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What's with the Supersets?

Hi Patrick, I just wanted to say that I am really enjoying your blog. I have gotten some good info from it to apply to my athletes. I was wondering about some of the program examples you write. In them, you typically have a number follwed by a letter; like 1a) and then 1b) or 2a) and 2b). I was wondering if that meant that those exercises are a superset? If that is what it means, what is the point of having them in your program? Don't you want your athletes to get a full amount of rest inbetween each set?

Thanks again,


Hi Mark. Thanks for writing in. I appreciate the comments and feedback, and I'm glad that you are able to take something from my blog and use it in your every-day programs.

About your question....

Yes, the numbers denote which exercise we are on in the workout and the letters denote a superset or sometimes a tri-set (ex. 1a, 1b, 1c)

As far as why I have them in the program...

Short/cop-out answer: It depends.

Longer answer:

There are a couple of reasons why I use the supersets.

1) Saves time. If we can pair up an upper body movement and a lower body movement, we can save some time in the gym. Remember, we don't always have a lot of time to get everything in. So we have to focus on being efficient. Also, if I let the athletes (especially high school athletes) do an exercise and then rest as long as they want, it leaves a lot of time for them to sit there and chit chat, horse around and lose total focus. The super sets help to make the workout flow.

2) I am trying to raise work capacity. Lets face it, most of these kids are just downright out of shape! They have a terrible work capacity. That is something I am really trying to bring up. By pairing the exercises, I really get them moving and working at a higher work rate than if I let them do a set and then sit there.

3) These are not powerlifters or olympic lifters. If they were, I would do things a little differently. These athletes need to be strong, powerfull, fast, explosive and again, have a higher work capacity. I know, if you crack open any training book (the NSCA book or other personal training books), it will tell you that strength work needs to have a 3-5min. rest interval, etc...I agree, you do! But, how much max effort strength work are we doing? We really aren't working on limit strength (1-3 reps), as much as we are working on the ability to perform at a certain work rate and repeat our effort multiple times. So, even if we are doing say 5 sets of 3 reps on something like the squat, paired with the chin up, we might be working with a weight that is around a 5-6RM load, in order to maintain that work rate over all 5 sets. It isn't 5 sets of 3RMs. Always look at the context in which you are trying to do things. Also, if you have the athletes working in groups, they will be resting while they are spotting their training partner. I am not standing over them and hounding them either. I will give them time to re-group if they need to. And, if we are working particularly hard, with high intensity, I will place rest intervals in between the pairings. For example:

1a) Squat

rest 60sec

1b) pull up

rest 60sec

4) Now, I will say that I don't always do things like this. Training is phasic, and within those phases, you may be trying to enhance certain qualities. For example, in a general adaptation phase, we might have more exercise pairings to work on developing work capacity. In a strength phase, I may have a main lift on a day that we are trying to develop and then the other exercises may be performed as accesory work. That main lift is performed by itself with adequate rest to help develop the strength quality. The other lifts may be paired up (or sometimes, you may have them stand alone). Here is an example:

1) deadlift- 5 sets x 3 reps; Rest= full recovery

2a) DB bench press- 3x6-8

rest= 60sec

2b) seated cable row- 3x6-8

rest= 60sec

3a) walking lunges- 2-3x10 steps on each leg
3b) Db hammer curl- 2-3x10 reps

rest 30sec and repeat number 3

Like I said, the supersets or tri-sets are just one way to keep things moving in the weight room and help your program be as efficient as possible. You certainly don't need to do things like this. It is just one technique in an arsenal of many.