Super Sets For Strength

Recent evidence suggests that exercising the antagonist muscle enhances subsequent performance for the agonist muscle when performed in alternating fashion. I.E. super sets, bro.

Bottom Line: An example of agonist/antagonist muscles: chest/back, bicep/tricep, hamstring/quad.

In one study, 15 recreationally trained men were tested for exercise performance, with or without performing super sets.

Significantly greater muscle activation was seen in the super sets with minimal rest group of a leg extension (quads) followed by a leg curl (hamstrings). (1)

In another study, 16 trained men performed 2 testing protocols using 4 repetition maximum loads: 3 sets of seal rows followed by 3 sets of bench press in straight sets over 10 minutes or 3 sets of rows and 3 sets of bench press performed in alternating, super set fashion in the same time frame.

Interestingly, volume loads per set were significantly improved in the super set group overall. (2)

Bottom Line: The super sets group was able to perform significantly more volume of work over the same time frame (volume = key to muscle building)

Essentially, you are getting active recovery in the “resting” muscle during the opposing muscle’s set, which mitigates metabolic fatigue and sets you up for better performance in the following set.

Note: The participants still rested as much as needed to perform the next set in the super sets group, but were able to perform more volume compared to the straight sets group. This was not a Crossfit style AMRAP where they alternated exercises until form broke down and they puked and shattered several vertabrae.

The performance benefits found in these studies do not even account for the increased EPOC from training in a super set fashion with an elevated heart rate throughout the workout, which a bodybuilder or average joe attempting to lean out and look sexy would surely benefit from.

Here’s how this would look in live gym action:

YouTube video

Sample Legs

A1) Leg Extensions
A2) Lying Leg Curls
B1) Goblet Squats
B2) Hyperextensions
C1) Bulgarian Split Squats
C2) Hip Thrusts
D1) Bodyweight Squats Finisher
D2) Stiff legged deadlifts with dumbbells

Perform A1- A2 in order, resting 30 seconds between exercises and 1-2 minutes between rounds. Do the same for B1-B2, C1-C2, and D1-D2.

Sample Chest, Back, Shoulders

A1) Incline Dumbbell Presses
A2) Dumbbell Rows
B1) Stretch Push Ups (see video above)
B2) One Arm Barbell Rows (see video above)
C1) Bicycle kicks
C2) Plank
D1) Seated Lateral Raises
D2) Pec Dec Reverse Fly

Perform A1- A2 in order, resting 30 seconds between exercises and 1-2 minutes between rounds. Do the same for B1-B2, C1-C2, and D1-D2.

Word of Caution

Some exercises setup better for super sets than others.

Full body exercises, such as squats, should be performed on their own with appropriate rest periods.

You’d likely see a performance decrease if you tried pairing full body exercises, such as squats and deadlifts, which incorporate several muscle groups and generate significant neural fatigue through the duration of the set.

The same fatigued conditions would arise if you paired one quad dominant movement after another, i.e. walking lunges and split squats, or two rowing movements, such as t-bar rows and barbell rows, in succession. The key to the studies mentioned is pairing antagonists/agonist muscle groups.

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Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach for men and women like his former self. Heavyset in his 20s, he lost 60 pounds and now helps clients find their spark and lose the weight for life.