Super Sets in Personal Training - Part 3

In the final part of this 3 part blog Steve talks about super-setting and managing intensity, 3 areas where trainers often go wrong and his final thoughts on how you can make the most of super-setting. Check it out...

Continued from Part 2

Managing intensity and causing change

I should also mention that workout intensity is much more important than workout duration and this little super setting trick fits right in that mold.  Research results in tapering show that intensity is king. 

Basically, the message is you can reduce training duration by two-thirds, keep the intensity at the same level and you will still maintain the adaptations previously attained.  This approach is often used in periodization of training to allow work in one fitness area whilst another is parked up in ‘maintenance’.  The reverse is not true, you can’t take out two thirds of the intensity and keep the duration the same and maintain the adaptations.  So, intensity is a stronger stimulus to the body to maintain change (and create change for that matter) than duration.

A word of warning here.  I don’t want Personal Trainers logging in now and pointing out that duration is more important because running marathons is very stressful and the only way to go if you want your client to be a lean, mean, virtual fighting machine.  I’m saying the research supports intensity as a more important variable than duration for performance changes. 

Also, the reason long endurance (1hour plus) works so well for causing adaptation is because it becomes more and more stressful as you go on.  Think of it this way, as you get toward two hours your muscle glycogen and liver glycogen is gone, you’ve repeatedly loaded the same muscles and connective tissue over and over again with 250% of your body weight with each foot strike, your blood volume is dropping as you lose fluids, your core temperature is rising and the competition between your working muscles and skin for blood creates further cardiovascular load (as both tissues need blood flow to do their jobs).  Simply put, you do endurance training and you are going deep into fatigue and as a result you will get a significant hormonal response due to the stress. 

What I’m talking about with intensity is something that an intermediate client who wants to train three days a week for 40 minutes or so at lunch time can manage and get the most bang from.

Intensity management in fitness clubs

Because intensity is so useful I'm a big advocate of managing it very carefully whilst maximising it as much as possible.  There are three areas that you can go wrong with intensity.

  1. When there’s not enough of it to cause change
  2. When it's so lumpy that your client goes from near death to great relief several times in one workout
  3. When it's poorly monitored over time so you have very little idea if you are progressing or regressing your client

Intensity (one of our best tools) should be carefully managed within the fitness training environment.  I used a heart rate monitor with my clients at least once a week and all independent training tended to be prescribed from that basis.  With resistance training it was mostly done with me so I could get as much progress as possible as safely as possible.

What I hate to see is silly little exercises, done over and over again sub-maximally and then four stretches done half-heartedly and a Gatorade to finish.  That is problem 1. "not enough intensity to cause change'.

My heart also goes out occasionally to the poor sod getting flogged to within an inch of their life who ends up sounding and looking like a drunk asthmatic simultaneously having a fit on a treadmill.  You've seen it happen, this is problem number 2.  "lumpy intensity".

What we can do is use prescriptions that manage intensity and progression wisely and encourage compliance.  I would like to see a focus on total work done in the time available.  And, given time is often fixed, it means intensity should be prescribed, monitored and adapted at an individual level at least weekly, especially early on in training when physiological adaptations happen more rapidly. Managing this stimulus over time brings results and therein avoids problem 3. "poorly managed intensity over time so you don't know if progression or regression is occuring"

Back to super sets 

Most intermediate level clients with good attitudes will eat these alternate super-setting workouts up.  And so they should, because they are good for them without being terribly unpleasant to do because there is little localised muscular pain/burn. 

I would warn you off the compound super-set approach unless you have someone you don’t like and want to hurt – or a body builder.

Keep the overall ‘conditioning’ component of the workout 20-30 minutes with the alternate super-setting and you’ll avoid any dramatic cortisol response and enhance the chance of adequate recovery. 

Use CRAC (contract, relax, agonist contract) stretching as part of the cool down approach and you’ll quicken recovery by helping squeeze out the blood and bi-products from the muscle belly and you'll return the muscle to a decent (read better than resting) tone along with easing the connective tissue.

Please, show me more workouts where intensity is carefully managed, heart rate is used for cardiovascular work, TUT, tempo, work: rest ratios are used for resistance training.  The gold plated progress for our clients is right under our noses – we just have to latch on to the basics and apply the science to the people who pay us to know best.  Alternate super-sets are one avenue that clearly offers us opportunities.

Good luck with your training – and feel free to comment – I'd love to know what others think of super sets and intensity management.

Beki Johnson
Beki Johnson says:
Dec 31, 2012 05:44 AM

I love supersets, they are a great way to fit more into the work out, and I agree about intensity.
I would only really do supersets while I was with a client, work on their own would more be focused on getting them ready for our next session, or continued working on any weaker areas.