This Fitness Technique Will Make Every Workout More Efficient, Guaranteed

What if you could fit in the same number of exercises in your workout, but cut your total gym time (or home gym time) down significantly? That's the promise of supersets, a simple technique that helps you maximize your sweat sessions.

Basically, since supersets involve grouping two somewhat unique exercises together, you'll minimize the time you spend taking rest breaks between sets, explains fitness coach Rachel Trotta, CPT.

But that's not all: "Supersets increase your muscular endurance and allow you to burn more calories efficiently," adds Brittany Watts, CPT, a personal trainer at Performix House in New York City.

That's why both Watts and Trotta incorporate supersets with clients who have all sorts of goals—from those who are short on time to those who want to build muscle.

Meet the experts: Rachel Trotta, CPT, is a fitness coach with specializations in women’s fitness, pre/postnatal, nutrition, and therapeutic exercise. Brittany Watts, CPT, is a personal trainer at Performix House in New York City. Riley O’Donnell, CPT, is an instructor at Fhitting Room in New York City. Annie Cooper, CPT, is a certified personal trainer, running coach, and founder of Tuneintofitness.

But what is a superset, really? And how can you use them to improve your strength, muscular endurance, and maximize the time you spend exercising? Read on for everything you need to know about supersets, including how to do them, the risks involved, the various types you can try, and more.

What is a superset?

“A superset is just a way to program your workout in which you go from one exercise right into another, with no rest in between,” says Riley O’Donnell, CPT, an instructor at Fhitting Room in New York City.

So, instead of doing multiple sets of one move and resting in between each before continuing onto multiple sets of a second, you pair the two exercises together and wait to rest until after you've completed both—effectively cutting the amount of time you spend resting in half.

The specific moves you pick for each pair matter. In a superset, your two paired exercises work opposing muscle groups, Watts explains. For example, you might start with biceps curls and then move straight into triceps kickbacks to hit the back of your upper arm while the front of it recovers.

Supersets are often confused with compound sets, but they are unique. In a compound set, you group together two exercises for the same muscle group, Watts says. So, in this case, you might start with triceps kickbacks and continue with overhead triceps extensions to really burn out your tris.

Who should do supersets?

Supersets work well for anyone looking to get stronger, O’Donnell says. People who are used to cardio might also find they love strength training this way because there’s not much downtime.

The lack of rest also makes supersets a great approach for those trying to lose weight, says Watts. After all, the more of your workout time you actually spend moving, the more calories you burn.

Finally, if you’re super busy (please tell me your secret if you're not), you'll save so much time using supersets that you'll never go back.

What are the benefits of supersets?

O’Donnell and Watts break down allll the perks of supersetting your workouts, based on their own experience with clients, plus what research has to say.

  • Quicker workouts. The true beauty of supersets is that you work one muscle group while allowing the opposing one to rest, so each group gets ample opportunity to bounce back but you never completely stop moving and end up scrolling through your phone between sets. This way, you can either squeeze more exercises into your usual workout time or head for the exit door a little earlier!

  • More smiles. Okay, this one is a bit subjective, but isn't it way more fun to do different moves than one on repeat? Adding variety is more engaging versus doing the same exercise over and over to achieve the muscle fatigue you want to get strong and sculpted, O'Donnell says.

  • Increased strength. While most of the studies on supersets are small, they do highlight these same pay-offs. For example, supersets can cut down on training time without sacrificing effectiveness, one study published in The European Journal Of Applied Physiology found.

  • Better endurance. "Supersets can be done by anyone who wants to improve endurance or increase hypertrophy [a.k.a. muscle mass]," Watts says. "When you go straight into your next set you challenge your body to work through fatigue [which] will help you increase endurance."

  • More calorie burn. Strength training with supersets ups the calories burned during and after your sweat sesh compared to traditional resistance training, according to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Common Types Of Supersets

Depending on your strength and muscle-building goals, there are a few distinct types of supersets you can try.

  • Upper Body, Lower Body Supersets: Picking two moves that work completely different parts of the body also helps you gain aerobic benefits during your workout. For example, in a full-body workout, you can pair squats with pushups. “This can be extremely efficient in the gym, especially if you need to take long rests for heavier sets, but still want to fit in a few more exercises,” Trotta explains.

  • Direction-Alternating Supersets: You can also try coordinating a superset that uses the same parts of the body, but has you moving those body parts in opposite directions. For example, you can pair squats with kettlebell swings, which both work lower-body muscles, but in different ways. While kettlebell swings are a hinge movement, which favor the glutes, squats are a knee-dominant movement, which pull more power from from the quads, Trotta explains. "So even though you’re working legs with both moves, you’re alternating hinging and squatting, which places more demands on the back and front, respectively," she says. This makes direction-alternating supersets especially helpful if you are doing a workout that is focused on one body part, like a leg day.

  • Giant Supersets: This variation simply adds one more exercise into the superset mix. For example, you could group together squats, pushups, and hip bridges and complete them in the same fashion as you would a regular superset.

Pro tip: If you’re at the gym, “assemble a superset area for yourself by carrying equipment from one part of the gym to another part of the gym,” Trotta explains. For example, bringing dumbbells into the squat rack, so that you can pair up barbell exercises with dumbbell exercises for your super or giant set.

What exercises should I pair together in a superset?

When creating supersets, O’Donnell loves to combine a push and pull move for upper body, and hip- and knee-dominant exercises for lower body.

For upper body, that might look like a chest press and a bent-over row or pushups and pullups. For lower body, try a deadlift and a squat or a hamstring curl and a leg extension.

To help sift through the many combinations, Annie Cooper, CPT, founder of Tuneintofitness, shares her favorite supersets that hit muscles from head to toe.

Example Superset Exercise Pairings:

  1. Legs: Goblet Squats with RDL

  2. Shoulders: Arnold Press with Reverse Flys

  3. Arms: Triceps Rope Pushdown with Alternating Hammer Curls

  4. Glutes: Barbell Hip Thrusts with Psoas Crunch

  5. Chest to Lats: Dumbbell Chest Press with Single-Arm Cable Lat Pulldowns

Or, just go ahead and follow along with this 10-minute superset abs workout the founders of Tone It Up programmed exclusively for Women's Health:

How To Incorporate Supersets In Your Routine

If you already have a slew of go-to moves you use in strength training workouts, all you have to do is reorganize them into the proper pairs to transform your sweat into a superset routine.

Your Superset Workout Strategy

  • For building muscle, aim for eight to 12 reps of each exercise, suggests O'Donnell.

  • For pure strength, five to eight reps of each will do the trick.

  • For more intensity, limit your rest between supersets, per O'Donnell. Otherwise, rest for 30 to 90 seconds after completing both exercises in a superset.

  • For all goals, repeat for three to six total supersets.

To get some cardio into your session, you can also go from your superset into something that gets your heart pumping, like kettlebell swings, med ball slams, or box jumps, O’Donnell recommends.

Are there risks to doing supersets?

For the most part, supersets are considered pretty safe to carry out on your own, Trotta explains. That said, “the only time people should be concerned about supersets is if they feel they can’t perform both exercises well because of fatigue." Exhaustion or fatigue can be dangerous during supersets, especially if the second exercise has a high fall risk, like box jumps. At the very least, compromised form can lead to less effective movements, and the whole point of supersets is that they're supposed to be efficient.

For this reason, “I usually recommend that people use higher-coordination moves, even burpees, earlier in workouts as a warmup, rather than as a finisher when they’re already exhausted,” Trotta says. And if you're looking for a high-intensity finisher, Trotta suggests cycling or rowing "sprints" versus a complicated strength move, superset or not.

Common Superset Mistakes To Avoid

Though supersets don't really have any downsides, you can mess with their effectiveness if you don't plan (and execute!) them properly. Here's how to do them right, according to experts:

Maxing out on exercises you pair in a superset. Similar to how doing a complex movement while fatigued can up your injury risk, so too can going too heavy: "That's a quick way to get injured," Watts explains. "If you are going to try to attempt a maximum load for a lift, you should focus on that one lift. Attempting another maximum could compromise form and lead to injury." So, don't go trying to squat as much as humanly possible and then immediately do the same on a deadlift.

Being too focused on reps, reps, reps. Work with a challenging-but-doable weight for your usual number of reps (say eight to 12). “The goal shouldn’t be how many reps you do by the end," says O’Donnell. "Instead, focus on feeling a burnout by the end of the full superset.”

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