Supersets — a bodybuilding term gaining popularity in fitness centers — involve performing two or more consecutive sets of strength work with little or no rest between sets.
Any resistance exercises can be paired for supersets. The idea is to exercise muscles that haven't been fatigued.
Reciprocal supersets combine exercises that use opposing muscle groups — the chest and back, for example, or biceps and triceps. The first muscle group rests while you work the second group. This leads to a more balanced workout and "is one way strength training helps maintain a healthy range of motion around the joints," said Vik Khanna, a St. Louis-based clinical exercise specialist.
Still, while supersets might be more time efficient, they don't necessarily lead to a greater total calorie burn than traditional strength training.
In one small study, published last year in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 10 men performed a six-exercise superset workout. A week later, they performed the same routine using traditional resistance exercise. The overall workload was exactly the same; the only difference was that the total rest time was shorter during the superset workout than during the regular strength training regimen.
The researchers found that the training methods made no difference in total energy expenditure.
But the superset workout burned more calories per minute than the traditional weight training session, said lead author Andrew Kelleher, of the Penn State Hershey College of Medicine.
Still, if your goal is gaining strength or building muscle mass, traditional weight training programs are sufficient, said Jeff McBride, director of the neuromuscular and biomechanics laboratory at Appalachian State University.
Kelleher also recommends against supersets if your goal is building strength. "Supersetting tires you out; after doing one exercise you jump immediately to something else in another part of the body," said Kelleher. "With supersets, you won't be able to do much work under a heavy load."
Khanna, meanwhile, says supersets are useful for anyone who wants to improve their health. "Resistance exercise is about robust muscles, which are essential to healthy metabolism, disease resistance and quality of life as we age," he said "When people are stronger, they can do more of everything, including other kinds of activity that burn calories more effectively."
Try these supersets
To burn the most calories, Kelleher recommends exercises that recruit the largest muscle groups, including the chest, glutes and abdominals. Try 10 to 12 reps of each of the following exercises. Do three sets.