What Is A Superset Workout? (And Why Alternating Sets May Be Better)

When it comes to structuring the sets and exercises in your workout routine, there’s a ton of different ways you can do it.

Today, however, I want to look at two of those ways:

  • Supersets
  • Alternating Sets

Supersets and alternating sets are quite similar. In fact, people often use these terms interchangeably as though they entail the exact same thing.

Well, they don’t, and there’s one major difference between them that you should know about if you’re considering using either of them in your workouts.

Let’s now compare the pros and cons of each and figure out which one is best for you.

What Is A Superset?

A superset involves doing a set of one exercise and then immediately doing a set of a different exercise right after, with no rest in between.

So, for example:

  • Set #1 of Exercise A.
  • Set #1 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.
  • Set #2 of Exercise A.
  • Set #2 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.
  • Set #3 of Exercise A.
  • Set #3 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.

You’d simply repeat this A/B superset as many times as needed to complete the prescribed number of sets you’re supposed to be doing.

What are the benefits of this type of setup, you ask?

Supersets Save Time

First and foremost, the main benefit of supersetting is that it’s a time saver.

Think about it.

Instead of resting between every set of every exercise, supersets – assuming the exercises are paired up intelligently (more on that later) – essentially allow you to rest the muscle group that’s being trained with one exercise during the time you’re training some other muscle group with the exercise it’s paired with.

This cuts down on the total amount of time you’ll spend in a workout waiting around to do your next set, which means you’ll end up getting through your workouts a bit faster than you would if your sets/exercises were structured in a more traditional manner.

So, if you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to work out or would just prefer to get done with your workouts faster, supersets definitely have some appeal.

Supersets Can Be Useful For Certain Goals

In addition to being a time-saver, supersets can also be useful for achieving a metabolic/circuit training effect, thus allowing for a slightly higher calorie burn than a traditional setup.

If you’re weight training primarily for the purpose of burning fat, this could be beneficial.

In addition, performing sets back-to-back without resting can also be beneficial from an endurance standpoint, assuming a person has endurance-oriented goals.

The Big Problem With Supersets

So, those tend to be the biggest benefits of supersetting. Not too bad, right?

Now for its biggest problem.

The lack of rest between sets will undoubtedly hinder your strength and performance on whatever exercise is being done second in the superset, and overall accumulated fatigue will likely have more of a negative effect over the course of the workout.

Meaning, if you go from a set of Exercise A immediately to a set of Exercise B with no rest in between, your performance during Exercise B will suffer to some degree.

And at some point, your performance during Exercise A will probably be affected as well (albeit to a lesser degree than Exercise B).

This matters, because progressive overload (e.g. doing additional reps, lifting additional weight, etc.) is such an important part of an effective workout.

So, assuming you’re training for a goal like building musclemaintaining muscle, or increasing strength rather than strictly burning calories or improving endurance, supersets will be somewhat counterproductive in this regard.

The time-saving benefits remain useful, of course, so each person would need to weigh the pros and cons here.

Is getting your workouts done a little faster worth sacrificing some amount of performance? That will depend on the person.

You know what would be awesome, though? If there was a similar weight training method that would still allow us to shorten our workouts and save some time, but without sacrificing our performance in the process.

That’s where alternating sets come into play.

What Is An Alternating Set?

Alternating sets are just like supersets, only now you do rest a bit in between sets of the paired-up exercises.

Here’s an example:

  • Set #1 of Exercise A.
  • Rest.
  • Set #1 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.
  • Set #2 of Exercise A.
  • Rest.
  • Set #2 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.
  • Set #3 of Exercise A.
  • Rest.
  • Set #3 of Exercise B.
  • Rest.

As you can see, you’re still combining two different exercises into one “super set,” but now you’re resting in between rather than going back-to-back with no rest at all.

And note that you wouldn’t rest for a typical full rest period in between every set. Meaning, if you’d normally rest 2 minutes between sets of Exercise A in a traditional setup, you’d probably only need to rest 1 minute in an alternating type of setup like this.

This means you still save some time (no, not quite as much as with supersets, but still something) in a way that will have less of a negative impact on your strength and performance.


Of course, this all assumes that the exercises being alternated are paired up and structured properly. Speaking of which…

How To Use Alternating Sets Or Supersets In Your Workout

(Even though I think alternating sets are a more ideal choice for most people, the following advice will apply the same to supersets as well. So, feel free to use whichever approach suits your goals and needs the best.)

Generally speaking, the best way to do alternating sets is to pair up exercises that have the least amount of overlap.

For example, pairing up flat bench press with incline bench press would be problematic, as both exercises train the same muscles groups (chest, triceps, anterior delts), and the fatigue generated would have a negative effect on both exercises.

That’s why the best place to start with exercise pairings is by choosing opposing muscle groups. For example, chest with back. Or biceps with triceps. And so on.

Basically, muscle groups that are the least likely to interfere with each other.

And one of the best ways to set this up is by doing it in terms of opposing movement patterns.

So, for example:

  • A horizontal push (bench press) with a horizontal pull (bent over row).
  • A vertical push (shoulder press) with a vertical pull (pull-ups/lat pull-downs).
  • An elbow flexion exercise (biceps curl) with an elbow extension exercise (triceps push-down).
  • A knee flexion exercise (leg curls) with a knee extension exercise (leg extensions).

The main exception to this approach is lower body compound exercises, as there’s quite a bit of overlap between the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

At the same time, you may not want to pair up exercises like squats, deadlifts, or various single-leg exercises (split squats, lunges, etc.) in the first place, simply because of how demanding they are on the body.

It can certainly be done, of course, it’s just not something I’d recommend to most people with most goals.

How Long To Rest Between Sets

How long to rest between alternating sets is a topic I briefly mentioned earlier.

This is really something that will vary based on a variety of factors, just like it would when choosing rest periods for any weight training approach. (More about that here: How Long To Rest Between Sets And Exercises)

However, in general, I think resting about 50% of the amount of time you would normally be resting during traditional sets is a good guideline to start with.

For example, if you’re pairing up bench press with seated cable rows, and you’d normally rest 2-3 minutes between sets for each, resting 60-90 seconds between alternating sets would likely be fine.

Here’s what this example might look like:

  • Bench Press: Set #1
  • Rest 60-90 seconds.
  • Seated Cable Row: Set #1
  • Rest 60-90 seconds.
  • Bench Press: Set #2
  • Rest 60-90 seconds.
  • Seated Cable Row: Set #2
  • Rest 60-90 seconds.
  • etc…

Summing It Up: Supersets vs Alternating Sets

If your primary weight training goal is endurance oriented, or if you’re training mainly to just burn as many calories as possible, supersets can certainly have their place in your workout routine.

The same goes for if you’re so short on time that using supersets is the only real way you can get your workouts done. In that case, go for it.

However, if you’re someone whose primary goal benefits from maximizing your strength and performance during the exercises you’re doing, supersets wouldn’t be ideal. Alternating sets would be a better choice.

So, if you’re looking for some way to shorten your workouts, save some time, and get out of the gym a little sooner without sacrificing strength/performance in the process, I’d definitely recommend giving alternating sets a try.

And if you’re looking for a workout routine that incorporates alternating sets for this very purpose, my Superior Muscle Growth program contains a bunch of them.

Feel free to check it out.

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