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The Superset Survival Guide

Posted Oct 14 2012 9:44pm
I’ve come to realize that over the past 13 years in strength and conditioning, I’ve gotten a little spoiled. Many of my readers are some of the more educated weight-training consumers on the ‘Net. I’ve been around Division 1 athletes who have four years of strength and conditioning continuity in their lives. I’ve lifted alongside world-class powerlifters. And, now, I have a host of athletes at Cressey Performance who are completely “indoctrinated” with my training philosophies, as it’s the only thing they’ve ever known.

So, I guess you could say that I’ve become a bit of a lifting snob in the sense that I assume I’m always surrounded by people who know how to interpret my programs, leaving me to just program, coach technique, help select weights, and turn up the volume on the stereo.

I came to the realization that I was just in a fantasyland, though, when my second book, Maximum Strength , was published in June of 2008.

This book, which had a bit more “mass market” flavor than the overwhelming majority of my work, was being sold online and in bookstores from Idaho to Thailand – and many of the people buying it were Average Joes who didn’t know how to interpret the programs I’d written. One question that I received in about 50 different emails sticks out in my mind:

“I've recently purchased your book and have a quick question related to the training schedules. I see the "A1 and A2" / "B1 and B2" designations, but am not sure I fully understand if I'm supposed to alternate the exercises that day (for example, do a set of one-arm DB push press and then do a set of close-grip chin-up and cycle through to complete 3 sets each) or am I supposed to pick one exercise for week 1 and then choose the other exercise in week 2?”

The answer, as the overwhelming majority of my readers knows, is that A1 and A2 indicates a superset. You go back and forth between the two (in all weeks), and once you’ve completed A1 and A2, you move on to B1 and B2, then C1 and C2, and so on. So, you do all the exercises in all the weeks. The idea is pretty simple:

Supersetting makes your training far more efficient.

So, rather than doing a set of bench presses and then standing around for two minutes before the next set, you superset the bench presses with a variation of rows or a flexibility exercise, for instance. You increase training density, and can use the pairings to bring up weak areas.

All that said, we know superset training works; it might be one of the few things that the overwhelming majority of strength coaches and personal trainers agree on, in fact! However, I often see poor choices in terms of exercise pairings in the lay population. For instance, you’ll often see people supersetting walking dumbbell lunges and chin-ups, both of which are pretty grip-intensive. As such, I thought it’d be a good time to throw out some of my favorite supersets.

1. The "Regular Ol’ Push-Pull" Superset

This is probably where we’ve come to recognize the value of supersets more than anywhere else. Do a set of presses, and instead of just waiting 2-3 minutes to go back to another set of presses, we go to a pull in the middle. Let’s look at what this works out to over the course of five sets, assuming a two-minute rest between sets and a duration of thirty seconds between sets:

Option A – Just “Press ‘n Wait”
30s set
120s rest
30s set
120s rest
30s set
120s rest
30s set
120s rest
30s set
Total Time: 10 minutes, 30 seconds

Option B – Pairing a press and a pull with a “moderate” rest between push and pull
30s set (press)
60s rest
30s set (pull)
60s rest
30s set (press)
60s rest
30s set (pull)
60s rest
30s set (press)
60s rest
30s set (pull)
60s rest
30s set (press)
60s rest
30s set (pull)
60s rest
30s set (press)
60s rest
30s set (pull)
Total Time: 14 minutes

Effectively, you’ve doubled your training density while only investing 33% more time. And, if you cut the rest intervals down to 45s between the end of a press set and start of the pull set, you actually keep the rest between sets of presses the same as you did in Option 1 and be down to 11 minutes, 45 seconds. You don’t have to be an economist – or even a graduate of the 6th grade – to know that this is a wise training investment. “More work in less time” holds merit in lifting heavy stuff just like it does in the business world.

The logical next question is, of course, what kind of “pushes” and “pulls?” It’s a pretty easy division to make, via four categories:

1. Vertical Push (overhead pressing)
2. Vertical Pull (chin-up/pull-up variations, lat pulldowns)
3. Horizontal Push (bench press and push-up variations)
4. Horizontal (rowing variations)

Pair the vertical pushes with the vertical pulls, and horizontal pushes with the horizontal pulls. And, if you’re feeling frisky, you can pair horizontal pushes with vertical pulls, or horizontal pulls with vertical pushes. Your imagination is the only limit.

A word of advice: you’ll never get completely perfect antagonist relationships. For example, the long head of the triceps is going to be at least somewhat active in every one of these variations because it is both a shoulder extensor (pull-ups and rows) and an elbow extensor (all presses). The long head of the biceps flexes both the shoulder (all presses) and elbow (pull-ups and rows) on top of contributing to shoulder joint stability in all tasks. Your rotator cuff is going crazy in all these movements.

In short, consider gross movement schemes and try to avoid blatantly obvious overlap in muscle recruitment, but don’t get bogged down in minutia when selecting your pairings.
 

 2. The “True Mark of Your Common Sense” Superset

Without further ado, here it is:

A1) Deadlift variation
A2) Heavy panting!

I throw this in here simply because I want people to realize that not everything in your training needs to be supersetted with another exercise. Sometimes standing around – or at the very most, doing an unrelated stretch or easy mobilization – is exactly what you want. I once heard about a trainer who supersetted back squats with stiff-leg deadlifts. This less-than-enlightened individual overlooked the fact that:

a) both exercises heavily tax the posterior chain
b) both movements absolutely destroy you – which just might compromise technique
c) intervertebral discs – and not just muscles and the nervous system – are relaxing between sets, too.

There are, however, a few ways to make the downtime between deadlift sets more productive…

3. The "Stiff Ankle" Superset

We do all our deadlifting variations without shoes on at Cressey Performance, as this allows athletes to keep the weight on the heels to better activate the posterior chain. It also brings the lifter closer to the ground, so hip mobility deficits can’t interfere with getting down to the bar without a rounded back.

Being shoeless also lends itself well to working on some ankle mobility, as being in sneakers typically gives us a false sense of good range of motion at this joint, so a low-key filler between deadlifts is ankle mobility work:

A1) Deadlift variation
A2) Ankle mobilization of your choice

Knee-break ankle mobilizations are one option. Here, the goal is to keep the heel down while going into dorsiflexion (knee over toe); don’t allow the knees to deviate inward or the toes to turn out, though.

4. The "Front Squat/Vertical Pull" Superset

It’s a bit easier to superset squats with other movements than deadlifts – but only in specific cases, such as…

A1) Front Squat Variation
A2) Vertical Pull Variation

As I mentioned in my article Lats: Not Just for Pulldowns , the lats are anatomically less effective as spinal stabilizers during the front squat, which accounts for some of the discrepancy between one’s front squat and back squat. If we’re not using them as much in stabilization for the front squat, we might as well use them for actually generating movement.

For variation, you can squat to various depths, from pins or a box, or against bands/chains. With the vertical pull, you have several grip choices (neutral/supinated/pronated/alternate, and plus different grip widths).

As you get stronger and stronger, though, pairing anything with a squat can get to be a pain in the butt. With that in mind, one substitute we’ve used is pairing reverse lunges with a front squat grip with any of the vertical pulling variations – and just extended the rest time a bit.

You can also use any of a number of other lunge variations that use a bar (dumbbells won’t work because of the grip challenge). We use the giant cambered bar a lot, for instance:

5. The Unilateral Superset

I get quite a few questions about how to plug single-leg exercises into supersets.

A1) Single-leg Exercise – side #1
A2) Single-leg Exercise – side #2

I structure programs this way because I want people to rest between sides on these movements. Grips falter, scapular stabilizers get fatigued, and there is always a bit of overlap from side to side on these movements. As such, I like to shoot for 30-45 seconds between sides – during which time people can regroup and focus on the quality of the next set instead of rushing right into it.

That said, we generally pair our lower body work with some kind of core stability or mobility drill. So, I guess it would technically be treated like a triset (or quad-set, if one of these drills is performed on each side). Examples might be:

A1) Dumbbell Forward Lunges – side #1
A2) Dumbbell Forward Lunges – side #2
A3) Stability Ball Rollouts

or...

A1) Dumbbell Forward Lunges – side #1
A2) Dumbbell Forward Lunges – side #2
A3) Split-Stance Cable Lift – side #1
A4) Split-Stance Cable Lift – side #2

Of course, to keep things less cumbersome, I’d simply write these up as:

A1) Dumbbell Forward Lunges
A2) Split-Stance Cable Lift

Anyway, moving on…

6. The “Miserable Lower Body Experience” Superset

As I noted above, one of the problems I see with a ton of lower body superset is that they combine complex exercises like squats and deadlifts with other fatiguing exercises – and as a result, the squat and/or deadlift form because absolutely atrocious and potentially injurious. From my perspective, effective lower body pairings are safe, but sufficiently compound and functional enough to activate enough muscle mass and have some functional carryover to the real world.

I know most of you won’t have a sled or a glute-ham raise at your disposal, but I’m throwing this out there anyway, as it makes for a great finisher at the end of a lower body day:

A1) Reverse Sled Drags
A2) Glute-Ham Raises

The reverse sled drags are about as quad dominant as you can go, and the glute-ham raises crush the posterior chain.  Don’t have a sled or glute-ham raise set-up, though? All you’ll need are a bench, a lat pulldown or seated calf raise, some balls, and a good stomach. You can instead pair dumbbell Bulgarian split squats with natural glute-ham raises. For the latter, just set up in reverse and lock your ankles under the pads, controlling yourself down slowly and (most likely) giving yourself a push off with your arms to get back to the top.

7. The “Miserable Upper Body Experience” Superset

Our entire staff trains together at Cressey Performance, and this pairing is widely recognized as the most brutal upper body superset we’ve ever done.

A1) Bench Press Clusters: 4 x (4x2) – 10s
A2) Farmer’s Walk: 4x80yds – but go as far as you can on the last set

For those of you who aren’t familiar with clusters, for 4 x (4x2) – 10s, this would be four total clusters. Each cluster consists of 4 sets of 2 reps with 10 seconds rest between sets. The idea is that by putting these “mini-rests” between sets of 2, you can use a heavier weight for your sets than if you’d just done eight straight reps. So, training is more dense (anyone notice a theme here?). All told, you might wind up doing 32 reps with as much as 85% of your 1-rep max.

After the cluster, of course, we went to A2, nearly vomited, and then came back to do another cluster. The first time four of us did this, there was a 25% attrition rate after the second round, and the remaining three of us made it through all four – but couldn’t lift our arms for about three days without yelping like chihuahuas giving birth.

To the naked eye (and stomach), this would just seem like torture, but whether we recognized it or not, we were onto something. Bench presses are a push and require some lower trap activation for a good “tucked” upper body positioning. Farmer’s walk are more of a pull and rely heavily on the upper traps. Lower traps depress the scapula, and upper traps elevate it.

8. The “Productive Rest during Plyos” Superset

We do a lot of medicine ball drills, jumping, and change-of-direction work with our athletes to develop power. With this type of training, it’s important to allow for adequate rest between sets, even if athletes don’t actually feel tired. To that end, we’ll often pair these drills up with some kind of mobility or activation drill, as it allows us to:

a) slow an athlete down
b) work on an inefficiency
c) shorten the learning loop (meaning that if we work on the inefficiency from “b,” we’ll best integrate those changes with compound exercises like medicine ball throws or jump training)

Here’s an example we might use for medicine ball training for an athlete with limited shoulder flexion and an excessive anterior pelvic tilt/lorsdosis:

A1) Step-Behind Rotational Medicine Ball Shotput: 3x3/side, 6lb


A2) Bench T-Spine Mobilizations: 3x8


 

B1) Recoiled Rollover Stomps to Floor: 3x4/side, 12lb


 

B2) Wall Slides with Overhead Shrug and Lift-off: 3x8

Of course, you can plug in just about anything for the A2 and B2 “fillers,” depending on what inefficiencies the athlete needs to address.

9. The “Where the Heck do I put Turkish Get-ups” Superset

The Turkish get-ups is one of the most big-bang exercises you can do; it offers great core and shoulder stability challenges while testing hip mobility in a fundamental movement pattern: transitioning from the supine to upright position. It does, however, often lead to confusion in program design, as folks sometimes struggle with determining where to put this exercise in strength training programs. On one hand, it’s a technically intensive exercise that you want to put first in a training day. On the other hand, it’s probably more of a “core” exercise than a true upper extremity loading drill, so one might be tempted to put it later in a training session. What to do?

Personally, I agree with the former approach. In fact, one of my favorite places to put them is as part of a A1/A2 pairing that also includes vertical pulling. The get-up is more of an approximation exercise at the shoulder, meaning that it pushes the humeral head (ball) back into the glenoid fossa (socket). Conversely, pull-up variations are traction exercises, meaning the ball is pulled away from the socket. So, a sample pairing might be:

A1) Weighted Chin-ups: 4x5
A2) 1-arm Kettlebell Turkish Get-ups: 4x3/side

10. The “Get Out of the Sagittal Plane” Superset

Let’s face it: traditional strength training is very sagittal plane dominant. However, when it comes to participating in sports or just encountering random things in everyday life, we have to be comfortable working in other planes of motion. And, specific to our baseball players, we need to make sure that our athletes are prepared for a sport that largely takes place in the frontal and transverse planes. And, that’s why I like this superset.

A1) Plate-Loaded Slideboard Lateral Lunges


A2) Wide-Stance Anti-Rotation Chop with Rope

With A1, you’re building some strength in the frontal plane while improving adductor length. If you don’t have a slideboard, you can throw a towel, furniture slider, or paper plate on a tile or wood floor. Or you can just do dumbbell goblet lateral lunges.

With the second drill, obviously, you’re working on rotary stability and getting some hip mobility at the same time. When you pair two drills like this up, you’ll find that the core stability work helps to make the transient improvements in hip mobility “stick” a little better.

Supersetting My Closing Thoughts

A1) Your imagination really is your primary limit with respect to coming up with supersets you can use. Just stick to the basics and don’t get cute.

A2) Remember that good pairings are both safe and appropriate in light of your goals (e.g., not pairing two grip intensive exercises).

B1) Don’t forget that there is absolutely a time and place for rest, and it is usually better to “casually alternate” between sets, as opposed to raising back and forth.

B2) Just because I am showing you a way to make your training more dense and efficient does not mean that you should go ahead and start doing 50 sets per training session just so that you can continue to spend three hours in the gym. Keep it short and sweet.

C1) Good luck.

C2) Thanks for reading.

Looking for a comprehensive resource to take the guesswork out of your programming? Check out Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better .

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