Supersets vs Straight Sets: What’s More Effective?

When you’re spending hours exercising each week to achieve your fitness goals, it’s only natural to wonder what’s the best way to apply your efforts!

There are so many approaches to training, and even more heated debates on what to choose depending on your goal!  LISS or HIIT cardio? High reps or low reps? Training fasted or after a meal? There’s a lot to consider!

One question in particular I have been getting a lot lately: “Are supersets more effective than traditional straight sets?” So this is exactly what today’s blog is about! Once again, I have teamed with Dr. Tony Boutagy to provide the most comprehensive, evidence-based information, and I hope you enjoy exploring this interesting topic with us!

The basics of workout progression

Before we get to comparing supersets and traditional sets directly, it’s important that we chat a bit more about the basics of progressing in your training sessions!

See, there are a lot of variables that go into planning a resistance workout, including:

 

Once committing to a training program, you want to keep these variables constant - normally for 2-4 weeks - before tweaking them, as this helps the body to positively adapt and change. 

Unless you’re an advanced trainer who is known to respond incredibly well to variety, changing your training split more often may not be ideal. By jumping from one program to the next straight away, you won’t have time to master the exercise sequences, perfect your form, or increase your weight selection.

On the other hand, you do want to change the above variables every few weeks - otherwise, you run into a risk of accommodating completely to the workout...and as you know, what doesn’t challenge you, doesn’t change you either!

In other words, you want to purposefully tweak your routine periodically to keep stimulating the body - this is known as the principle of overload.

Overload techniques 101

So, which variables are the best ones to tweak in order to keep progressing?

While all factors are important and can be manipulated, the most common ones to adjust are hands down the following:

  • Exercise selection - for example, progressing from a kettlebell deadlift to a barbell deadlift in successive programs;
  • Exercise order - for example, if you usually train the hamstrings first and glutes last on one of your leg days, these could be swapped around in your next training block;
  • Rest periods - and a great example here is adding an overload technique, or an approach designed to reduce rest between exercises, therefore increasing the applied load.

 

If you’ve done BBR Programs, you are already familiar with many overload techniques, such as supersets (two exercises back to back with no rest); trisets (same but 3 exercises); drop sets (doing 2-3  of the same exercise back to back, dropping the weight between sets); and pyramid sets (the opposite of drop sets). Occasionally, giant sets are also implemented - those are like supersets/trisets, but with an even longer cue of exercises!

Compared to traditional straight sets, when exercises are done in order with rest periods in between each set, the overload techniques above are designed to perform more work for an individual muscle group. 

In theory, short rest between performing exercises targeting the same muscles increases muscle tension, as more muscle fibres need to be recruited, and exhaustion is also greater. In addition, longer sets mean increased metabolic acidosis (“the burn”), which has also been linked to muscle growth.

But does it mean that overload techniques, such as supersets, are truly superior to traditional sets? 

Supersets vs straight sets comparison

True, research has demonstrated that overload techniques are effective for increasing muscle growth.

But does this mean that traditional straight sets are less effective? The answer is surprisingly ‘no’. 😱

See, as we’ve touched on before, the goal of resistance training for muscle growth is to ensure sufficient training volume for muscle fibre activation and exhaustion. According to research, straight sets with 90-180 seconds rest in between work amazingly for increasing muscle mass, so long as they are performed with a high degree of effort (that is, reaching failure or close to it by the end of the set).

Using an overload technique, such as a superset, might provide a more time effective means to reach the same training goal (more volume in less time) - so it can be tempting to assume that supersets are superior because of this. However, research also demonstrates that the longer rest times in traditional sets increase muscle fibre recruitment, and the results are just as effective for muscle growth. 

Bottom line: variety is key

So, as coaches, we like the saying “the best training method is the one you are not currently using”! 😅 

No matter how great the programming is, the longer we implement a certain protocol, the more our bodies accommodate it - meaning variety is crucial to avoid stalled progress!

It’s best to alternate programs that might emphasize a traditional straight set approach with those employing overload techniques – such as a superset-based workout. Providing high levels of effort and adequate rest periods are applied, using a variety of methods, from straight sets to various overload techniques, will give you and your physique the best stimulus for continued progress!

Hope you enjoyed, lovelies!

Tony Boutagy and Rach xx