A Method Behind the Madness Post about Agonist Superset Training by Chanhassen Personal Trainer & Weight Loss Expert Justin Yule
Get ready for one of my ALL-TIME FAVORITE high-intensity interval training formats – Agonist Superset Interval Training…
Before I get into the nitty-gritty and what makes this training style so super, allow me a few moments to reminisce about the good old days…
Whenever I incorporate any kind of superset training into my group personal training (boot camp) program I always think back to my high school and college training days. Here’s why:
The term “Superset” was coined by the late, great bodybuilding trainer, magazine publisher, and supplement & equipment manufacturer Joe Weider.
Besides being a major influence on some of the greatest bodybuilders of all time including Arnold Schwarzenegger himself and the oh-so beautiful and talented superstar Cory Everson – who’s still rocking it at over 50 years old these days! – Joe had a major influence on ME!
That’s right… If it wasn’t for my dad first introducing me to the gym and the initial inspiration, education and motivation I got from Joe’s magazines & programs (I even went to his summer camp!) I might not be doing what I do today!
Anyway, supersets where one of Joe’s famous “Weider Principles” and there are essentially two main ways to approach them:
- Train opposing sides of a joint in a set (Antagonist Supersets) such as biceps and triceps
- Train the same muscle group or movement pattern with 2 exercises back-to-back (Agonist Supersets)
Both styles of supersets are tremendously beneficial and are a great time saver. By eliminating the rest between sets you can practically cut your workout time in half! At the same time, supersets dramatically increase workout intensity (increased density – more work in the same period of time), create greater overload (key factor in stimulating change/performance enhancement) and cause an incredible muscle “pump” (which is believed to be a factor in stimulating muscle growth). Plus, they just feel awesome!
Agonist Superset Programs
In our next training mesocycle we’re going to focus on Agonist Supersets using three different variations:
- Pre-Exhaustion Supersets
- Post-Exhaustion Supersets
- Compound Supersets
Each of these agonist superset variations will pair two competitive exercises back-to-back with virtually no rest. For example, you might perform a set of chest flyes followed immediately by a set of push-ups.
The goal is to achieve mechanical failure (the point where another repetition with good form cannot be performed) for EACH of the exercises. This “double-whammy” of intensity will “shock” your muscles into growth… For anyone wanting to improve the shape of their body by adding muscle & losing fat (“tone-up”) agonist supersets are a sure thing for results.
WARNING! Agonist supersets may cause more soreness than you’re used to due to the increased muscle fiber breakdown and the lactic acid build-up they cause.
Pre-exhaustion supersets generally start with a single-joint isolation exercise targeting one muscle group. For example, when performing a chest flye the movement only occurs at the shoulder joint and the chest (pectorals) is the primary mover. Upon achieving mechanical failure of the isolation exercise you immediately move into a multi-joint compound exercise such as the push-up where movement occurs at the shoulder AND elbow joints, and while the chest is still the primary mover, it gets assistance from the shoulder and triceps.
These are called pre-exhaustion supersets because you’re literally exhausting the prime movers in the isolation exercise before using them in the compound exercise. As a side note, I’ve found pre-exhaustion supersets to really help bring up lagging muscle groups, as well as help clients better feel/use the primary muscle group during the compound movement. For example, a lot of people have a really hard time feeling their chest when they do push-ups because the weaker shoulder and triceps muscles (along with the core) tire out before the chest even gets a chance to get going. By pre-exhausting the chest with an isolation exercise like the chest flye clients get a much better chest workout with their push-ups.
Pre-Exhaustion Superset Workout:
- Superset #1: KB Pullovers / Suspension Trainer Rows
- Superset #2: KB RDL / KB Sumo Deadlifts
- Superset #3: Single-leg Box Squat / Bulgarian Split Squat – Left
- Superset #4: Single-leg Box Squat / Bulgarian Split Squat – Right
- Superset #5: DB Flyes / DB Chest Press
Post-exhaustion supersets are just the opposite of pre-exhaustion supersets meaning you just flip-flop the isolation and compound exercises. For example, you first perform the push-ups to mechanical failure and then the flyes.
Post-exhaustion supersets allow you to hammer the more metabolic compound exercise using every muscle you can (with good form of course), and then target overload the focus muscle with the isolation exercise. This form of “stacking” exercises may actually excite your central nervous system making the isolation exercise actually feel lighter than usual giving you the ability to do more work (weight and/or reps) per set! As we know, more work in the same period of time equals greater results!!
Post-Exhaustion Superset Workout:
- Superset #1: KB Suitcase Deadlifts / Lying Hip Extensions
- Superset #2: RBT Pulldowns / Tall Kneeling Straight-arm RBT Pulldowns
- Superset #3: Slider Lateral Lunges / Quad Lifts – Left
- Superset #4: Slider Lateral Lunges / Quad Lifts – Right
- Superset #5: RBT Chest Press / RBT Flyes
Compound supersets pair two compound exercises for the same muscle groups or movement pattern. As an aside, you could also do isolation supersets pairing two isolation exercise for the same muscles, however isolation supersets are not as efficient/metabolic as compound supersets so for our purposes we’ll go with the compound supersets in our group personal training (boot camp) workouts. We will, however, use isolation supersets in our Abs, Arms & Ass workouts!
Compound supersets, as you can imagine, are extremely exhausting and must be used with care to avoid injury and/or overtraining. Exercise selection and order is also critical. For the general population whose primary goal is to build a better body keep the following rules of engagement in mind:
- Pair exercises that work different angles (e.g., incline press / decline press)
- Pair exercises that work different planes of motions (e.g., chin up / row)
- Perform more complex moves before more simple moves (e.g., swings before deadlifts)
- Perform ballistic moves before non-ballistic moves (e.g., box jumps before squats)
Post-Exhaustion Superset Workout:
- Superset #1: KB Swings / KB RDL
- Superset #2: RBT High Row / RBT Low Row
- Superset #3: Lateral Lunge / Sagital Lunge – Left
- Superset #4: Lateral Lunge / Sagital Lunge – Left
- Superset #5: Wide-Grip Push-ups / ½ Kneeling RBT Incline Chest Press
Additional Superset Considerations:
Agonist supersets are an awesome way to get a super-efficient workout that stimulates new muscle growth and ignites your metabolism. They’re great for smashing through plateaus and taking your physique to the next level. However, as I’ve already mentioned, you cannot throw caution to the wind when performing agonist supersets…you will get burned! In addition, there are some “tricks to the trade” that will make them more effective, so listen up…
- NO EGOS ALLOWED! Agonist supersets are serious business and require focus and discipline. You’re going to find yourself using less weight than usual (second exercise) and mental/physical fatigue may occur faster than normal. By the way, one of the great things about agonist supersets is you can get a great body shaping result with less stress on the joints due to the lighter loads being used!
- Love the Burn! Agonist are going to burn, baby burn…especially on that second set of pre & post-exhaustion supersets. You’re going to be taking your muscles and your mind to new levels of intensity. Get ready for it!
- No Rest for the Wicked! Timing is critical with supersets. You must limit the rest between supersets to get the maximum benefit. Check this out:
“Resting longer than five seconds between such exercise can be disastrous because the [muscles] will recover very quickly if allowed to rest too long. Physiologists tell us that a muscle group can recover about 40% of its energy after only 10-12 seconds, and 50% after about 15 seconds. So it should be obvious that you must rest minimally between these exercises.”
Traditional agonist supersets performed in Joe Weider’s heyday were performed in a straight set fashion. In other words, you’d do your superset and then rest for a couple minutes and then repeat it. You’d do that for the desired number of cycles. Keeping with our metabolic resistance training high intensity interval training (HIIT) format we’ll perform the supersets in a circuit with about a minute rest between them. Two cycles followed by a finisher should do the trick…
HAVE FAITH & TAKE ACTION!
Justin Yule, BS, CPT, MTE, FMSC