By Craig Ballantyne. For our purposes here, a superset is the completion of consecutive sets without a rest. The sets can be for exercises of the same, opposite or completely unrelated muscle groups. When performing supersets for opposing or unrelated muscle groups, there is an opportunity for one muscle to recover while another is worked, therefore allowing a heavy weight to be used for both exercises.
Because minimal rest is prescribed, try to arrange for exercises that can be performed within a close proximity of one another (i.e. a flat DB press and a One-arm DB row). Training opposing muscle groups in this manner ensures the development of balanced muscular strength. You can design an entire workout using multiple supersets OR you can add a superset at any point in the workout (i.e. such as the transition from chest to back).
An example of opposing muscle groups is the chest & back. Pick a back exercise that pulls the arms into the torso (a row) and balance that with an exercise that pushes away from the torso (flat DB press). You can also use supersets for the anterior and posterior heads of the deltoids (shoulders) which somewhat oppose one another.
An example exercise combination would be a front DB raise followed by a bent-over DB raise. Muscles of shoulder extension (lats) can be super-setted with the antagonistic shoulder flexors (deltoids) using a pulldown-shoulder press combination. And finally, for the ultimate arm superset, choose one triceps exercise and follow it with an exercise for biceps.
Supersets can also be performed using 2 successive exercises for the same bodypart. This has been referred to as "pre-exhaustion", where an isolation exercise is performed for a muscle group (i.e. a DB fly for the chest) followed by a compound exercise for the same muscle group (i.e. a bench press). The second exercise will be performed using a lighter weight than is normally used because the muscle group will have been previously fatigued.
A second superset method for the same muscle group is referred to as "drop-setting". In this technique, a set of an exercise is performed to failure at which time the trainee reduces the weight and performs subsequent repetitions with the lighter weight.
****A note on "drop-sets" and "muscle pumps"...
If the development of maximal strength OR size is your goal, these techniques are not mandatory for success. Let me explain:
First, a muscle "pump" is simply the result of blood and tissue fluid being forced into the muscle from the surrounding vessels and then accumulating within the muscle. While an increased blood flow to the area is beneficial, the pump lasts only for a short time (30-60 minutes). Unfortunately, this is too short of a time period to result in any significant physiological changes to the muscle, as growth and repair occur over a 24 to 48 hour (or more) time period following exercise.
Therefore, we should not focus our training time on achieving this "pump", although with training of the proper intensity, it will occur regardless. Most individuals desire the pump and if they do not achieve it, they feel as if the workout has been poor, however this is not the case. It is much more important to train at a proper intensity and with proper technique.
The "drop-set" method will not be effective if the training goal is maximal size and strength. While decreasing the weight to allow for more repetitions may provide a "burning" sensation within the muscle, the actual stimulus on the muscle fibers will be much less in comparison to a "regular" set (performed after a sufficient recovery interval).
Most physiologists agree that muscle appears to grow in response to a stress of sufficient intensity and duration. Therefore, by sticking to heavier weights and adequate rest intervals, the trainee can apply a greater stress in comparison to the "drop-sets" technique. The lighter weights used in a superset probably do not optimally stimulate the muscle at the level necessary to produce growth and strength adaptations in the muscle fibers.
Finally, the use of "drop-sets" may be detrimental in the effects that this technique has on energy reserves. The "drop-set" technique may rob the trainee of valuable energy that would be better spent in the performance of a regular set (a set at a higher intensity). Secondly, the "drop-set" technique may require additional calories to fuel the contractions, and this may then require a greater caloric intake on the part of the trainee in order to gain muscle mass, although this may not be significant. One thing in the favor of drop-sets is time efficiency because you can get a lot done in a very short time.
Therefore, the drop-set method does not appear optimal for acquiring both strength and size. You are best off to keep your training techniques plain and simple (heavy weights, moderate repetitions), unless a plateau in performance suggests otherwise. Overcoming a plateau may require more advanced techniques and program design that should be based solely on the individual, not through general recommendations.
Craig Ballantyne is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist and writes for Men's Fitness, Maximum Fitness, Muscle and Fitness Hers, and Oxygen magazines. His trademarked Turbulence Training fat loss workouts have been featured multiple times in Men’s Fitness and Maximum Fitness magazines, and have helped thousands of men and women around the world lose fat, gain muscle, and get lean in less than 45 minutes three times per week. For more information on the Turbulence Training workouts that will help you burn fat without long, slow cardio sessions or fancy equipment, visit www.TurbulenceTraining.com