Understanding supersets and compound sets

A superset is alternating between two movements that don’t affect each other. (rawpixel.com pic)

If you have ever spent time reading or discussing training, you will have heard the term superset thrown around. If you want to be very specific though, it’s often misused.

A superset is where you alternate between two movements that don’t affect each other. The goal is to fill the rest-time required for one muscle group to recover for its next set, while training opposing muscles.

A common example is if you’re doing bicep curls. To be able to hit your required reps on the weight that you’re working with, you may need anywhere from two to five minutes between sets.

Note, this depends on how close you’re training to failure and your experience level. Between these sets you need to rest the muscles involved in the movements so they can perform at their max capacity on the next set.

You can sit there and read an informative fitness articles from Joompa on your phone. You can be even more productive and do some mobility and stability work on your shoulders or lower body joints.

Or, you can do some tricep extensions. Your bicep curls moving weight in the opposite direction don’t tax them, so they’re rearing to go and able to lift.

Your session has now doubled in the amount of work you’ve managed to get done, without hindering your performance.

Arms are a popular way of implementing this because they’re so opposed mechanically. They’re also small muscles so they recover quickly and don’t need huge amounts of oxygen or neural drive.

The average gym-goer can thus handle the cardio tax of the constant work.

If you start doing this with compound movements involving many muscles, it gets a bit tricky. If, for example, you take combining a bench press and a pull-up, you’d need a certain level of training to manage it.

First off, you’re firing multiple muscles through shifting heavy weight. Secondly, the lats help stabilise the upper arm in a bench press and are tiring during pullups, thus affecting performance.

You will need high oxygen intake to fuel the muscles being engaged during each set. So, whilst it is a good way to train your respiratory system at the same time as doing weights, it can limit your strength capabilities.

Compound sets are ideal at the end of a workout. (rawpixel.com)

One way to mitigate this is to superset warmups on one exercise with the working sets of another.

For example, if you are doing a lat pulldown warm-up, place it between the working sets of a bench press.

Then, once you move into working sets of lat pulldowns, you’re onto warm-up sets of dumbbell shoulder press, and so on.

A lot of it depends on how much time you have and your priorities. If you’re in the gym to build strength and muscles you need to be much more concerned about performance from set to set.

If you’re only there to keep your muscles stimulated and keep fit, you can afford to be a bit more relaxed with how your working sets affect one another.

Compound sets are very different. They are ideal at the end of a workout where you are attempting not to lift as much weight as possible, but to hit as many failure points as possible.

You perform two, three, even four sets in a row, all targeting similar muscles. An example would be going from bench press into pectoral flies or tricep extensions.

The compound movement creates the initial stimulus, with the isolation movement targeting the muscles further. Or you can use an isolation movement to “pre-fatigue” the compound movement.

The reason compound sets are rarely used at the beginning of a workout is the fatigue they create in the muscles reduces performance following them.

They render the rest of a workout less effective from a strength-building perspective. Comparable to drop sets (where once you reach failure you drop the weight and carry on), they can also be a very good way to create muscle damage and fatigue in a very short space of time.

Whereas to do three sets to failure with a few minutes break usually takes 10 minutes, you can achieve the same numbers of failure in the space of less than two.

It’s not ideal for taking muscles through a large volume (calculated as weight moved times reps moved for), which is the downside. During rushed, one-off sessions though, it can be a useful tool.

So, now you know the difference between a superset and a compound set, and how to apply the two of them. Go forth, and apply.

Joompa is a digital platform that facilitates the sourcing and booking of freelance, mobile personal fitness coaches. Available on iOS or via www.joompa.com.my.