What Is A Superset? (And Why You Shouldn’t Use It In Your Workouts)

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 2 of those ways:

  • Supersets
  • Alternating Sets

The reason I want to combine supersets and alternating sets in one article is because they are somewhat similar, and that similarity tends to cause people to use those terms interchangeably as though they mean the same thing.

In reality however, supersets and alternating sets are definitely NOT the same thing, as there is one huge difference that separates them.

How big is that difference, you ask? Well, it’s big enough for me to consider one of those workout methods to be highly useful (to the point where I’d sometimes recommend it), and the other to be kinda dumb for most people (to the point where I’d hardly ever recommend it).

So, let’s now compare supersets and alternating sets and see which ends up being which.

What Is A Superset?

Supersetting involves doing a set of one exercise, and then immediately doing a set of another exercise right after with no rest in between.

So, you’d do a set of Exercise A, then go right into a set of Exercise B, then rest. You’d then repeat this superset again as many times as needed to complete your prescribed total amount of sets for each exercise.

Supersets Save Time

While supersetting has a handful of supposed benefits and purposes, #1 on that list is that it’s a time saver.

And, it’s true. Assuming the exercises are paired intelligently in each superset (more on that later), supersetting is guaranteed to allow you to get through your workouts a bit faster and save you some time.

By doing a set of one exercise and then a set of another exercise back-to-back without resting, there’s no doubt you’ll get done faster than if you structured your sets and exercises 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 (who wouldn’t?), supersets definitely have some appeal.

Supersets Can Be Useful For Metabolic/Circuit Training

In addition to being a time saver, supersets can also be useful to achieve a metabolic/circuit type training effect.

Meaning, it will likely be useful from an endurance standpoint (if that’s your goal), and it will likely burn a few more calories when compared with a more traditional set and exercise structure.

So, if that’s your goal, supersets again definitely have some appeal.

However, that’s pretty much where the PROs end and the CONs begin…

The Big Problem With Supersets

As nice as those two benefits might seem to the people interested in those benefits (saving time/shorter workouts, or endurance/metabolic training), there is one major problem with using supersets.

And that problem is, the lack of rest between sets will undoubtedly hinder your performance and strength levels on whatever exercise you do during the second half of the superset.

In fact, the additional overall fatigue being accumulated by training in this manner will end up hurting your performance on that first exercise, too.

Meaning, if you go from a set of bench pressing immediately to a set of bent over barbell rows with no rest in between, your performance on the rows will suffer to some significant degree every single time. And at some point, your bench pressing would likely be affected negatively as well (albeit to a lesser degree).

And, when you keep in mind the fact that progressive overload is the true key to improving your body in virtually any capacity (building muscle, increasing strength, etc.), it’s hard for me to view a workout method that will obviously hurt your performance as anything but counterproductive to your true #1 goal (which is progressive overload).

The only exception to that rule would be a person who IS weight training specifically to create a metabolic/endurance effect, in which case you don’t really mind sacrificing one type of performance in favor of the type of performance you’re aiming for.

But for the majority of the population, supersets are really just a crappy weight training method that will likely do more harm (hurt performance) than good (be a time saver).

What we really need is some weight training method that will still allow us to shorten our workouts and save some time, but without sacrificing our performance in the process.

If only something like that actually existed. Oh wait, it does.

Allow me to introduce you to alternating sets.

What Is An Alternating Set?

Alternating sets are basically exactly the same as supersets, except that you DO rest in between exercises.

Remember that one huge difference I alluded to earlier? There it is.

Here’s how alternating sets would work…

You’d do a set of Exercise A, rest for a certain amount of time, then do a set of Exercise B, rest for a certain amount of time, and then keep repeating this until you’ve completed your prescribed amount of sets for each exercise.

Now THIS I like. Supersets on the other hand… not so much.

I’m also not the only person who likes it. Some of the more popular/intelligently designed workout routines out there these days use alternating sets. Why? Because they still allow you save time in a way that doesn’t sacrifice performance like supersets are guaranteed to do. It’s win-win.

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

How To Properly Use Alternating Sets (or Supersets) In Your Workout Routine

(Even though alternating sets are the method I’m MUCH more likely to recommend, most of the following applies to supersets as well.)

In the most basic sense, the ideal way to do alternating sets is by pairing up exercises that have the LEAST amount of overlap and effect on each other.

For example, pairing up flat bench presses with incline bench presses would be pretty stupid, as both exercises train the same muscles groups and the fatigue generated in those muscles would negatively affect your performance on BOTH exercises.

Instead, the best place to start with exercise pairings is with opposing muscle groups. You know, like chest with back or biceps with triceps. This will ensure that overlap between exercises is minimal or nonexistent.

However, we can (and should) do even better than that when pairing up our exercises. How? By doing it in terms of opposing movement patterns. So, for example…

  • Pairing up a horizontal push (bench press) with a horizontal pull (bent over row) would be perfect.
  • Pairing up a vertical push (overhead shoulder press) with a vertical pull (pull-ups/lat pull-downs) would be perfect.
  • Pairing up an elbow flexion exercise (biceps curl) with elbow extension exercise (triceps press down) would be perfect.

The only slight exception is with quad and ham/hip dominant movements. This is partially due to overlap and secondary muscle use during most lower body compound exercises, but it’s also because you usually don’t want to pair up squats, deadlifts, split squats/lunges with anything else due to how highly demanding they are on the body.

It can certainly be done, I just wouldn’t usually recommend it.

However, isolation pairings like leg extensions and leg curls would be perfectly fine.

The same would usually be true for any other isolation pairings where unrelated muscle groups are being trained (like abs with calves, for example).

How Long Should I Rest Between Sets?

Regarding rest times between alternating sets (this of course wouldn’t be relevant with supersets), that can depend on a bunch of different factors just like it would when choosing rest times for any method of weight training. (More about that here: How Long To Rest Between Sets & Exercises)

However, in general, I think 60-90 seconds between sets works pretty well in most cases (unless otherwise specified by your specific workout routine).

So for example, you might do something 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
  • etc…

Summing It Up: Supersets vs Alternating Sets

If your primary weight training goal is anything related to creating a metabolic/circuit type training effect, then supersets can certainly have their place in your workout routine. However, doing so will always cause strength performance to be sacrificed to some degree.

This is why, if you have a more typical weight training goal in mind (like building muscle, maintaining muscle, increasing strength, and so on), I think supersets are a pretty bad idea, and I don’t recommend using them in your workout routine.

However, if you’re looking for some way to shorten your workouts, save time, and get out of the gym a little sooner WITHOUT hurting your performance in the process, then I have no problem recommending alternating sets.

In fact, many of the highly effective programs I’ve included in The Best Workout Routines use this training method.

Plus, alternating sets will likely still allow you to end up burning a few more calories than you would with a more traditional set/exercise structure (if that’s something you’re interested in).

And aside from all of that, you might just find alternating sets to be a fun weight training method to try whether any of the above benefits matter to you at all.

39 thoughts on “What Is A Superset? (And Why You Shouldn’t Use It In Your Workouts)”

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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