Performing multiple sets in a series for the same exercise increases muscle fatigue, which then increases motor-unit activation. As the muscle gets tired, the brain tries to activate more muscle fibers to compensate. Despite the increase in muscle activation, the accumulation of fatigue hampers the ability to complete reps without decreasing weight loads. An alternative way to perform sets is to alternate sets for two different exercise involving antagonist muscle groups. For example, first do a set of biceps curls followed immediately by a set of triceps pushdowns, then rest. This is called a superset. Research has shown that preloading an antagonist muscle group right before performing a lift may improve the ability to maintain the target number of reps performed from set to set.
In a collaborative effort, researchers from Brazil and Canada compared traditional sets and supersets for number of reps completed and fatigue. The training protocol consisted of three sets of bench presses (10RM load) followed by three sets of seated rows (10RM load). The traditional-sets group did all three sets of bench presses before moving on to seated rows. The superset group performed one set of bench presses and then immediately moved on to seated rows and performed one set.
The superset group was able to perform significantly more reps each set of both exercises following the first set of bench presses. Interestingly, measures of fatigue were also greater for the superset group despite still being able to complete more reps per set.
Compared with traditional sets, supersets allow more volume to be used with a given weight load and appear to work the muscle harder, all within a shorter time period to complete all sets. Preloading an antagonist muscle group (e.g., doing a set of bench presses for chest) facilitates strength production of the agonist muscle group (e.g., doing a set of seated rows for back) and may lead to greater strength gains.
Using a training split that calls for training both “push” and “pull” muscle groups in the same workout provides an opportunity to use supersets. Arrange your workout so that you group a push and a pull exercise together for a superset. For example, you can superset biceps and triceps, chest and back, quads and hams, even front delts and rear delts.