There are few better teachers on the subject of training than “The Austrian Oak” himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. At his peak, the seven-time Mr. Olympia winner reportedly sported a whopping 58-inch chest to go with his 23-inch arms!
Arnold was a volume fanatic, as you may have seen in the movie “Pumping Iron.” He trained his chest as often as three days a week, and used a six-days-on/one-day-off, double-split routine throughout much of his professional career. What people don’t know is that Arnold would often train his back on the same day as chest. He loved doing exercises that increased his training volume, and was known to do lots of supersets.
Maybe Arnold knew something about superset training that’s been lost over the years— something that can shock your chest/back into new growth. Arnold was known to have a physique that was superior to his competitors, which may have been due to his unorthodox training techniques. To set the record straight, here are a few new, hardcore studies to show that Arnold truly was ahead of his time, and that this method may be the key to newfound muscle growth.
A ‘‘superset’’ is two exercises performed back-to-back, with little or no rest between exercises. In their purest form, supersets are performed with two opposing muscle groups, like chest and back or biceps and triceps. Superset training has been shown to enhance power output and to be an efficacious and time-efficient means for developing strength and power.1-6
There are a few scientific studies to suggest that the activation of an antagonist muscle can enhance muscle power output. In a study of trained male athletes, an increase in power output was observed in the bench press throw (performed on a Smith machine, where someone takes the bar and throws it up as high as it can go, for maximal power) three minutes after a set of ballistic bench pulls (where someone lies on the bench and pulls the weight to his stomach, similar to doing a bent-over row)— compared to the power output in a set of bench press throws with no intervention. It was suggested that preloading the antagonist muscles of the back might have altered (i.e., reduced the braking period) the neural firing pattern during the agonist power exercise of the chest.
Burn More Fat With Supersets
In a study from Syracuse University, researchers looked at two types of strength training to see which style burned more calories. The researchers compared superset training to traditional strength workouts. Study participants completed two strength-training workouts, separated by at least seven days. Their workout consisted of 4 sets of six exercises, and they performed 10 reps of each exercise. During one week, they trained using supersets. One week later, they did traditional resistance training.
Subjects in the above study who used supersets had a faster workout, as the superset sessions took less time to complete, but more importantly, researchers found that markers of energy metabolism such as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC; a measure of resting energy expenditure after exercise) were higher, blood lactate measures were higher, and total energy expenditure for the workout was higher.9 This means supersets lead to a super metabolic rate for burning fat!
Supersets Increase Anabolic Hormones
Increases in testosterone and growth hormone (GH) have been implicated in the role of muscle growth and strength. It has been shown that high-intensity resistance exercise is a powerful stimulant for increasing testosterone levels.10-12 In fact, previous research demonstrated a positive correlation between testosterone in an acute response, and an increased number of cellular androgenic receptors.13 Additionally, it has been found that that there may be a relationship between volume and intensity of training, and the basal concentration of anabolic hormones.14
The same authors suggested that higher testosterone levels at rest are a determining factor in the development of strength, but only in high-performance strength athletes. The metabolic demand for performing supersets is incredible— to say that your muscles “burn” is an understatement.
Higher Volume Training With Supersets
Supersets are a time-efficient way of training— you get more done in less time.7 A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research investigated a superset training regimen of coupling two heavy resistance-training exercises (bent rows and bench presses), performed over 3 consecutive sets— and reported that superset training appeared to be a more efficient method of exercise than traditional exercise.
Because similar volume and loads are achieved under the less time-consuming, superset training, it’s more efficient than traditional weight training. Interestingly, EMG activity (a measure of muscle motor-unit recruitment and muscle activation) was not different under the two conditions – suggesting that the level of neuromuscular fatigue did not differ under supersets, compared to traditional training.
Research suggests that the effects of alternating agonist and antagonist work on muscle volume are somewhat less detrimental than the effects of performing multiple sets of one exercise before performing multiple sets of another. This means that even though you are doing different movements back-to-back, you are not going to get so fatigued that you can’t work the muscle.5
The data indicates that heavy resistance training using supersets allows a greater loading to be imposed on the musculature than what’s achieved with traditional resistance exercise training, or working one muscle group. Given similar timelines, it would appear that performing agonist and antagonist work in an alternating manner such as supersets— compared to performing all sets of agonist work with one muscle group— allows for greater recovery and subsequently greater loading of the muscle.
Photos by Jimmy Caruso. From Muscular Development Magazine
- Baker D and Newton, RU. Acute effect on power output of alternating an agonist and antagonist muscle exercise during complex training. J Strength Cond Res, 19: 202-205, 2005.
- Robbins DW, Young WB, and Behm DG. The Effect of an Upper Body Agonist-antagonist Resistance Training Protocol on Volume Load and Efficiency. J Strength Cond Res, in press.
- Robbins DW, Young WB, Behm DG and Payne WR. Effects of agonist-antagonist complex resistance training on upper body strength and power development. J Sport Sci, 27: 1617-1625, 2009.
- Robbins DW, Young WB, Behm DG and Payne WR. The effect of a complex agonist and antagonist resistance training protocol on strength and power output, electromyographic responses and efficiency. J Strength Cond Res, 24: 1782-1789, 2010.
- Robbins DW, Young WB, Behm DG, Payne WR and Klimstra MD. Physical performance and electromyographic responses to an acute bout of paired set strength training versus traditional strength training. J Strength Cond Res, 24: 1237-1245, 2010.
- Robbins DW, Young WB and Behm DG. The effect of an upper-body agonist-antagonist resistance training protocol on volume load and efficiency. J Strength Cond Res, 2010 Oct;24(10):2632-40.
- Robbins 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.
- Terzis G, Spengos K, Mascher H, Georgiadis G, Manta P, Blomstrand E. The degree of p70S6k and S6 phosphorylation in human skeletal muscle in response to resistance exercise depends on the training volume. Eur J Appl Physiol, Ahead of Print.
- Kelleher AR, Hackney KJ, Fairchild TJ, Keslacy S, Ploutz-Snyder LL. The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults. J Strength Cond Res, 2010 Apr;24(4):1043-51.
- Lusa Cadore E, Lhullier FL, Arias Brentano M, Marczwski Da Silva E, Bueno Ambrosini M, Spinelli R, Ferrari Silva R, Martins Kruel LF. Salivary hormonal responses to resistance exercise in trained and untrained middle-aged men. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2009 Sep;49(3):301-7.
- Kraemer WJ, Hollander DB, Reeves GV, Francxois M, Ramadan ZG, Meeker B, Tryniecki JL, Hebert EP and Castracani VD. Similar hormonal responses to concentric and eccentric muscle actions using relative loading. Eur J Appl Physiol, 21: 1-7, 2005.
- Kraemer WJ, Loebel CC, Volek JS, Ratamess NA, Newton RU, Wickham RB, Gotshalk LA, Duncan ND, Mazzetti SA, Gomez Al, Rubin MR, Nindl BC, and Hakkinen K. The effect of heavy resistance exercise on the circadian rhythm of salivary testosterone in men. Eur J Appl Physiol, 84: 13-18, 2001.
- Willoughby DS and Taylor L. Effects of sequential bouts of resistance exercise on androgen receptor expression. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 36: 1499-1506, 2004.
- Ahtiainen JP, Pakarinen A, Alen M, Kramer WJ and Ha¨kkinen, K. Muscle hypertrophy, hormonal adaptations and strength development during strength training in strength-trained and untrained men. Eur J Appl Physiol, 89: 555-563, 2003.
Schwarzenegger A, & Dobbins B. The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Simon & Schuster, New York. Revised and updated November 5, 1999.