I’m a big fan of efficiency, and not just when it comes to exercise. As I’m planning, I try to contemplate how I can make things run more smoothly. If I’m not careful, it can become a slight obsession, to the point where I’m mapping out my day in my head, hour by hour.
I guess that’s the main reason I’ve always loved incorporating supersets into my weightlifting workouts. Supersets consist of pairing two exercises with minimal rest in between. Supersets can halve your training time while still achieving the same amount of strength training you would in a traditional session.
For many of us over 40, this could be an appealing option, as we’re often juggling things such as work and spending time with our family and friends, making it challenging on some days to fit exercise into our lives.
How do supersets work?
During a traditional training session, you might do three sets of dumbbell bench presses, three sets of pullups, three sets of squats, and so on, resting a minute between each set.
With supersets, you combine two movements — for example, pullups and goblet squats — and do one set of each, back-to-back, with minimal rest between each set. In this example, once you’ve completed one round of pullups and goblet squats, you would then rest for a defined period, perhaps somewhere between 30 seconds and a minute, depending on your intensity level and conditioning.
If you’ve never done this, it may sound challenging. And it is. You’ll feel supersets in a different way than you feel a normal strength training workout. I’m often left breathing heavily after a round of supersets.
That said, I’ve made some assumptions about supersets in the past. Because they feel more tiring than a normal weight workout and I’ve often heard fitness friends extol their virtues, I’ve assumed they might be burning more calories, or even making me stronger. I decided to see what the science says about supersets.
Do supersets burn more calories?
I’ve heard people claim supersets supercharge your calorie burn, similar to circuit training. This doesn’t appear to be the case.
One study examined the amount of energy expended during supersets versus traditional strength training sets. While supersets burned more calories relative to the amount of time spent on the workout, the study found no significant difference in calorie burning between a superset workout and a workout made up of traditional sets.
The verdict: You won’t burn more calories doing supersets, but you can burn the same amount of calories in a shorter time.
Do supersets increase muscle growth?
When I was younger, I remember someone in the gym telling me supersets can increase muscle growth. This person had very large muscles, and that was all the credibility I needed to accept this as fact.
On its face, the claim seems logical. When you pair two similar strength exercises — say two movements targeting your arms, or two upper-body exercises — you feel a definite “pump” in those muscles.
Luckily, I found a study that reviewed a bunch of other studies focused on advanced strength training techniques, including supersets. Unfortunately, supersets weren’t found to provoke a superior “hypertrophy” response in your muscles (aka growth in muscles cells).
The verdict: There’s no current evidence that supersets will increase muscle growth or make you stronger, but that pump sure feels good!
What else should you know about supersets?
In reading various studies, I stumbled across a few helpful tidbits that might help you incorporate supersets into your strength training routine:
- You may need more rest after a superset workout. They may fatigue your muscles more than a traditional workout, and this study suggests putting superset training earlier in the week and doing traditional training later in the week to help with muscle recovery.
- Supersets help spice things up. Getting bored of doing the same weight workouts over and over again? Superset workouts can help break monotony in your routine, according to the study on advanced training techniques and muscle growth. If you’re the type who gets bored during hourlong strength workouts, supersets can help you finish more quickly.
- Supersets might improve muscle endurance. The authors of the study on supersets and calorie burn speculate that supersets could help your muscles gain endurance over time, though this isn’t tested in the study.
How can you work supersets into your strength workouts?
There’s many types of supersets, but I’d recommend a couple of options for people looking for practical strength workouts over age 40.
Pairing push/pull movements for an upper-body workout
If you’re doing an upper-body only strength workout, you can mix and match pushing and pulling movements into supersets.
Examples of upper-body pulling movements include:
Examples of upper-body pushing movements include:
You could pick and choose from these examples and create a couple of supersets that might look something like this:
- Dumbbell Bench Press/Dumbbell Rows, three sets of six to eight reps on each movement at a weight that challenges you, with 30 seconds to one minute of rest between each set.
- Shoulder Press/Hammer Curls, rinse and repeat.
- Ab wheel or hanging knee raises, accessory finisher.
It may not look like much, but if you’re limited on time, this workout will challenge your strength and cardio.
Pairing upper and lower body movements
My favorite form of supersets is pairing upper and lower body movements for a total body workout. I recommend picking compound movements, which will work as many muscle groups in your body as possible.
Examples of compound lower-body movements include:
- Goblet/Bodyweight Squats (pushing)
- Dumbbell Deadlift/Romanian Deadlift (pulling)
- Dumbbell/Bodyweight Lunges (pushing)
You can superset these with some of the upper body exercises listed above. Here’s one approach I use all the time. I like this because it combines the concepts of pairing upper and lower body movements with pushing and pulling movements:
- Goblet Squat/Pullups, three sets of six to eight reps on each movement, with 30 seconds to one minute of rest between each set.
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift/Dumbbell Bench, rinse and repeat.
- Optional superset: Bodyweight Lunges/Arnold Press, rinse and repeat.
If you feel like two superset pairings is enough, you could also finish with a few non-superset movements, time permitting. For example, a few sets of Arnold or shoulder presses and a few sets of hammer curls.
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