There is not a one-size-fit-for-all when it comes to workout techniques and building muscle and strength. Straight sets vs. supersets are no exception, as you can use them both for your most significant benefit depending on your end goals.
Even though straight sets are the most popular workout foundation technique used by beginners through to advanced, supersets are another tool in the trade for hypertrophy and strength building.
Definitions Of Straight Sets And Supersets
A straight set is performed from the first to the last repetition to failure or nearly so, depending on your goals. A set of 10 is one performed with a resistance heavy enough to barely enable you to complete the 10th repetition with good form.
A superset is a sum of one straight set immediately followed by another straight set. It is a double set, if you like, not to be confused with giant sets, which entail multiple sets in succession for the same muscle group, usually 4, a very advanced technique.
A superset by default can be either be implemented for the same muscle group, switching from one exercise to another, or for two different muscle groups, typically antagonistic muscles like chest and back or biceps and triceps and so on.
An example of a superset intended for the same muscle group could be bench press immediately followed by dips, in this case, two taxing compound exercises or one compound exercise like lat pull-down followed by an isolation exercise like straight arm pull down or dumbbell pullover on a flat bench, a lighter version of the superset.
On the contrary, an antagonistic superset hits two functionally opposite muscle groups by performing, for example, chin-ups followed by military presses or chest presses followed by barbell rows, back to back with just the time between switching from one gear to another.
The advantages in both cases are two. One is time-related, in that supersets allow for a more significant workload to be completed in a shorter time, while the other is the impact on cardiovascular engagement.
On the contrary, straight sets by default are more time-consuming and less neurologically demanding, though by not no means less effective for muscle building quite the opposite.
Before you jump to the conclusion that supersets are inherently better than straight sets because they are more time-efficient and more effective, you must consider that they do not come without their fair share of cons.
Straight Sets Vs. Supersets – Why Use One Over The Other?
First off, before you fast forward to designing a new workout routine, it is better to break down these two different techniques to understand what happens when performing one or the other.
Straight sets are highly focused because you do not need to think about anything else but completing the actual set. There is no need to arrange another piece of equipment nearby or worry about its availability, an essential consideration in crowded gyms.
But most importantly, your mental focus and energy are concentrated on just that exercise and that muscle group.
Suppose you know that you need to perform another exercise immediately afterward. In that case, you may subconsciously pace yourself a little bit and not give it all on the first exercise, whether for antagonistic muscles or the same muscle group.
With a straight-set, you do not need to worry about extra effort and extra setup times. Then, once your set is over, you can fully rest and prepare yourself to hit the same muscle again with 100% focus.
This is ideal for muscle and strength building. However, it is also true that conditioning and habit can and will reduce the superset focus disadvantage with time, allowing you to perform two sets with equal intensity for both exercises, followed by adequate rest.
Even though supersets may be taxing to start with, you can work your way up to be conditioned pretty quickly if you are not used to this kind of training.
Supersets are a little bit a step toward circuit training, but not quite like it, as the number of exercises performed back to back is too limited to elicit the vast cardiovascular response typical of circuits.
Supersets are short enough that you can still focus on muscle building and strength, but not so long that they sap your energy like circuit training does. They save time while still being practical for hypertrophy and strength goals.
When Is It Right To Use Straight Sets Vs. Supersets Or Vice Versa?
It all boils down to the routines you usually follow, your free time, your conditioning, and also your preference. Depending on these factors, you may want to choose one over the other, notwithstanding that both are effective training methods. Lets’ go in order.
How Routines Can Affect Your Choice Of Straight Sets Vs. Super Sets And Vice Versa
Suppose you are into full-body workouts three times per week to accommodate your workout schedule into a busy lifestyle. You do not have time to waste. Thus three full-body workouts seem to give you the most bang for your time, a prevalent choice indeed.
But there is a problem.
Doing straight sets and switching from one exercise to another and one muscle group to the next turns out to be an endless and tedious schedule of single set bouts followed by many rest times between sets.
This means a very long full-body workout. That does not mean that it wouldn’t be effective; quite the opposite. It’s just that it would take you a long chunk of your free time before completing the workout.
So how do you solve the straight sets vs. supersets dilemma?
Here is where supersets can come in handy. By switching to an antagonistic superset pattern, you can drastically cut down your workout time while keeping the total volume equal, same sets and repetitions, in half the time.
You could also employ the same-muscle group superset model. In this case, you perform two different exercises for the same muscle group back to back. However, the effect on the workout will be different.
Because the second set targets the same muscle and is not an antagonistic one. You will have to reduce the weight you usually use for that exercise when starting fresh because your muscle is already fatigued from the first exercise.
In essence, the second exercise acts as a kind of drop set. However, it is not exactly a drop set in that the exercise is different from the first one and will target the muscle fibers from a different angle and with a different range of motion. However, it would be best if you still were prepared to reduce your average resistance to that exercise.
In this scenario, whether you choose antagonistic or same-muscle supersets will depend on your goals. The antagonistic pattern will cut downtime while giving you an excellent all-around workout for the whole body and will allow you to handle the greatest weights with an emphasis on strength as well as hypertrophy.
The same-muscle pattern will still cut downtime while stressing the metabolic effect for hypertrophy, but less so strength. Therefore you need to accept a reduction of resistance for the second exercise of any given superset.
Suppose you work out four times/week or even 6/week. You have the time or prefer to work out more frequently doing splits. Your split routine could be something like push/day, pull/day, legs, and so on.
Workout sessions will be shorter than full-body workouts, but you can dedicate yourself with a better focus to a specific muscle group. In this case, straight sets make much sense, as you would not waste as much time as in a full-body workout session, even if you need to rest considerably between sets if you follow a strength protocol.
However, if hypertrophy is your primary goal above pure strength, then a same-muscle superset pattern will accomplish just that while cutting time along the way.
This would result in a high-frequency workout protocol with concise sessions, ideal if you train at home or even in a gym and you want to keep sessions effective but as short as possible.
There are countless other scenarios you may find yourself in, and your choice of straight sets vs. supersets is entirely up to your goals and time commitments.
Your Time – Which Goes Hand In Hand With The First Point
Regardless of your current routine or preferences, we all live a hectic life, and free time is becoming, unfortunately, a rare commodity. Never mind what you would like to do; if time is on the short side, supersets are the way to go, even if straight sets would have been your first choice.
On the contrary, you may have a good amount of free time at your disposal but still want to get the workout business done quickly and then get the hell out of the gym and enjoy life. The choice of straight sets vs. supersets is yours.
Your Level Of Fitness
This is an obvious one. While supersets are not as demanding on your cardiovascular system as circuit training or HIIT, it is still a noticeable jump in intensity that may surprise you, particularly switching from a pushing compound exercise into an antagonistic pulling compound exercise and vice versa.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, quite the opposite. However, if you are a beginner or even experienced but all you have done in your training history is just straight sets, you may need to acquaint yourself with the new demands of supersets.
After all, it is all about performing the same workload in half the time, so it obviously won’t be a walk in the park!
Straight Sets Vs. Supersets Is Also A Matter Of Your Personal Preference
Last but not least, your inclination and personal response play a significant role. We are all different, and what works well for one person may not be optimal. Do not follow the crowds, be your judge, test other methods, and see what sticks with you.
Straight Sets Vs. Supersets – Wrapping It All Together
To sum up, if your primary focus is 100% on building muscle and strength, then straight sets may have a slight advantage over supersets because they allow you to keep your mental focus on one task at a time. In contrast, with supersets, you spread your mental focus over different movement patterns in a short time.
Even so, resting between straight sets may be a bit of a problem if you let yourself be distracted by your phone or gym chit-chat, further lengthening your overall workout session time, something to consider.
On the other hand, supersets are still effective for building muscle and strength while cutting downtimes while positively impacting cardiovascular performance. This means that supersets are still a very effective method for hypertrophy and strength if you are strapped for time.
Antagonistic supersets are the toughest ones, as they revolve around switching from one muscle group to an opposite one and have the most significant cardiovascular impact – think of bench press followed by pull-ups.
Same-muscle supersets are more manageable if you are new to this kind of training. While less taxing on your central nervous system, they allow you to squeeze the most out of your targeted muscle area in half the time (think of bench press followed by incline press, or vice versa, or better still bench press followed by cable flyes, a compound move followed by an isolation one).
Just reduce your regular weight for the second exercise, as you usually would for a drop set.
So here you have it, the choice between straight sets vs. supersets depends entirely on your needs and preference, as they both are very effective tools in the trade of muscle building.
Jay always had a passion for fitness. A former skinny guy, he built himself 35 lb of lean muscle over the years using different training strategies, going through failures and eventually succeeding, and now wants to share his knowledge with those who value fitness as a way of life (See all posts by Jay Fielding).