Super Sets in Personal Training - Part 1

A while ago we were asked to discuss super sets and give a bit of a breakdown of their value and possible use. Part 1 of a 3 part blog here...

Super Sets in Personal Training - Part 1

A while ago we were asked to discuss super sets and give a bit of a breakdown of their value and possible use.  Luckily – I really like supersets so here’s Part 1 of my summary which no doubt others will add to.


Types of super sets

Firstly let me say that I’m only going to cover two types of super sets.  What I call ‘compound’ super sets and ‘alternating’ super sets.  There are all sorts of other names but these are mine and I’m sticking to them! 

Compound super sets are just any lifts that are used sequentially and target the same muscle or muscle group.  I call them ‘compound’ as by doing them you are ‘compounding’ the loading/tension of that specific muscle or group of muscles.  An example would be doing bench press and dropping in to a follow up set of pectoral flyes.

Alternating super sets are any lifts that use a muscle group different than the group worked in the first exercise of the set.  An example would be doing bench press then moving straight in to seated rows.


What do super sets do?

Super sets generally increase the total time under tension of a muscle or group of muscles greatly increasing the energy system fatigue.  The ‘burn’ during compound super sets is from the build up of lactate within the local muscle group.  The compound super set also increases the duration of muscular tension which is one of the three main ways to develop strength.

Alternating super sets increases the total work time but in different muscle groups so there is less local fatigue than with compound super sets and generally more cardiovascular stress as blood is shunted from one group to another to complete the work involved with the second lift. 

The two major mechanisms I see for muscular adaptations post exercise are overall hormonal response to the exercise dose and tissue damage.  Basically the bodies adaptive process is one of hormonal secretion of testosterone, growth hormone and other anabolic goodies and concurrent to that the tissue damage (micro tearing) causes a biasing of the blood flow so worked muscles get more of the circulating hormones and substrates (amino acids and carbohydrates etc) so they are rebuilt preferentially over the untrained and undamaged tissues.  This cycle of volume stimulating a global response and tissue damage and local vasodilation enabling that response to have greatest affect in the right muscles is part of the adaptive cycle.

So, remember with compound super sets local fatigue is greater and muscle tension is maintained for longer in the same muscles.  Post exercise this means more tissue damage is likely to have occurred due to the local muscle tension and blood flow to the region (because of the necessary clearing of lactate) is more pronounced. As a result the compound super set should stimulate significant change.

With alternate super sets the general fatigue can be higher overall because you can do more total work across the two sets jammed together because varied muscle groups are being used.  The body as a result should secrete even more hormone than with compound super sets (I’ll explain why in a moment) in response to the work.  The localised fatigue is less and the muscle tension is less continuous (because time under tension is lower for each muscle group) so less micro tearing of the muscle occurs.  What you see in this case is the alternate super set will give a big hormonal response and a broader range of muscle response sites due to the arrangement of the overload across a wider variety of muscle groups.


Volume as a stimulus for change

This brings me to volume.  Fundamentally the volume in a workout creates the stress and as such creates the response.  A big volume should equate to a big response.  A smaller volume should equate to a smaller response.  Volume is best measured with time as a denominator.  This gives you a much better gauge of overall intensity and therefore the type of adaptation and hormonal response you should be eliciting from the training.  You’ll see this in the examples coming up in Part 2 of this blog - stay tuned.