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Supersets: The Key to Shorter and More Effective Workouts

Wouldn't it be great if you could shorten your strength training routine and make it more effective at the same time? Dr. Jonathan Su, the Get-Fit Guy, explains how a simple training technique called supersets can make this a reality. 

By
Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT
4-minute read
Episode #549
The Quick And Dirty
  • A superset is when you perform one exercise and then immediately switch to another exercise without taking a break for rest in between.
  • Research shows that supersets lead to better fitness gains with shorter exercise times.
  • It works because while your muscles are recovering from one exercise, you’re performing another exercise for different muscles.

What if you could shorten your strength training routine and make it more effective at the same time? What if this new routine could also help you stay more consistent with exercise? What if you could accomplish this by simply tweaking the timing and the order of the exercises you’re already performing? I know, it sounds too good to be true, but trust me: You can achieve all of these results with an exercise technique called supersets. 

What are supersets?

Put simply, a superset is when you perform one exercise and then immediately switch to another exercise without taking a break for rest in between. Research shows that supersets lead to better fitness gains with shorter exercise times. I love this idea, because while I enjoy exercise, I also like to get it out of the way so I can enjoy the rest of my life.

With traditional strength training techniques, you’ll typically rest for a minimum of 30 to 90 seconds between sets of an exercise (reminder: a set is the number of times a specific exercise is performed in a row). This gives you time to catch your breath and also gives your muscles an opportunity to recover. But most people spend more time resting between sets than actually performing exercises during strength training workouts. 

Supersets shorten our exercise time significantly by cutting out this rest break. It works because while your muscles are recovering from one set, you’re performing another exercise for a different group of muscles rather than taking a break. You can switch back to the first exercise to perform another set and continue with this pattern until you need a break.

Studies also show that it’s a more effective training technique for your muscles, heart, and lungs than traditional techniques because it increases the intensity of exercise. 

Strength training with supersets is simple. Both studies mentioned earlier use a specific type of supersets called reciprocal supersets, which switch back and forth multiple times between two different exercises that target different muscle groups on opposite sides of the body. For example, performing an exercise for the chest (like the flat chest press) followed immediately by an exercise for the back (like rows). 

If you want to reap the most benefits from exercise, you have to be consistent with it over a few months at the minimum.

Supersets help you stay consistent

I like short bouts of exercise for another very important reason: consistency. I find that the biggest challenge for most people in their fitness programs is staying consistent, and I get it. Most of us have busy lives and we may feel too tired or unmotivated to exercise after having to juggle work, school, or family with all of our other obligations. 

However, if you want to reap the most benefits from exercise, you have to be consistent with it over a few months at the minimum, because that’s how long it takes to truly transform the body. 

Staying consistent ultimately translates into better results. One study compared shorter bouts of exercise versus longer bouts of exercise in overweight people over a 20 week period. 

The study showed that the group performing shorter bouts exercised on a greater number of days and for a greater total time than the group performing longer bouts. Not only that, cardiovascular fitness and weight loss improved more in the former than the latter.

What this study shows is that you can squeeze in shorter bouts of exercise throughout the day if you’re in a pinch for time. For example, you can exercise for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening. Not only will this help you be more consistent with exercise, but you’ll also likely see better results. 

Strength training is most effective and efficient when you target the largest muscles of the body such as the legs, back, chest, and shoulders.

Strength training with supersets 

Let’s look at how we can design a minimalist strength training routine with supersets that is both simple and effective. This can be completed in a single 20 minute workout or two 10 minute workouts spread throughout the day, two or three times a week. It’s actually the exact program my partner Farah used to get back in shape after giving birth to our second baby last year. 

Strength training is most effective and efficient when you target the largest muscles of the body such as the legs, back, chest, and shoulders. We can use supersets by simply tweaking the timing and the order of exercises for these parts of the body. For example, you can superset legs with shoulders and chest with back. 

The workout Farah performed twice a week looks like this:

  • Supersets with barbell lunges for the legs and dumbbell presses for the shoulders: 3 sets x 10 reps

  • Supersets with flat dumbbell presses for the chest and dumbbell rows for the back: 3 sets x 10 reps

The beauty of this program is that each superset can be completed in 10 minutes and is self-contained, so you can do the two supersets in one longer 20 minute bout or in two shorter 10 minute bouts spread throughout the day if you’re busy. You can even switch the order of the supersets and start with either legs and shoulders or chest and back if you’d like. You can also replace the legs, back, chest, and shoulder exercises with any exercise for the same part of the body that you prefer.

You can see how by applying the techniques of supersets to your strength training routine, you can be more consistent with exercise while also getting a more effective workout in a shorter amount of time. What’s not to love about this?

5-Day Superset Challenge

Now it’s time to put this knowledge into motion with our 5-day superset challenge. Over the next five days, your challenge is to perform the program I just described two or three times on non-consecutive days. Give it a try and let me know how you feel. Email me at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave me a voicemail at 510-353-3104.

 
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Dr. Jonathan Su, DPT, CSCS, TSAC-F, C-IAYT

Dr. Jonathan Su is the host of the Get-Fit Guy podcast. He is a physical therapist and fitness expert whose mission is to make fitness accessible for everyone. Dr. Su is a former U.S. Army officer responsible for injury prevention, rehabilitation, and performance optimization for soldiers in the field. He is also the author of the bestseller Six-Minute Fitness at 60+.

Got a question for Dr. Su? You can email him at getfitguy@quickanddirtytips.com or leave him a message at the Get-Fit Guy voicemail line at (510) 353-3104.