When you are looking to build muscle, improve your fitness, and do it in a time efficient manner, look no further than supersets and circuits
Supersets and circuits are training techniques that can be used to make workout more time efficient, increase training volume, and sometimes train a muscle to failure to increase muscle growth. Circuits add an additional benefit of having the ability to add in non-weight training based moments like running, rowing, and biking.
Understanding supersets and circuits, how to use them, and which one is best for your training can help you increase your results in the gym. We’ll explain supersets vs circuits in more detail below!
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Superset is a term used to describe performing two exercises, back to back, with no rest. These exercises typically are strength or hypertrophy based, and can be training the same muscle groups, or different ones. Once you have completed both exercises, you then rest.
What are They?
Supersets are a training technique that has you perform one exercise for the prescribed repetitions, then immediately perform another exercise for the prescribed amount of repetitions. Once you have completed both exercises back to back, you then go into your standard rest period.
For example: A chest superset may entail both exercises targeting the chest muscles. Perform three sets of 12-15 reps on the flat dumbbell bench press immediately into push ups to failure. Rest 90 seconds after each set, but minimally between each exercise.
It is important to point out that supersets are not a technique used to increase strength for intermediate and advanced liters, as stripping rest periods and increasing intensity via limiting recovery is not a productive way to build maximal strength. If you are a more serious lifter and looking to increase maximal strength, it is recommended that you perform that movement in a straight set (by itself) allowing for recovery between work sets.
When Should You Use Them?
Below are a few instances when using supersets could improve your workout efficiency, training intensity, and potentially results.
Use Supersets to Make Workouts More Time Efficient
Supersets are a great way to get a lot of volume into a training session when you are in a time crunch. When looking to build muscle hypertrophy (size), training a muscle to near failure, in high amounts of training volume is key.
Isolate a Muscle with Pre-Exhaust Supersets
Another benefit to training supersets is that you can target a muscle and train it to fatigue quickly, but selecting exercises that compliment one another.
In the above chest superset example, the dumbbell flyes were used to isolate the chest muscles and fatigue them, so that during the push up the chest muscles fatigued out quicker than the triceps or anterior shoulders. This is often referred to as a “pre-exhaust superset”.
Perfect Way to Increase Volume Using Push/Pull Supersets
You can also use supersets when training to antagonist (opposite) muscle groups, such as chest and back, biceps and triceps, hamstrings and quads. In other words, push vs pull movements.
This is a great way to increase overall training volume and hit multiple muscles in a single session.
By performing one exercise that targets a muscle and following it by another exercise that targets a muscle that is not used in the first exercise, you are able to train both muscle groups effectively. Some classic examples may be bench press and one arm dumbbell rows, dips and bicep curls, or machine hamstring curls and machine leg extensions.
- Supersets can improve the time efficiency of your workout by minimizing the amount or time you spend resting.
- Supersets can be a useful strategy to increase local muscle fatigue within a muscle to drive training intensity and muscle growth.
- Supersets allow you to train more volume in the same amount of time, which in some cases could result in increased muscle growth, as training volume is a key factor in muscle development (assuming the intensity is also high).
- Supersets can decrease your ability to lift heavier loads during the superset, as fatigue will be higher, especially when performing the second movement.
- Supersets are not an ideal way to train for maximal strength, as resting is key and you want to minimize fatigue accumulation between sets to be able to train as hard as possible for your rep range.
- Supersets can be a great way to increase training volume and spark muscle growth, however this often results in people performing more volume and work in a session in a fatigued state. When that happens, your overall training intensity (loading) that a muscle is subjected to decreases, which is also a key factor in muscle growth. Therefore, finding the right balance between doing more work, and doing more work but with great technique and focus, you will succeed.
A general rule of thumb for supersets is that if you are generally “tired” when doing an exercise, not within the muscle itself, but also increased heart rate, feel low energy, or can’t mentally push hard, then your lack or rest may be detrimental if your goal is muscle growth.
How To Create a Superset?
Creating a superset is pretty straightforward, in that you select two exercises to train together based on the goal of that session. Sometimes, you can choose exercises that train the same muscle group, or two exercises that train opposite muscle groups.
Here are some important things to remember when creating your supersets:
- When training the same muscle group in a superset (both exercises train the same muscle) you will notice drastic decreases in performance, since fatigue will hit sooner and your ability to push heavier loads will decrease (due to fatigue). The goal when pairing two exercise for the same muscle group is muscle fatigue, so choose safer loads and train with good technique, and focus on fatigue the muscle, not lifting as much as you can
- If you are looking to train for more general strength, it may make more sense to pair exercises that train opposite muscle groups (such as the push/pull supersets). When you train the same muscle group, the goal should be muscle growth, not strength.
- It is not recommended to choose two heavy compound exercises for the same superset. One of the main limitations of supersets is that people will not allow for adequate recovery when lifting heavier loads (not what a superset is used for), and in turn may turn a “tough” strength workout into a less than optimal strength development workout. Stick to using only one heavy compound exercise per superset. Even better, if your goal is strength for that movement, train it by itself, then use supersets with your accessory work to drive muscle growth.
Circuits are very similar to superstes, however they generally include 3 more movements, done in a rotating manner, with little to no rest periods between each movement, and little to no rest period between each round. Additionally, circuits can include non-strength and muscle building based movements such as calethnics and cardiovascular activities.
What are They?
Circuits are a training technique that can be used to include a wide variety of movements and training volume within a workout. They are usually done for longer periods of time to allow adequate training volume to be accumulated per each exercise.
The circuits themselves can vary based on the program and the goal. Some may include all resistance training movements (density training), while others may include some resistance training movements and some cardiovascular based movements (running, rowing, etc).
That said, even without integrating cardiovascular movements within a circuit, your heart rate will be elevated and you will get a cardiovascular training response without doing actual cardio in the circuit.
When Should You Use Them?
Below are a few cases when using circuits could improve your workouts, training, and results
Make Workouts More Time Efficient
Circuits are a great training technique to get a lot of work done in a limited amount of time. This is often a popular training technique used by group fitness, commercial gym classes, and trainers who have to get a lot of training done in a short amount of time.
Increase Calorie Expenditure
The more work you do, the more calories you spend during a workout.
For some individuals, this is a huge emphasis, as when burning calories in a workout are paired with eating less food, weight loss can occur.
It is important to note that while burning more calories in a workout sounds good in theory, it comes at the cost of often not being able to train as close to your strength max, since fatigue is often higher and rest periods are little to none.
If you are looking to increase muscle mass and strength, and find you cannot lift hard and heavy (which is often needed to build strength), circuits may in fact be holding you back.
Some Individuals May Find Circuits “More Fun”
If the option is to not workout or do circuits, then do circuits. Some lifters find more traditional training to be “boring”.
Circuits can be a “fun” way to make exercise more approachable, time efficient, and enjoyable to some.
- Circuits can improve the overall amount of volume and work you can accumulate in a given time period.
- Circuits can help you make workouts more time efficient.
- Circuits can be viewed as being “more fun”, “more challenging”, and sometimes more approachable in groups
Related Article: 10 Benefits of Circuit Training (What The Science Says)
- Lack of recovery between exercises or sets can negatively impact peak strength expression and may not allow you to train moderate to heavy loads and in high volumes as effective as you may by taking longer rest (however this does increase workout time)
- Can be difficult to progressively overload (add more weight to the movements) as some of the exercises can impede or inhibit the progress of one specific exercise, due to the compounding fatigue effect.
How To Create a Circuit?
Creating a circuit can be done by taking 3 or more movements and doing them back to back to back, in a rotating manner, with little to no rest between exercises or rounds. Circuits allow for a wide variety of exercises and movements to be done, and the programming can vary greatly based on the goals and creativity of the designer.
Circuits can be done with upper body movements only, lower body movements only, upper and lower body movements only, and even by adding in some cardiovascular exercises (like running, biking, rowing, etc). The possibilities are endless.
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Supersets vs Circuits: What Are The Differences?
A superset is performing two exercises (commonly strength training exercises that target the same or different muscle groups) in a row with no or little amounts of rest in between. A circuit is three or more exercises (strength training or cardio-based) done in multiple rounds, usually involving a time-based component.
There are a few key differences between supersets vs circuits:
- Supersetts include only two exercises, whereas circuits can include three or more exercises of movements
- Supersets incorporate a rest period after completing both exercise, whereas circuits have little to no rest period between exercises and rounds (sets)
- Supersets are performed with resistance training exercises, and are used to develop more muscle, whereas circuits can include weight training exercises, body weight and calisthenics, and even traditional cardio exercises (running, rowing, biking,etc).
Are Supersets or Circuits Better For Weight Loss?
To lose weight, you need to place your body in a calorie deficit. This should be done by eating less, and expending more calories in your day to day lift as well as during your workouts. When looking to lose weight (and let’s assume you want to not lose muscle in that process), lifting weights is key.
Both supersets and circuit training are great ways to train with weights, burn calories, and increase weight loss, however they are not any more effective than weight training workouts with long rest periods when overall calorie balance is equated (which means your diet is key).
If you are looking to lose weight, I would suggest supersets and circuit training over traditional cardio only workouts, as cardio only workouts do little to nothing for muscle building and retention (and when done in excess during a diet can actually result in increased muscle loss).
Are Supersets or Circuits Better For Muscle Gain?
When looking to gain muscle, both circuits and supersets can be an effective way to do so. That said, gaining muscle is often finding the balance between training hard to near muscle failure (which is not the same as you being generally tired) and training with heavy enough weight to stimulate a response (could be 5-10 hard reps or 10-25 reps to failure).
It is important to point out that supersets and circuits are not any more effective than performing traditional straight sets (one exercise at a time with standard rest periods) when looking to gain muscle.
When your goal is muscle growth, choosing straight sets for your main movements of the day can allow for progressive overload and periodization. You can then use supersets to train muscle groups with loads, and not be completely exhausted doing it. If you are looking then to get some “fitness” in, or looking to pair exercises that attack the same muscle, you can do circuits to increase local muscle fatigue (use as a finisher).
Are Supersets or Circuits Better For Strength?
One of the main limitations of superstar circuits is the ability to develop max strength (which is different from a beginner generally getting “stronger”). When looking to increase your one rep max (or even 2-5 rep max), resting between sets and attacking weights in a non fatigued state is key.
Additionally, the amount of volume you need to develop strength is much lower than it is to build muscle, and often high amounts of volume with heavy weights, especially under fatigue, can result in loss of top end strength and injury.
If you are looking to increase your strength, you need to be lifting at least 80% of your 1-rep max, and progressively increase that % over time. If you are not rested or focusing on moving in a superset or circuit, you will struggle to progress your program to safely lift 85-90-95% of your 1-rep max to push your top end strength.
Supersets and circuits are both valuable training techniques that can be used by all level lifters to increase muscle, improve workout time efficiently, and add a new challenge to your training. Understanding the differences between supersets vs circuits, and how to use them without your workouts is key to long term results.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.