In the 1987 movie "Wall Street," corporate raider Gordon Gekko famously proclaimed, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good."
Of course, he turned out to be the so-called bad guy in that film, and in many instances it could be argued that more is not necessarily better. Greed, however, in the gym, does have a place. After all, why do only one exercise, when you can pair two together? Or how about three? Four?
It's not recommended all the time, but combining two or more exercises into one mega-set can pay off in a big way as far as muscle growth. Use the tactic too much, and your body will go bust from overtraining, but knowing when to get a little greedy can be, to paraphrase Michael Douglas in his Oscar-winning turn, a very good thing.
TWO FOR THE MONEY
In a standard set of an exercise, you choose a challenging resistance (i.e. weight) and aim for a particular number of repetitions or a range of reps. Then you stop, rest for 30-90 seconds (closer to the former if you're doing lighter weight and high reps, and toward the latter if you're working at near-maximal poundages), and do it again. For instance, you select 140 pounds on the leg extension machine, do 12 reps, then stop and rest.
The concept of a superset is simply to take two of those standard sets, for two different exercises, and put them together. Thus, in our example, instead of stopping to rest after 12 reps of extensions, you immediately jump on, say, a lying leg curl machine, and perform 12 reps. Then you rest the same amount of time as you would if you were only doing one set, and perform the sequence again.
What's the point? Whenever you can squeeze more workload into a shorter period of time, you're increasing the intensity of your training, which propels growth processes in your body. In the case of the extension (which hits your quadriceps) and the curl (which targets hamstrings), you're also taking advantage of the efficiencies of working two opposing muscle groups. In this type of superset , you work antagonistic muscle pairings, pumping more overall blood into that area (which brings nutrients and carries away waste products) and takes advantage of their synergistic nature.
Of course, supersets can also consist of two exercises that attack the same muscle group, basically taking a two-barreled aim at the target. (This style is sometimes referred to as a compound set, although in the accepted gym vernacular today supersets can refer interchangeably to both versions.) There are a few different ways you can effectively home in on one muscle group with supersets -- using " Standard ," " Pre-Exhaust " or " Leverage " approaches, all of which we get into a bit later in this article.
LAGS TO RICHES
The benefits of pairing exercises are not limited to two. You can also experiment with tri-sets, which are three exercises done back-to-back-to-back with no rest in between. And, for those who want to go even further, there are giant sets, which are simply four (or more) moves assembled together into a string.
Whichever you choose, the training techniques are designed to help thoroughly exhaust a muscle group, helping ensure no individual muscle fiber goes untouched during your workout. Think back to your last training session to envision how this can benefit you. If you were training chest, maybe you did five sets of bench presses, pyramiding up in weight set-to-set, working in a 6-10 rep range, stopping about 60 seconds between each to catch your breath. You may have followed that up with five pyramided sets of incline presses, and finished up with dumbbell flyes and a few final sets of cable crossovers.
Now, that's not a bad workout, all in all. But think of all that time between sets you spent resting, allowing your pectorals to recover -- even if you took a number of sets to momentary failure, the most your muscles were ever put through in any one set was 10 reps. Imagine going back and, this time, pairing your incline presses with dumbbell flyes, and your bench presses with crossovers. Essentially, your total rest would have been cut in half, causing your muscles to undertake more work in a shorter period of time. And, best yet, you didn't drastically cut the weights you used for each exercise, as you would have to if you instead increased your bench press reps from 6-10 to 15-20 per set. More volume in less time with an overall heavy workload -- that's improved intensity, and especially valuable for a lagging body part.
Whether you go two, three, four or more, you can choose the " Standard " option (simply picking two exercises that hit the muscle in the same way); the " Pre-Exhaust " method (using an isolation exercise for the first move while the second is a heavier compound move); or the " Leverage " technique (moving from an exercise that puts you in a weaker position to one that puts you in a stronger position, thus allowing you to continue repping longer overall). Here's more on each:
Standard : As mentioned, a "standard" superset, tri-set or giant set simply pairs two-to-four exercises that hit one body part. For example, pairing a lying French press for triceps with a cable pressdown, or a standing calf raise with a seated calf raise. It's brutally simple, yet brutally effective.
Pre-Exhaust : The pre-exhaust technique has been around gyms for decades, and with good reason -- it works. The theory is this: When you do a compound move (such as a seated barbell press), your triceps, being a smaller muscle group, will likely fatigue before your stronger deltoid muscles, thus causing you to end the set prematurely. However, if you do a movement that isolates the target muscle first, such as standing dumbbell lateral raises in this instance, when you do the compound move after, it's more likely your "pre-fatigued" delts will give out before your tri's do. This technique is meant for larger muscle groups, and not smaller ones such as biceps, triceps, forearms, calves and abs.
Leverage : This technique takes a bit more forethought, but it can really help extend your muscles beyond what they're used to. In this sequence, you move from an exercise that puts you in a weaker biomechanical position to one that puts you in a slightly stronger one, like a martial artist dropping his center of gravity to throw an opponent or a baseball power hitter shifting his weight on a swing. Here's an illustration: Start a shoulders tri-set with seated dumbbell presses; then, when you reach failure, stand up, which allows you to use a slight knee bounce to get the weights up, and continue repping. A common pattern for "Leverage" would go from a dumbbell exercise, which calls on a lot of stabilizer muscles, to a barbell, which puts you at a slightly better biomechanical position because a weaker-side muscle can help a stronger side, and finally to a machine, which takes most assisting muscles out of the equation.
For more examples that cover every body part, see our " Sample Pairings Chart " below. But keep this final caveat in mind -- Mr. Gekko may not have agreed with this, but too much of a good thing is, in fact, counterproductive. Instead, like all training techniques that drastically increase your workout intensity, you want to use this one judiciously, and not in every single workout. With that said, feel free to cash in on everything supersets, tri-sets and giant sets have to offer.
SAMPLE PAIRINGS CHART
Looking for a way to include supersets, tri-sets or giant sets in your own training? Here are a few options to get you started.
Superset Tri-Set Giant Set
BACK Pre-Exhaust: Leverage: Standard:
Straight-Arm Pulldown Pull-Up T-Bar Row
Bent-Over Barbell Row Assisted Pull-Up Smith-Machine Bent-Over Row
Wide-Grip Pulldown Seated Cable Row
One-Arm Dumbbell Row
CHEST Standard: Pre-Exhaust: Leverage:
Incline Barbell Press Flat-Bench Dumbbell Flye Incline Dumbbell Press
Incline Dumbbell Flye Cable Crossover Incline Barbell Press
Smith-Machine Bench Press Flat-Bench Barbell Press
Decline Smith-Machine Press
SHOULDERS Leverage: Standard: Pre-Exhaust:
Bent-Over Lateral Raise Upright Row Cable Lateral Raise
Reverse Pec-Deck Flye Seated Dumbbell Press Bent-Over Cable Lateral Raise
Seated Lateral Raise Barbell Front Raise
Seated Machine Press
THIGHS Pre-Exhaust: Leverage: Standard:
Leg Extension Barbell Squat Barbell Squat
Smith-Machine Squat Hack Squat Romanian Deadlift
Leg Press Horizontal Machine Squat
Dumbbell Walking Lunge
TRICEPS Standard: Leverage: Standard:
Parallel-Bar Dip Seated EZ-Bar Extension Close-Grip Bench Press
Rope Pressdown Standing EZ-Bar Extension Flat-Bench EZ-Bar French Press
Cable Pressdown Overhead Cable Extension
Dual-Arm Dumbbell Kickback
BICEPS Standard: Leverage: Standard:
Standing Barbell Curl Incline Dumbbell Curl EZ-Bar Preacher Curl
Alternating Dumbbell Curl Seated Dumbbell Curl Dumbbell Concentration Curl
Standing Dumbbell Curl Standing Cable Curl
Reverse-Grip Cable Curl
CALVES Leverage: Standard: Standard:
Standing Calf Raise Standing Calf Raise Donkey Machine Calf Raise
Seated Calf Raise Donkey Machine Calf Raise Seated Calf Raise
Seated Calf Raise One-Leg Standing Calf Raise
Weight-Plate Toe Raise
ABS Leverage: Standard: Standard:
Hanging Leg Raise Reverse Crunch Swiss-Ball Crunch
Hanging Knee Raise Crunch Vertical-Bench Knee Raise
Oblique Crunch Decline Twisting Crunch
FOREARMS Leverage: Standard: Standard:
Barbell Wrist Curl Reverse-Grip EZ-Bar Curl Behind-Back Barbell Wrist Curl
Behind-Back Barbell Wrist Curl Dumbbell Wrist Curl Dumbbell Wrist Curl
Reverse Dumbbell Wrist Curl Reverse Barbell Wrist Curl
Farmer's Walk** Grab the heaviest dumbbells you can handle and walk them across the gym as far as you can.