Let’s say you’ve got less than an hour to bang out a workout that does something — really does something — for your body. Your choices:
- A) 6-mile run
- B) circuit training
- C) supersets
Answer: C, by a long shot. Supersets, two-part exercises that involve pairing moves that contrast or complement each other, gives you the best bang for your proverbial buck, says Shaun Jenkins, senior training manager for Tone House in New York City. “Supersets are for people who don’t want to sit around at the gym all day,” Jenkins says. “I’m a big proponent of getting the work done — and that’s one of the points of supersets.”
Here’s how it works: You pick two different exercises that work either antagonist (opposing) or protagonist (supporting) muscle groups. “An example of opposing muscles would be working your chest and back in one superset, while supporting groups would be your chest and triceps,” Jenkins explains.
Because each superset involves exercises for two different groups of muscles, your rest for one exercise is your work time for the other. As such, you never stop moving with a superset workout. “Instead of four sets of 10 reps with rest in-between, you’re now doing 10 reps of one exercise and moving right into 10 reps of the other,” Jenkins says. That sets you up for a more time-efficient workout as well as greater calorie burn. In fact, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that supersets burn more calories than a traditional weightlifting session both during and after a workout.
To create a complete superset workout, choose several muscle pairings that work major areas of your body (legs, core, arms, and chest). Keep your session to 45 to 60 minutes. An hour is the cap for most people’s ability to focus on strength training, Jenkins says. More than that introduces the possibility of incorrect form, injury, and burnout as your body tires.
Theoretically, you can do supersets anytime you’re working out. By toggling back and forth between different moves, you keep your muscles fresh while creating a well-balanced body. “I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to work your chest and front-facing muscles, then you also need to work your back muscles,” says Jenkins. “These moves are designed to develop your whole body.”
If you’re looking to give supersets a try, check out the 7 moves here, which you can do independently or string together into a supersets circuit.
Superset #1: Chest Press / Bent-Over Lateral Raise
Chest press: Lie with your back on a bench, weight in either hand, elbows bent, and hands at your sides. Exhale and push the weights directly over your chest, arms straight. Return to start.
Bent-over lateral raise: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, weight in either hand. Bend forward at the waist until your back is flat with the floor, arms hanging straight down. Squeeze shoulder blades together and raise arms out to the sides. Return to start.
Superset #2: Chin-Ups / Pushups
Chin-ups: Face the bar. Reach up with your arms and place your hands around the bar so that your palms are facing toward you. Bend elbows, engage abs, and hoist your chin over the top of the bar. Return to start.
Pushups: Get down into an extended plank position, arms straight and body in one long line. With hands slightly wider that your shoulders, bend elbows and lower chest until it is just above the floor. Return to start.
Superset #3: Sit-Ups / Superman
Sit-ups: Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on floor. Engage your abs and raise your back off the floor until you’re sitting up straight. Return to start.
Superman: Lie face-down on the floor, arms extended in front of you and legs straight behind you. Inhale and squeeze your glutes and back muscles as you lift your arms, head, chest and legs a few inches off the floor. Hold for three counts, then return to start.
Superset #4: Back Squat / Deadlift
Back squat: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Using a squat rack, place a weighted barbell on your shoulders, holding on with either hand. Keeping your back straight, bend knees into a squat. Straighten back to standing.
Deadlift: Stand with feet close together but not touching. Bend knees and reach down to grab the barbell with an overhand grip. Lift your chest up, straighten your knees and lower back, and return to standing, holding the bar. Bend knees and release.
Superset #5: Squats / Hamstring curls
Squats: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Bend knees and sink your seat toward the floor, keeping knees over toe. Return to standing.
Hamstring curls: Stand with feet together and place an exercise band snugly around your ankles. Bend right knee and raise right foot directly behind you, keeping pressure on the band. Release and return to standing. (Note: You can also use the hamstring curl machine at the gym.)
Superset #6: Cable Pull / Chest Press
Cable pull: Stand facing the cable pull machine, about two feet away. Reach forward and grab the cable handle with a straight arm. Bend elbow and pull weight directly toward your chest. Return to start.
Chest press: Lie with your back on a bench, weight in either hand, elbows bent. Exhale and push the weights directly over your chest, arms straight. Return to start.
Superset #7: Shoulder Press / Pull Up
Shoulder press: Stand with feet hip-width apart, weight in either hand. Bend elbows and raise forearms so that your hands are next to your ears. Exhale and raise arms directly overhead. Bend elbows and return to start.
Pull up: Using a wide overhand grip, reach up and place hands on the pull-up bar. Engage your core, bend elbows and raise yourself until shoulders are parallel to the bar. Return to start.
Superset Workout Tips
How do you know how heavy to lift? “You can set a rep scheme where you’re going for four sets of 10 reps and increasing the weight each set,” Jenkins says. “By the time you get to last set, you are totally fatigued to the point where it’s very difficult to complete the task.” It should feel daunting and like an achievement when the workout it done.
You might wonder whether there’s ever a reason to not do supersets. Yes, actually. “If you have a serious injury and you need to isolate and localize an area, don’t do it,” Jenkins says. “Secondly, if you are fighting a cold or in a situation where your immune system is down, the last thing you want is anything too strenuous.”
If you’re new to lifting, work with a professional to be sure you’re doing the moves right. And remember, the beauty of supersets is their efficiency: Don’t worry if your workout feels short — just get psyched to get back after it tomorrow!