When it comes to weight training, the amount of information – and, for that matter, misinformation – about how to design workouts is staggering. In fact, the last time I Googled the subject, I got 759,000 results. Although not as impressive as typing Lindsay Lohan, which came up with 57,900,000 results, it’s still overwhelming. If you’re new to the weightroom, a good place to begin is with a discussion on circuit training. And here we go!
The expression circuit training was formally introduced in 1953 by physiologists at the University of Leeds in England to describe a system of integrating several components of fitness into a single workout. This was a dramatic shift from what was traditionally practiced for athletic and physical fitness training.
Traditionally, strength training and energy system training were performed in separate training blocks. For example, an athlete might run in the morning and then perform gymnastics or some type of resistance training in the afternoon; or they might alternate between days, such as by performing strength training on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and running on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with Sunday being a day of rest.
Another feature of traditional strength training is that all the reps for an exercise are completed before moving on to the next exercise. This is referred to as station training. This type of training is ideal for complex movements, such as the Olympic lifts. This concentration of exercises enables athletes to better focus on technique. An Olympic lifter might perform 10 sets of snatches, followed by 10 sets of clean and jerks, followed by 10 sets of squats. Athletes will often rest 2-4 minutes between sets, which means such a workout could last for two hours. Circuit training uses a different approach.
Rather than establishing rest intervals between sets, a circuit combines several exercises, usually about 10, so that no two muscles are worked at the same time. The idea is that the workouts are faster and also produce greater aerobic benefits. It’s also a time saver. Whereas the 30 sets that the Olympic lifter performed with station training would take about two hours, 30 sets of a circuit training workout could be completed in 45 minutes.
Two drawbacks with circuit training are (1) any breaks between exercises take the body out of the aerobic zone and (2) the lack of significant rest periods reduces the amount of weight that can be lifted. As such, traditional circuit training is appropriate for general fitness training but is inferior to doing strength and energy system training separately.
A better method of training, which is actually a variation of circuit training, is called supersets.
Why Supersets Are Super
A superset is a pairing of two different exercises. The most common superset is to pair agonist and antagonist muscles.
The muscle that causes the primary movement is called the agonist, or prime mover (i.e., the contraction of this muscle is responsible for the movement). As this contraction occurs, the opposing muscle, the antagonist, is relaxed. Thus, when you curl a weight, the biceps are the agonists and the triceps are the antagonists; but when you perform a triceps pressdown, the triceps are the agonists and the biceps are the antagonists. By having the agonists and antagonists contract alternately (such as in a set of an elbow flexion exercise followed by a set of an elbow extension exercise), you enhance the ability to achieve full motor unit activation in a muscle.
Alternating between agonists and antagonists has also been proven to lower fatigue drop-off curves more than performing traditional station training, even with complete rest intervals. This approach can increase the work capacity by as much as 40 percent for a given workout, compared to using the old standard-sets approach; this is because there is less cumulative fatigue due to having more rest time between each exercise. The approach has the added benefit of allowing you to double the workload per training unit. In effect, you get the strength training benefits of station training and the time saving benefits of circuit training.
Pairing agonist and antagonist muscle groups is the most common form of supersets, but you can also superset exercises for the same muscle groups to upgrade the training stimulus. The two major types of these supersets use the principles of pre-exhaustion and post-exhaustion.
Pre-Exhaustion Supersets. With pre-exhaustion, a muscle is first fatigued by a single-joint exercise and then further exhausted by performing a multi-joint exercise involving the same muscle group and additional muscle groups. You could perform biceps curls followed by chin-ups, or lateral raises followed by behind-the-neck presses. Sounds simple enough, but it’s an amazingly effective training system for stimulating muscle growth – while giving you a butt-kicking workout.
Pre-exhaustion is a training principle that was introduced to the bodybuilding world in 1968 by Robert Kennedy in Iron Man magazine, but it was Nautilus founder Arthur Jones who popularized it and was obsessed with finding the most painful ways to use this training system. Jones liked the pre-exhaustion method so much that he even designed several of his early Nautilus machines to combine two exercises into one to minimize the amount of rest time between sets. For example, he designed these two-in-one machines: a leg extension/leg press machine, and a lateral raise/overhead press machine. Possibly because these machines were much more expensive than single-station units and because fewer gym members could use them at one time, these units are no longer being produced.
When selecting exercises for this type of training, consider that for optimal development of muscle mass, isolation exercises that recruit few motor units are not as effective as compound exercises. As such, parallel bar dips and close-grip bench presses are more effective exercises to use for pre-exhaustion than dumbbell triceps kickbacks. This is not to say you should never perform these inferior isolation exercises, but they should not be emphasized as much as the compound movements.
Post-Exhaustion Supersets. A post-exhaustion routine is a great plateau buster. As the name suggests, this is a type of superset in which you first perform a compound exercise and then follow it with an isolation exercise that taps into the same motor pool of the muscle you want to focus on.
The key is to select an exercise that recruits a lot of motor units, such as a chin-up or a squat, and follow it with a superior isolation exercise, such as a Scott curl or a split squat lunge – just remember that wimpy exercises such as triceps kickbacks or side adductor raises are not allowed. Two examples of effective combinations of exercises for post-exhaustion supersets are close-grip chins followed by low incline dumbbell curls, and parallel bar dips followed by overhead rope extensions.
An understanding of how to design supersets is key to program design. If you master this aspect of training, then don’t be surprised if your newfound enlightenment has people Googling you for weight training advice!
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