Arnold Schwarzenegger thought so much of supersets that he developed entire training sessions around them to boost training density.

In case you're fuzzy on the concept, supersets are a density-boosting training technique where you alternate exercises with little to no rest between them. By alternating exercises you can maximize the efficiency of every workout, doing more work in less time.

The Ultimate Supersets

Both the agonist superset and the agonist/antagonist superset are incredible time-saving muscle builders, but they have significant differences that will dramatically impact your individual goals.

Agonist Supersets

An agonist superset is also known as a "compound set." This type of superset consists of simply combining a primary muscle exercise with an assisting muscle exercise. For instance, an agonist pairing superset could be a one-two punch of pull-ups and biceps curls, or a dumbbell bench press followed by a dumbbell flye.

In the first example, the pull-ups act as a primary muscle exercise (back), while the biceps curls act as an assisting muscle exercise. Because of the metabolic and muscular damage (both good) that'll result from these supersets, you'll need longer rest periods during the workout and longer recovery periods between training sessions for the same muscle group... which is perfect if you're a busy guy who can only manage 2-3 gym sessions a week.

There are also a couple of distinct variations of agonist supersets:

1 – Pre-Stimulating Agonist Supersets

If you've ever struggled to feel your chest on a bench press or your lats on a pull-up, pre-fatigue agonists can be the perfect remedy to improve muscle fiber recruitment and the mind-muscle connection.

To do them properly, unlike the conventional agonist superset described above, you'll use an isolation exercise BEFORE a compound lift. This will help you "feel" a target muscle. Do 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps purely focused on squeezing the target muscle, not obliterating it.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Do cable flyes before you bench press. The goal is to improve the mind-muscle connection in your pecs instead of allowing the triceps and delts to take over.
  • Do 45-degree back extensions before hip thrusts to improve glute recruitment.

Your goal is to stimulate the target muscle with the first exercise, not obliterate it. Pre-stimulating supersets work best early in a workout, versus as a finisher.

2 – Pre-Fatiguing Agonist Supersets

You can easily turn a pre-stimulating superset into a pre-fatiguing superset simply by changing your approach. Let's say you heed my advice above and do a cable flye before your bench press, but this time, push your cable flye close to muscular failure. Once you move on to your bench press, your pecs will fail earlier than usual, thereby hitting more muscle fibers (but limiting performance).

In essence, by changing the focus of your isolation exercise from "feeling" a muscle to fatiguing it, you change the intent and the outcome of your training. For this reason, pre-fatigue supersets are ideal for building muscle but not so much for building strength.

Antagonist Supersets

An antagonist superset is a pairing of exercises with opposite movement patterns. Think of a classic push-pull or "front and back" superset.

One example would be doing dumbbell bench press, followed by a chest-supported row. The bench press would cover the "front" or push muscle group (chest), while the row would cover the "back" or pull muscle group (lats, etc.).

This type of training can add a new type of stimulus to your muscle fibers and pave the way for fresh growth. Unlike agonist supersets, antagonist supersets can be performed more closely together in your training routine. For instance, you can do an upper-body antagonist superset on Monday and another on Thursday, while doing a lower body antagonist superset on Tuesday and another on Friday.

But Does the Research Support Their Use?

One meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, concluded that supersets are one of the best options for building muscle quickly when you don't have a lot of time to work out (1).

Another study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered that superset training increases the intensity and overall energy expenditure of 60-minute workouts, which suggests supersets are better for burning off fat as well (2).

So if you're a busy guy who needs to bite, scratch, and claw for every minute in the gym, loading your workouts with these ultimate supersets will get you in and out of the gym quickly. Now, here are some ways you can use agonist and antagonist supersets in the gym.

The Agonist Superset Training Program

This protocol is for busy guys who can only make it to the gym twice a week.

Day 1: Upper-Body Agonist

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Barbell Bent Over Row 10 4
A2 Dumbbell Biceps Curl 10 4
B1 Barbell Bench Press 10 4
B2 Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension 10 4
C1 Dumbbell Overhead Press 10 4
C2 Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise 10 4

Day 2: Lower-Body Agonist

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Barbell Front Squat 10 4
A2 Leg Extension 10 4
B1 Deadlift 10 4
B2 Leg Curl 10 4
C1 Dumbbell Lunge 10 4
C2 Calf Raise 10 4
This particular pairing (C1-C2) isn't intended to be a specific type; rather, a superset just to create balance within the program.

The Antagonist Superset Training Program

This program is geared for guys who can make it to the gym three days a week.

Day 1: Upper-Body Antagonist

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Barbell Bench Press 10 4
A2 Barbell Bent Over Row 10 4
B1 Dumbbell Incline Bench Press 10 4
B2 Cable Row 10 4
C1 Cable Chest Flye 10 4
C2 Cable Upright Row 10 4

Day 2: Lower-Body Antagonist

  Exercise Sets Reps
A Barbell Squat OR Deadlift 10 4
B1 Leg Extension 10 4
B2 Leg Curl 10 4
C1 Dumbbell Lunge 10 4
C2 Calf Raise 10 4
This particular pairing (C1-C2) isn't intended to be a specific type; rather, a superset just to create balance within the program.

Day 3: Upper-Body Antagonist

  Exercise Sets Reps
A1 Dumbbell Military Press 10 4
A2 Pull-Up 10 4
B1 Triceps Cable Press Down 10 4
B2 Biceps Cable Curl 10 4
C1 Lower Back Extension 10 4
C2 Abdominal Twist 10 4

Related:  The Best Damn Workout Plan for Natural Lifters

Related:  Push-Pull-Legs – The Ultimate Split

References

  1. Robbin, DW, Young, WB, Behm, DG, Payne WR, "Agonist-antagonist paired set resistance training: a brief review," J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2873-82.
  2. Kelleher, A.R., Hackney, K.J., Fairchild, T.J. et al., "The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults," Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010, 24(4), 1043-1051.