It’s a very good question I think, an one that deserves a bit of looking into. As I see them becoming more and more popular, if you look in any fitness magazine today you will nearly always see a super set in a program in there somewhere. On the surface, they do seem like a good technique to apply to your program. They basically involve working to opposing muscle groups back to back without any rest between sets. Usually, this technique would be applied to antagonistic muscle groups much like bicep and triceps or chest and back.
So, for example, a simple superset would be to do a standard set of bicep curls followed immediately by a set of dumbbell triceps extensions. Nothing overly complicated there right.
So then why would such a thing possible be a bad idea?
Suppose start at the beginning why would you even start doing supersets in your routine.
The number one reason most people would do them is to shock your muscles into growing once you’ve hit that training plateau. If your gains have stopped or slowed down. Many people believe this is down to the fact that their muscles have got used to what they are doing and they need to change up their workout to keep their muscles guessing. Ok, stop right there. Let’s put this rumor to bed, muscles do not think they simple contract and shorten under what level of tension they are subjected to. Simple put they couldn’t care less what exercise you’re doing they just care about how much stress is involved in it. Back to the main point the reasons for your slowing down of gains is simple, your muscles have adapted to what you have been doing. Simple this doesn’t mean you need to change your routine, to kick start them gains again all you need to do is increase the intensity. This is progressive overload and it is really the only thing that you need to change.
So with that in mind let’s look at supersets then.
The number two reason people have for doing supersets is that they will increase intensity, by getting more sets done in a shorter time and that this method of high intensity training will result in better muscle growth, this is simply not true actually it’s the opposite. Supersets sadly reduce intensity, not increase it.
If you look up any reputable source on muscular development, they will always state that when it comes to the weight lifting side of building muscle, it is the intensity that is most important variable in stimulating muscle growth.
So how does a superset play into this?
If we measure the intensity applied during a set that’s the controlled force and the power, you apply during each rep. By doing this we place the muscle under greater tension, this increase in tension stimulates the muscle to grow. Now let’s say you are doing a moderate weight for 8 – 10 reps. Each rep you do should be done to your max intensity, that’s controlling the weight from start to finish at a steady pace through a full range of motion and forcing all your power into each push or pull of the movement.
Now with a superset, there is no way you could do this through all your sets with the same intensity in a 8 – 10 rep scale. Supersets are by their nature counterproductive to building muscle, they quickly cause fatigue leaving you more and more out of breath and tired with each subsequent superset. This also cause’s your form to get sloppy which takes away from the whole control, power and tension we need for muscle growth. The key thing to take away from this here is that the more supersets you perform, you are reducing the amount of weight you can lift and the number of reps you can perform under control. This results in the muscles getting put under less and less tension which is what we talked about above so less tension and time under tension means less growth response.
So for example, we used in the being bicep curl superset with dumbbell triceps extension.
Here’s an example of how supersets take away from your training intensity.
Set 1: bicep curl 8 reps with 20kg dumbbells
Set 2: superset with triceps extensions 8 reps with 25kg dumbbell
Set 3: bicep curl 8 – 6 reps using 18kg dumbbell
Set 4: superset with triceps extension 8 – 6 reps 22.5 kg dumbbell
Set 5: bicep curl 6 – 4 reps with 16 kg dumbbell
Set 6: superset with triceps extension 6 – 4 reps 20kg dumbbell
Basically outlining how it’s an intensity drainer, as each set gets harder and harder due to fatigue. It forces you to drop weight or drop reps or even both. This is two things you want to avoid to develop muscle.
So let’s say we did the same program but instead of super setting each exercise we split and did three sets of each. Of course, this would take longer but it would allow us to maintain are 8 reps of each exercise and to focus and maintain are an original weight of 20 and 25 kg. Resulting in a greater tension being placed over the muscles for a longer period and leading to greater muscle growth.
To sum everything up here all I am trying to do is get across that super sets are not what you want to do if you are looking to build muscle and strength. Your rest between sets is key you need that time to recover so your able to put complete every set to your full potential for maximum intensity.
Just remember when it comes to building muscle you get out of it what you put in.