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:
- 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
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.