What Is A Superset Workout? (And Why Alternating Sets May Be Better)

When it comes to structuring the sets and exercises in your workout routine, there’s a ton of different ways you can do it.

Today, however, I want to look at two of those ways:

  • Supersets
  • Alternating Sets

Supersets and alternating sets are quite similar. In fact, people often use these terms interchangeably as though they entail the exact same thing.

Well, they don’t, and there’s one major difference between them that you should know about if you’re considering using either of them in your workouts.

Let’s now compare the pros and cons of each and figure out which one is best for you.

What Is A Superset?

A superset involves doing a set of one exercise and then immediately doing a set of a different exercise right after, with no rest in between.

So, for example:

  • Set #1 of Exercise A.
  • Set #1 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.
  • Set #2 of Exercise A.
  • Set #2 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.
  • Set #3 of Exercise A.
  • Set #3 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.

You’d simply repeat this A/B superset as many times as needed to complete the prescribed number of sets you’re supposed to be doing.

What are the benefits of this type of setup, you ask?

Supersets Save Time

First and foremost, the main benefit of supersetting is that it’s a time saver.

Think about it.

Instead of resting between every set of every exercise, supersets – assuming the exercises are paired up intelligently (more on that later) – essentially allow you to rest the muscle group that’s being trained with one exercise during the time you’re training some other muscle group with the exercise it’s paired with.

This cuts down on the total amount of time you’ll spend in a workout waiting around to do your next set, which means you’ll end up getting through your workouts a bit faster than you would if your sets/exercises were structured in a more traditional manner.

So, if you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to work out or would just prefer to get done with your workouts faster, supersets definitely have some appeal.

Supersets Can Be Useful For Certain Goals

In addition to being a time-saver, supersets can also be useful for achieving a metabolic/circuit training effect, thus allowing for a slightly higher calorie burn than a traditional setup.

If you’re weight training primarily for the purpose of burning fat, this could be beneficial.

In addition, performing sets back-to-back without resting can also be beneficial from an endurance standpoint, assuming a person has endurance-oriented goals.

The Big Problem With Supersets

So, those tend to be the biggest benefits of supersetting. Not too bad, right?

Now for its biggest problem.

The lack of rest between sets will undoubtedly hinder your strength and performance on whatever exercise is being done second in the superset, and overall accumulated fatigue will likely have more of a negative effect over the course of the workout.

Meaning, if you go from a set of Exercise A immediately to a set of Exercise B with no rest in between, your performance during Exercise B will suffer to some degree.

And at some point, your performance during Exercise A will probably be affected as well (albeit to a lesser degree than Exercise B).

This matters, because progressive overload (e.g. doing additional reps, lifting additional weight, etc.) is such an important part of an effective workout.

So, assuming you’re training for a goal like building muscle, maintaining muscle, or increasing strength rather than strictly burning calories or improving endurance, supersets will be somewhat counterproductive in this regard.

The time-saving benefits remain useful, of course, so each person would need to weigh the pros and cons here.

Is getting your workouts done a little faster worth sacrificing some amount of performance? That will depend on the person.

You know what would be awesome, though? If there was a similar weight training method that would still allow us to shorten our workouts and save some time, but without sacrificing our performance in the process.

That’s where alternating sets come into play.

What Is An Alternating Set?

Alternating sets are just like supersets, only now you do rest a bit in between sets of the paired-up exercises.

Here’s an example:

  • Set #1 of Exercise A.
  • Rest.
  • Set #1 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.
  • Set #2 of Exercise A.
  • Rest.
  • Set #2 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.
  • Set #3 of Exercise A.
  • Rest.
  • Set #3 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.

As you can see, you’re still combining two different exercises into one “super set,” but now you’re resting in between rather than going back-to-back with no rest at all.

And note that you wouldn’t rest for a typical full rest period in between every set. Meaning, if you’d normally rest 2 minutes between sets of Exercise A in a traditional setup, you’d probably only need to rest 1 minute in an alternating type of setup like this.

This means you still save some time (no, not quite as much as with supersets, but still something) in a way that will have less of a negative impact on your strength and performance.

Win-win.

Of course, this all assumes that the exercises being alternated are paired up and structured properly. Speaking of which…

How To Use Alternating Sets Or Supersets In Your Workout

(Even though I think alternating sets are a more ideal choice for most people, the following advice will apply the same to supersets as well. So, feel free to use whichever approach suits your goals and needs the best.)

Generally speaking, the best way to do alternating sets is to pair up exercises that have the least amount of overlap.

For example, pairing up flat bench press with incline bench press would be problematic, as both exercises train the same muscles groups (chest, triceps, anterior delts), and the fatigue generated would have a negative effect on both exercises.

That’s why the best place to start with exercise pairings is by choosing opposing muscle groups. For example, chest with back. Or biceps with triceps. And so on.

Basically, muscle groups that are the least likely to interfere with each other.

And one of the best ways to set this up is by doing it in terms of opposing movement patterns.

So, for example:

  • A horizontal push (bench press) with a horizontal pull (bent over row).
  • A vertical push (shoulder press) with a vertical pull (pull-ups/lat pull-downs).
  • An elbow flexion exercise (biceps curl) with an elbow extension exercise (triceps push-down).
  • A knee flexion exercise (leg curls) with a knee extension exercise (leg extensions).

The main exception to this approach is lower body compound exercises, as there’s quite a bit of overlap between the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

At the same time, you may not want to pair up exercises like squats, deadlifts, or various single-leg exercises (split squats, lunges, etc.) in the first place, simply because of how demanding they are on the body.

It can certainly be done, of course, it’s just not something I’d recommend to most people with most goals.

How Long To Rest Between Sets

How long to rest between alternating sets is a topic I briefly mentioned earlier.

This is really something that will vary based on a variety of factors, just like it would when choosing rest periods for any weight training approach. (More about that here: How Long To Rest Between Sets And Exercises)

However, in general, I think resting about 50% of the amount of time you would normally be resting during traditional sets is a good guideline to start with.

For example, if you’re pairing up bench press with seated cable rows, and you’d normally rest 2-3 minutes between sets for each, resting 60-90 seconds between alternating sets would likely be fine.

Here’s what this example might look like:

  • Bench Press: Set #1
  • Rest 60-90 seconds.
  • Seated Cable Row: Set #1
  • Rest 60-90 seconds.
  • Bench Press: Set #2
  • Rest 60-90 seconds.
  • Seated Cable Row: Set #2
  • Rest 60-90 seconds.
  • etc…

Summing It Up: Supersets vs Alternating Sets

If your primary weight training goal is endurance oriented, or if you’re training mainly to just burn as many calories as possible, supersets can certainly have their place in your workout routine.

The same goes for if you’re so short on time that using supersets is the only real way you can get your workouts done. In that case, go for it.

However, if you’re someone whose primary goal benefits from maximizing your strength and performance during the exercises you’re doing, supersets wouldn’t be ideal. Alternating sets would be a better choice.

So, if you’re looking for some way to shorten your workouts, save some time, and get out of the gym a little sooner without sacrificing strength/performance in the process, I’d definitely recommend giving alternating sets a try.

And if you’re looking for a workout routine that incorporates alternating sets for this very purpose, my Superior Muscle Growth program contains a bunch of them.

Feel free to check it out.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jay is the science-based writer and researcher behind everything you've seen here. He has 15+ years of experience helping thousands of men and women lose fat, gain muscle, and build their "goal body." His work has been featured by the likes of Time, The Huffington Post, CNET, Business Week and more, referenced in studies, used in textbooks, quoted in publications, and adapted by coaches, trainers and diet professionals at every level.

39 thoughts on “What Is A Superset Workout? (And Why Alternating Sets May Be Better)”

39 Comments

  1. Well, you’ve done it once again. I was all ready to design a supersetting program when my browser took me to this article. I really need to shock my thighs (my lagging bodypart) and I thought I’d do some supersetting, however, I’m not fond of stopping strength increases. Lo and behold, “Alternating Sets.” Thanks again for the great article.

  2. Hi, I have a question.
    So if I pair Cable rows with DB Bench press. 8-10reps.
    Cable rows – 30s
    Rest – 1min
    Bench press 30s
    Rest – 1min

    So after cable rows, back will be resting 2:30, wont it be too much for that rep range? If we’re aiming for some muscle fatigue?

      • I have 2 points, and in this case the second one is WAY more important. But the first is that most aspects of weight training have a pro and a con. Sometimes one is bigger than the other, and sometimes one is more important to you than the other. Because of this, you sometimes need to make a choice. Do you want the benefits and are willing to accept the drawback that comes with it, or is the drawback enough to make you miss out on the benefits?

        But honestly, in this specific case, as long as you just keep progressing, it’s really not going to matter at all. Fatigue definitely plays a role in muscle growth, but it’s A) always second to progression, and B) were talking about a rest period difference of like 30 seconds here… so it’s not something you should worry about.

        I mean, you could rest 5 minutes between sets and still be generating sufficient amounts of muscular fatigue. This is one of the many SUPER minor details that people obsess over that won’t really have any big picture effect on their results. So if alternating sets are something you want to do, I wouldn’t worry about this at all.

  3. I’ve just read about another way of doing alternating sets, besides the 3 methods that you’ve mentioned. That is, pairing upper body and lower body exercises. And to prevent further overlap, pairing front and back muscle groups. For example, doing bench press or pushups on the first set (upper body, front) then following it up with a leg curl or deadlift (lower body, back). What do you think?

    • Upper and lower body exercises can definitely be paired up (assuming you’re using a split that has upper/lower stuff in the same workout), but certain pairings still have the potential to interfere with the other (e.g. the bench press is an upper body exercise, but it still uses plenty of leg drive).

      Another example is your pairing of leg curls for hamstrings with deadlifts for back. Deadlifts will be hitting your hamstrings a ton, so that pairing doesn’t really work at all.

      And like I mention in the article, I’m still not much of a fan of trying to pair super demanding exercises like squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc. up for alternating sets under most circumstances.

  4. is this a good routine ?

    MONDAY

    superset incline bench 8*3 with incline flies 8*3
    inlcine d/b 8*3
    superset bench press 8*3 with flies 8*3
    pull over 8*3

    superset barbell curls 8*3 with d/b hammer curls 8*3
    seated dumbell curls 8*3

    • Looks like shit, honestly. Did you read the article? Supersets are most often done with opposing body parts. You’re supersetting compound/isolation exercises for the same muscle group.

  5. Hey

    This article is of particular interest to me because I workout Monday – Friday during my lunch hour.

    With travel to /from the gym etc… I get a total of 35 minutes to workout.

    I have therefore been incorporating supersets where possible and tend to do 2 exercises per muscle group for 2 muscle groups per day (3 sets each, some RPT some not) which adds up to 6 sets per muscle group with 2 different exercises.

    Obviously the time limitation is what forced me into this and I didn’t want to drop volume in favour of extra rest but I sort of thought that doing exercise 1, set 1 followed by exercise 2, set 1 and then a rest of maybe 60-90 seconds gave each muscle group time to recover.

    Granted, I’m not always supersetting opposing muscle groups but that’s mainly due to the location of stuff in my gym (so I may be supersetting flat chest with shoulders for instance).

    Anyway, wondered what your thoughts are on carrying this or sacrificing some volume for more rest to incorporate alternating sets instead of supersets?

    Progressive overload IS happening so maybe I should just keep going until it stops and re-evaluate?

    • Pre-exhaustion (which is a completely separate thing from the supersets being referring to in my article) may have some small benefits for advanced bodybuilders who are trying to squeeze out the last tiny bit of growth they are able to get out of a body that has already come extremely close to its genetic potential (or really in the case of most bodybuilders… well past their genetic potential thanks to the drugs they are often using), but it will mostly only be counterproductive to the vast majority of the population.

  6. Hey,

    I’m just wondering how Alternating Sets actually save any time?

    They involve performing the full exercise for the full amount of reps for the same amount of sets and the same amount of rests. The only difference is you intertwine exercises with each other. I don’t see any time being saved….. ?

    • Yup, time is saved. Too lazy to write it all out, but do the math again for 2 exercises done separately for 3 sets each with 2 minutes rest between sets. Then do the math for the same 3 sets of 2 exercises, except with 1 minute of rest between alternating sets.

      • Ah, okay. I didn’t notice any mention of rest times in the article, hence my confusion.

        Anyway, thank you so much for this website. I’m finding it incredible and invaluable – and I’ve read pretty much every workout website / article / message board out there, almost all of which are complete garbage compared to your site. Great job.

  7. Good article and worth so much esp. for me. I am beginning strength training using only body weight and am starting with the basics, so I am doing low reps with 2-3 minutes of rest in between sets to build strength. The first time I tried a full body routine it took me 2 hours to go through my workout. This is why I did find this article about alternating sets. Now I can plan my full body routine intelligently with the help of this article. Thanks a lot!

  8. Great article.

    I’m not too sold on the time saver argument though. My guess is that most people most of the time will be either training at home (i.e. one barbell, pair of dumb bells) or at a reasonably crowded gym (i.e. one “station”). Which means that unless there is some secret in switching up the weights in Flash-mode, you can hardly expect to finish a set at your bench press weight, then immediately jump into bent over barbell rows, unless you have a spare barbell ready. Same applies for Alternating sets.

    Or am I missing something painfully stupid here? (like doing barbell bench and then dumb bell rows?)

    • Depends on the gym. My gym is averagely crowded at the time I’m there, but there are still plenty of people who are able to alternate between two difference pieces of equipment for two different exercises.

      This certainly won’t be doable at every gym or at every time of the day… but lots of times it can be.

  9. Thanks for the article. I really like how you take the time to answer every single question.

    I have one thing to add though. Supersets still make sense and have their place in some training routines. What if you need to do 2 more exercises at the end of a workout that target really small non-overlapping muscle groups? Why not superset them? Case in point: some rotator cuff exercsise + calf raises? I guarantee that you won’t suffer any performance loss on either one of those if you skip the rest altogether while alternating them (not to mention progressive overload is kinda irrelevant when talking about rotator cuff).

    • You are correct. There are a handful of exceptions (like the example you gave) where a superset would likely have no negative effects. I often superset abs and calves if I’m in a hurry. It goes fine.

      But in the majority of cases where someone tries to superset (e.g. a press with a row, etc.), it will be counterproductive to performance.

  10. One of My upper body workouts of a 4 day split. It consists of 3 sets of 8-12 reps of:

    Bench press
    Bent over row
    DB shoulder press
    Lying tri ext
    DB curl

    Can I use Alternating sets for this?
    Thanks.

  11. Love the article, thank you.

    However I read that it is also beneficial to compound supersets (working the same muscle group). The results will be of course less weight but much more volume and fatigue the muscle. What do u think about this? I personally superset both ways ( agonist and antagonist muscles).

    • Do you mean do a set of a chest exercise immediately followed by a set of another chest exercise? Nope, not something I’d recommend. I see way more cons than pros to that approach.

      If fatigue is the goal, you can simply just use higher reps/shorter rest periods on the same exercise.

  12. I’ve just begun your beginner routine and was wondering if alternating sets can be used for that as well, or should beginners keep it simple and stick to doing one exercise at a time?

  13. Its been a week now that i begun your Bodybuilding 2.0 routine(a combination of Version 1 and Version 3 ). Due to super tight schedule i would like to try making it a little faster. But in this split there are no antagonist muscle groups. Is it possible to be done?

    • There’s really no good way to do something like that within a push or pull workout (beyond something like pairing up lateral raises and triceps press-downs at the end of a push workout), because virtually every exercise overlaps with the others in terms of muscle groups being trained… which means the likelihood of excessive fatigue would be pretty high… which means negative effects on strength and performance.

      • Damn. I was doing for about a year and a half the upper lower split and i was hopping to change the things a bit. I was thinking about a higher volume(i have found that 130-140 reps per week works like a charm on me ) with more focus on the shoulders and the bodybuilding 2.0 version 3 was great!!!

        Maybe if i try a chest/bicep/shoulder(lateral) , back/tricep/shoulder(military press) , legs/shrugs approach??? Maybe i could do alternate sets there? Or its a dumb split ?

        Any other ideas other than a upper lower ?

  14. Hi.

    Trying to put together a routine that works and keeps me interested. Can you have an alternate routine with Chest -n- Tri’s / Back -n- Bi’s.

    Ex. 4 sets of DB Fly’s -w- 4 sets of Skullcrushers ??

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