014).

Figure 9

Figure IX. Magnitudes of the effect of the 3 training protocols on cortisol concentrations, immediately post-training, and 24h post-training. Weakley et al. (2017).

Superset-based training (but not tri-set based), alters the balance in the secretion of cortisol, causing it to stay elevated 24h later, another sign of incomplete recovery, but of increase of muscle mass in the long term.

Figure 10

Figure X. Relationship between the area under the cortisol curve and the size of the cross-sectional area of the type II fibres in the muscle tissue. (West & Phillips, 2012).

Tonnage

It is quite clear what changes superset-based training produces in the session tonnage (total volume of kilograms moved in the session).

Figure 11

Figure XI. Two session tonnage based on training with forced repetitions (FR), supersets (SS), and pre-fatigue (PE-A and PE-B) versus traditional training (TST). (Wallace et al. 2019).

Superset-based training significantly decreases session tonnage versus traditional strength training, however, other high intensity techniques (forced reps and pre-fatigue), do not.

This is due to what I talked about in point 4.b: as superset training produces more fatigue, the ability to handle the load decreases.

Or are you able to handle the same weights at the same intensity of effort by doing supersets than not doing them? You lower the weight, don’t you? That’s why you condition the tonnage.

  • If you’re a strength athlete, this system may not be right for you.
  • If you’re an aesthetic athlete, if you’re able to achieve high peripheral fatigue, it doesn’t matter to you.
Tonnage is not important for muscle mass gain. I explain a bit more about this here.

Lactate (against)

Lactate increases, as I mentioned in point 4.C.

Figure 12

Figure XII. Lactate concentrations measured every 6 minutes during physical exercise in traditional training, and superset-based training (Kalleher et al. 2010).

An increase in lactate is not negative per se, it’s simply an indicator that more use is being made of glycolysis metabolism in the absence of oxygen.

The reason we can measure it higher in the blood is because it’s extracted from the cell to travel to the liver and be transformed back into glucose that we can use (in the so-called Cori Cycle).

However, finding concentrations close to 12 mmol/L (as in the graph of the study) is an indicator of high metabolic fatigue, and from these concentrations, the cells begin to ball up their life and end up exceeding their ability to maintain intracellular pH, making us have to stop training (acidosis).

As more lactate correlates with more protons, and more protons with decreased pH and altered electrical conductivity of the cell, and (partial) loss of contractile muscle function, then … The lower the better, right?

Rest and Work Load

Rests in supersets/combined sets are made after the sequential execution of the exercises that compose it: we could establish it in “blocks”.

So, rests are performed after the completion of each block.

Example giant set of 4 blocks (4 sets):
  • Set 1 [Pulley Cross-Over + Bar Bench Press + Dips + Pullover] + Rest +
  • Set 2[Pulley Cross-Over + Bar Bench Press + Dips + Pullover] + Rest +
  • Set 3 [Pulley Cross-Over + Bar Bench Press + Dips + Pullover] + Rest +
  • Set 4[Pulley Cross-Over + Bar Bench Press + Dips + Pullover]

How much rest time do we need?

How much rest is something that could be discussed; indeed, longer breaks are associated in most trials with greater gains in muscle mass over a period of time.

However, the magnitude of the effect is not that great, and if we do supersets to save time in training, it doesn’t make much sense to take long periods of rest, does it?

Figure 13

Figure XIII. Comparison between pre-post intervention muscle thickness measurements in the group with long breaks (3 min) and short breaks (1min) (Schoenfeld et al., 2016).

Some studies point out that shorter rest periods influence post-training hormone concentrations, increasing growth hormone and growth factors such as IGF-1, compared to longer rest periods.

Figure 14

Figure XIV. Comparison in growth hormone concentrations, before training (baseline, B), immediately after training (P0), at 15 minutes (p15), at 30 minutes (P30), and at 60 minutes (P60); in the short rest group (SL) and in the long rest group (LH) (Fink et al., 2019).

This same trial concluded that the increase in the cross-sectional area after 8 weeks of training was higher in the group with shorter rest periods.

Figure 15

Figure XV. % changes in the cross-sectional area; in the short rest group (SL) and in the long rest group (LH) (Fink et al., 2019).

For these reasons, it’s best to select exercises in supersets and combined sets that are isolated and have a low degree of central fatigue (developed by motor coordination requirements).

In other words: in the supersets and combined sets it’s preferable to choose mono-joint, simple to execute, and “analytical” exercises.

Conclusions

Training based on supersets and combined sets is an interesting system for people who

  • Are lack the time to train.
  • Consider relevant the increase in post-training testosterone concentrations.
  • Are looking to increase their energy expenditure to lose weight.
  • Are looking to increase the training density as a method of progressive overload.

Full-Body Superset Routine

ExerciseSuperSetRest 
AHorizontal Machine Press SS Row Low Prone Grip Pulley (x12+12 @9)360″
BSeated Machine Prone Flyes SS Kettlebell Side Lifts (x15 + 10 @9)2 60″
CNeutral Grip Chest Pull SS Reverse Specific Machine Turns with Prone Grip (x8 + 20 @9,5)2 30″
DMultipower Military Press + Egyptian Lateral Raise + Hang and Swing (x8 + 12 + 30 @10)3 60″
ELying Femoral Curl SS Quadriceps Extensions (x12 + 15 @8)4 45″
FSissy Squat + Lunges + Good Mornings (xF + F + 12 @F-F-8)3 75″
GZ Bar Curl + Low Pulley Elbow Extension (x10 + 8 @10)4 40″

Bibliographic Sources

  1. Brentano, M. A., Umpierre, D., Santos, L. P., Lopes, A. L., & Kruel, L. F. M. (2016). Supersets do not change energy expenditure during strength training sessions in physically active individuals. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 14(2), 41–46.
  2. Fink, J., Kikuchi, N., & Nakazato, K. (2018). Effects of rest intervals and training loads on metabolic stress and muscle hypertrophy. Clinical Physiology and Functional Imaging, 38(2), 261–268.
  3. Grgic, J., Lazinica, B., Mikulic, P., Krieger, J. W., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2017). The effects of short versus long inter-set rest intervals in resistance training on measures of muscle hypertrophy: A systematic review. European Journal of Sport Science, 17(8), 983–993.
  4. Kelleher, A. R., Hackney, K. J., Fairchild, T. J., Keslacy, S., & Ploutz-Snyder, L. L. (2010). The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(4), 1043–1051.
  5. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857–2872.
  6. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Potential mechanisms for a role of metabolic stress in hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training. Sports Medicine, 43(3), 179–194.
  7. Schoenfeld, B. J., Pope, Z. K., Benik, F. M., Hester, G. M., Sellers, J., Nooner, J. L., … Krieger, J. W. (2016). Longer interset rest periods enhance muscle strength and hypertrophy in resistance-trained men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(7), 1805–1812.
  8. Tsai, C. L., Wang, C. H., Pan, C. Y., Chen, F. C., Huang, T. H., & Chou, F. Y. (2014). Executive function and endocrinological responses to acute resistance exercise. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8(AUG), 262.
  9. Wallace, W., Ugrinowitsch, C., Stefan, M., Rauch, J., Barakat, C., Shields, K., … De Souza, E. O. (2019). Repeated Bouts of Advanced Strength Training Techniques: Effects on Volume Load, Metabolic Responses, and Muscle Activation in Trained Individuals. Sports, 7(1), 14.
  10. Weakley, J. J. S., Till, K., Read, D. B., Roe, G. A. B., Darrall-Jones, J., Phibbs, P. J., & Jones, B. (2017). The effects of traditional, superset, and tri-set resistance training structures on perceived intensity and physiological responses. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 117(9), 1877–1889.
  11. West, D. W. D., & Phillips, S. M. (2012). Associations of exercise-induced hormone profiles and gains in strength and hypertrophy in a large cohort after weight training. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 112(7), 2693–2702.

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About Alfredo Valdés
Alfredo Valdés
A specialist in Pathophysiology and biomolecular effects on nutrition and sportive activity who will show you the elaborate world of sports nutrition in his articles, employing a simple and critical writing.
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