Monday, March 28, 2022

Supersets - Hitting the Growth Zone -- Greg Zulak (1985)


This month I'd like to discuss a favorite training method of mine, super-setting, along with its many variations and different applications. 

There is a lot of talk by many muscle authors about super-setting (doing two exercises together, usually with little or no rest time between them) being an efficient way to train, as they allow you to do more overall sets in a workout, in less time while greatly increasing the intensity of your workout, and that super-sets allow for a lot of creative experimentation and thus are a great way to shock the muscles into new growth. And while all of these things are certainly true, the reason I like super-sets is because they make me GROW! 

Plenty more on supersetting at that site! Right from a break-in introduction to 'em all the way up to some very beautifully constructed and very creative super- and tri-set strategies.  

Many feel super-setting is only for shaping and for hardening up for a peak and don't promote any muscle growth. I strongly disagree. Some of the biggest, most massive bodybuilders of all time have employed super-setting in their training, including [fill in the usual list from this era]. Obviously, supersets worked for them.

In fact it is my strongly held belief that if you are training a muscle group hard via the traditional method of straight sets, heavy weights, moderate to low reps (4-8) and 60-90 second rest periods between sets and the muscle is not responding the way you want, then you probably have poorly established neuro-pathways (poor never force and neurological efficiency and poor blood supply to the muscle and the only way you'll get that muscle to respond is through the use of supersets. 

This is because you need to do higher reps for such poorly responding muscle groups, with shorter rest periods between sets to force a lot of blood into the muscle and keep it there long enough to get a good pump. This keeping the muscle pumped or flushed with blood is absolutely essential to growth. Straight sets, with long rest periods just don't allow you to get enough blood into the muscle and then sustain it long enough to maintain a good pump. 

Supersets not only force blood into the working muscle giving a deep burn and a super-satisfying pump, all the while increasing capillary size (thus improving blood flow), but the short rest periods between supersets keep the blood in the muscle for a longer time. This gets more nutrition into the muscle, feeding it if you will. At the same time, neuro-pathways are improved too. All of these things jolt the muscle into new growth.

Some of you may be asking, "Couldn't I just do high rep straight sets, with short rest periods and get the same effect?" And it's true, you probably could. But if you're like me, you get bored and lose concentration on high rep straight sets (15-20 reps or more). I find supersets a great way to get high reps without getting bored and I do it with more intensity than a regular high rep set. Why? 

A typical straight set has only 1 to perhaps 3 productive reps in the pain zone (maybe better called the growth zone), that take place at the end of a set. Obviously the more reps in the pain zone, the more productive the set if going to be. All the other reps are just preparation and a necessary evil to get to those final productive reps.

By supersetting, you double your productivity -- instead of getting onl 1-3 result producing reps from one exercise, you get 2-6 result producing reps from doing two exercises in a superset. And I find it more enjoyable to do two exercises of 8-10 reps from doing two exercises together than one exercise of 15-20 reps. For example, I'd rather superset Preacher Curls, 10 reps, with Barbell Curls, 10 reps, than do a straight set of barbell curls for 20 reps.

Allow me to sidetrack from the topic of supersets for just a moment. Probably the biggest fallacy in bodybuilding is that only heavy weights make your muscles grow bigger. That's

 . . . Your muscles don't know how heavy a weight they are lifting. If it feels heavy to them, they grow. Always remember, it's not how heavy the weight is, it's how hard your muscles have to work to lift the weight. 

Obviously this depends upon the style in which you lift it. Which is why 125 pound presses, using super-strict form and deep concentration (concentrating on making your delt muscles work as hard as possible, not to see how much weight your can ram overhead and to hell with whether your delts work or not) work the delts a lot harder than 200 pound presses done with knee kicks, backbend and wildly throwing the weight up in any way you can.

I've dealt with this topic before in a previous article but it's so important I think it's worth going over again. Do you know the difference between being a bodybuilder and a weightlifter? Of course, bodybuilders train to develop their muscles and weightlifters train to see how much weight they can lift, that is obvious. Both lift weights but it is HOW they lift the weight that makes them different. A bodybuilder tries to lift the weight through pure muscle action, the hardest way he can, and the weightlifter, using speed and momentum, tries to lift the weight the easiest way he can.

Both use intense concentration, but the bodybuilder concentrates on the muscles he is trying to work and not the weight he is lifting, while the weightlifter focuses his concentration on the weight he is trying to lift and not the muscles involved. 

For example, if a bodybuilder is doing a set of barbell curls, he focuses his attention on his biceps muscle and not the barbell in his hands, and he does everything to make his biceps work as hard as possible, no matter how much the barbell weighs.

But is a weightlifter did a set of barbell curls, he wouldn't care how hard his biceps worked, as long as the weight got up. All his concentration would be on the barbell in his hands, not his bicep muscles. 

Arthur Jones has correctly pointed out that for muscle building purposes the weight is insignificant, as long as it's as heavy as you can lift in correct style, for a reasonable number of reps (6-12) and is done to muscular failure (or close to it). To repeat myself, using strict form, deep concentration and a continuous tension style of training, a 35 pound dumbbell can be made to feel like a 50 pounder. 

Jones says you go to the gym to build strength, not to demonstrate it and by using weights that are too heavy to be handled in good form, inevitably cheating and sloppy form is encouraged, and the trainee becomes too concerned with performance (lifting a heavy weight) and not on working his muscles hard. 

So remember, any time you use a weight so heavy that you transfer all of your attention and concentration to the weight and lose touch with your muscles, you are probably lifting too heavy and not bodybuilding as effectively as you could. 

The reason I went off on a tangent is that a lot of guys complain, Yeah, but when superset, I have to use lighter weights." Now you know how ridiculous their argument is for not using supersets. The weights may be lighter when supersetting (it isn't in all cases) but the intensity is greater, the pump is bigger and the muscles work harder. Maybe supersetting isn't as easy of fun as doing slow, heavy sets and it isn't a macho but it works and that's what ultimately counts: results, right? 

Still, after all I've just said about heavy weights and their not necessarily being needed to build size, a lot of guys still have their doubts, so let's talk about it. Put those fears to rest once and for all. It's not always true that supersets force you to use lighters weights than straight sets. Sometime supersets allow you to use even heavier than normal weights than straight sets! 

For example, when supersetting antagonistic or opposing muscle groups (i.e. pecs-lats, biceps-triceps, leg biceps-quadriceps), by resting 30-60 seconds between exercises you can actually use heavier weights than if you were doing straight sets for one muscle group. This is because the muscles recover better when trained antagonistically. For example, when supersetting biceps and triceps, training the biceps also both warms up the triceps and helps it to recuperate. Likewise, when training the triceps, the biceps is rested better and recovers faster than if trained alone and merely rested as in straight sets. When trained antagonistically, the muscles don't burn out. 

I myself find I can do more wide grip chins and more total reps of chins when I precede my chins with sets of bench presses or inclines. This is because the benching involves a lot of triceps work, which recuperates the biceps muscles by supplying antagonistic work. 

Likewise, many find they can squat or leg press more when supersetted with leg curls first. The pumped leg biceps cushions and stabilizes the legs while helping the quads to recover. 

Training antagonistically need not just be used with supersets. They can be used on tri-sets too. Trisets (especially those without hyphens), that is, training 3 exercises together, and an extension of supersets but when training 3 exercises together with little rest between them for the same muscle group, one tends to find that after only 1 or 2 cycles the muscle is so burnt out that light weights become a necessity. A way around this is to add an antagonistic movement to the triset. 

Note: have another look at the Draper website, dig around there, and you'll find some great examples of this. 

For example, when doing a triset for your pecs involving bench presses, flyes, and dips, after one cycle you triceps are so burnt out that you have to drastically reduce the weight or fest for so long to allow the muscles to recuperate that you lose your pump, which is why did the triset in the first place, to get a pump, not lose it. But if instead, you did bench presses, flyes, and as a third exercise, chins, rows or pulldowns, the antagonistic work would allow your triceps to recover and you could train faster and still use heavier weights.     

If you're one of those guys who just has to do some heavy sets every workout, then use the heavy-light principle in your training.     

Here, from Greg Zulak on heavy-light training: 

Do one very heavy exercise per bodypart, using straight sets and low reps, and then follow it up with your supersets to really make the muscles burn, ache and pump up. For example, for the pecs bench presses, warmup then 2x6, 2x4, 2x2, 1-2x1, followed by incline presses supersetted with incline flyes, or Gironda pec dips supersetted with low incline flyes Use the same format for every other bodypart. Heavy presses behind neck, followed by side raises supersetted with seated dumbbell presses. Heavy barbell curls, followed by preacher curls supersetted with seated barbell curls. Heavy squats, followed by leg extensions supersetted with 45-degree leg presses. You get the idea.

Another way to use heavy weights while supersetting is to do compounds or supersets for the same bodypart but the first exercise is done heavy for low reps while the second is done lighter for higher reps. For example, using a very heavy dumbbell, do 6 one-half reps in the dumbbell concentration curl followed immediately by 6-8 full reps of concentration curls with a lighter dumbbell.  

There are some very effective methods of training that ensure you hit the muscle in different ways, ending the controversy as to whether to use havey weights and low reps or more moderate weights and high reps. 

Do it both ways and you can't go wrong! 

Let's talk about some variations of supersets that are very effective and can be used to good effect in your training. I've already touched on the topic of trisets but obviously you can do more than three exercises. Anything over 3 exercises is generally called a giant set. Personally, except when training abs, I find doing more than three exercises in a cycle ineffective for size building, as it becomes more of an aerobic exercise than a muscle building one. But I find it great for abs. Take 4 or 5 of your favorite ab exercises and just max out on each. One or two cycles and your abs have had a great workout and in half the time of a regular ab workout.

Trisets, on the other hand, can be very effective. Larry Scott used a lot of trisets in his arm training and few had arms to match his. When doing trisets for the same muscle group, pick exercises that work different parts of the same muscle. For example, if you want to do a triset for your biceps, pick one exercise that works lower biceps, one for the middle bicep and one that works peak. Preacher curls, barbell curls, and lying lat machine curls fit the bill perfectly. Trisets will definitely  

your muscles, so I don't recommend more than two cycles, done twice a week, unless you are very advanced. 

The next variation of supersets are compounds, or supersetting two exercises for the same bodypart. Technically, supersets are meant for two exercises of opposing muscle groups but over the years the term has come to mean any two exercises training together. Compounds fall under two categories -- supersets, and pre-exhausts. Compound supersets are any two exercises for the same bodypart, no matter in which order they are trained. For example, for chest, incline presses supersetted with dips; for thighs, squats supersetted with leg presses. The idea here is to do two exercises and just go for the burn and pump. 

Pre-exhausts, a principle invented by MuscleMag's own Bob Kennedy and then later made popular by Arthur Jones and later Mike Mentzer, are a little more scientific. 

This principle makes it possible to work a particular muscle structure harder than normally possible. This is done by performing an isolation type of exercise first and then immediately following it up with a compound exercise that works the same muscle group as the isolation exercise. By performing the isolation exercise first you remove the "weak link" of ordinary compound exercises. That is, in almost all conventional exercises involving the function of two or more muscular structures, a point of failure occurs when the weakest involved muscles are no longer able to perform and this often occurs before the stronger or desired working muscle is stimulated enough to produce growth. 

For example, when doing presses for the deltoids, the triceps give out before the delts have been worked hard enough. But by performing an isolation type of exercise that involves mostly the delts, with no triceps involvement, like strict side laterals, the deltoids are momentarily "pre-exhausted" so that when you start your presses, the triceps are fresh and you can train the delts much harder than normal. If cone correctly, you fail because your delts have been exhausted, not because the triceps fail.

Remember when I talked earlier about weight not being important as long as it feels heavy to your muscles? Well, this is especially true in pre-exhausts. You'll definitely have to use lighter weights on the compound exercise of your pre-exhausts than normal, but the muscle will definitely be worked harder than ever. A properly performed pre-exhaust is brutally hard, especially of both exercises are taken to failure, as they should be.

When performing pre-exhausts for the thighs, sometimes it's possible to run out of breath or having to terminate the exercise because of cardiovascular failure rather than muscular failure. If you run into this problem in your training you can try a modified pre-exhaust, a la Clarence Bass. When training legs, Bass will rest up to 60 seconds  between exercises which allows him to get his wind before starting the second exercise of the pre-exhaust. Some argue that this reduces the effectiveness of the pre-exhaust, as according to some, resting even as long as 10 seconds between exercises allows the muscles to recover almost 80%. But Bass, as many others, still claims excellent results with the modified pre-exhaust and you may want to try them too. Bob Kennedy made a great contribution to bodybuilding when he thought up the pre-exhaust system.  

Here's his original article for Peary Rader's Ironman mag:

The last method of supersetting I'd like to discuss isn't really supersetting, but because it involves doing 2 or more "sets" of the same exercise without rest I've decided to include it in the discussion. 

Triple drop training involves doing an exercise till failure, then immediately with rest removing some plates and continuing on again till failure, and immediately removing more weight and going to failure again. More than three drops and you'll find yourself getting into cardiovascular failure again. It helps if you have your training partner remove the plates so you can go faster. 

A variation of this involving dumbbells is called "down the rack training," a favorite of Larry Scott [and George Hackenschmidt among many others along the chain of time]. This method is good for exercises like laterals, concentration curls, etc. Simply stand by the dumbbell rack and work your way "down the rack." For example, on dumbbell curls, you may start with the 50's, rep out with them, then immediately grab the 40's, rep out, and finally go to the 30's and rep out with them.

Triple dropping is one of the most brutally hard and demanding types of training around. But they can be made even more intense by doing your triple drops with supersets or even trisets. And this can be done as compounds, pre-exhausts or antagonistic supersets. Believe me, now you're talking intensity! For example, here is a routine for the arms using triple drops and antagonistic supersets. 

Barbell curl superset close grip bench press. 
Preacher curl superset triceps pressdown.
Reverse curl superset wrist curl.
All exercises 2 sets with 3 drops. 

It doesn't sound lime a lot of work [!?] but counting each drop as a set you're doing 16 sets each for the biceps and triceps and forearms. Increase to 3 sets and you're doing 24 intense, demanding set per bodypart. 

Because supersets are so demanding they should be used with discretion. It's very easy to overwork on them, so I wouldn't get carried away with too much enthusiasm. Supersets can be too much of a good thing.

For beginners, I advise doing only 2 or 3 supersets on your most stubborn muscle groups once a week. Intermediates could do 3 supersets per muscle group once or twice a week. But if you find yourself not recuperating from your workouts, then back off on the sets or only do the supersets once a week.

Give supersets a try. 

You may find their just the ticket to a larger, more muscular body.

Enjoy Your Lifting!      

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