Supersets or Compound sets?


Most of us have heard of supersets and have most likely used them in our training at some point or another, either to save time or to make us feel like we are working harder. Strangely though, you may actually be performing compound sets and not supersets.

Super vs compound

First, it’s worth saying that I don’t really care what someone calls something, if they are utilising a protocol and getting results, does it really matter? The point of this post isn’t about making sure you know your compounds from your supers, it’s about understanding how to best utilise them for your advantage.

Let’s look at a little bit of a definition of both. That way, once we know the difference its easier to see when each will be best utilised.


Supersets are two exercises for opposing muscles grouped together one after another. An example would be bench press followed by bent over row. Another example would be biceps curl followed by triceps dips. That’s a true superset.

Compound sets

The name can be confusing because we call large multi-muscle exercises like deadlifts, squats and bench press “compound lifts”, though in this instance that has little bearing on the name. Compound sets are sets where the subsequent exercise(s) train the same muscle group. For example bench press followed by press-ups. Pull-ups followed by cable row or barbell curl followed by hammer curls.

press-up-strong-women-sean-lerwillWhen to superset

One of the best times to superset is when you are short of time or want to fit more in. You put two big exercises back to back and thus get more work done in a shorter space of time. If you’ve never trained chest and back together, this can be a great way to do it. Take a classic GVT session for example, instead of performing the 10×10 chest exercise and then the 10×10 back exercise, you do them together as a superset. 10 chest straight into 10 back, rest and off you go again, 10 sets. It’s horrible! But it works.

Supersetting like that is obviously also more tiring. That does mean you may find a classic GVT session harder so the weight must come down or form slips, but it also means that supersetting is great when using weight training to cut bodyfat/lose weight. It does bring on more of a sweat. It does feel like you’re working harder, which usually means you are!

When to compound

Although compound sets share the same idea, they can be utilised in a different way. Of course, putting two exercises for the same muscle groups back to back will have the same effect as Supersets in that it will feel harder, bring on more of a sweat and get more done in a short space of time, but they have the added bonus that they take that particular muscle further. Beyond failure if you are doing them right. This is different to supersets.

Take a couple of the exercises in the session I did yesterday as an example. After rupturing my right biceps last year, I have been slowly upping the volume and intensity to help it back to full strength and regain some of its size. To do so I want to make it work harder, therefore I use compound sets:

  • A1. supinated grip lat pull down 3033 (focus on biceps squeeze)
  • A2. rotating biceps dumbbell curl 3021
  • B1. seated row (neutral grip) 3033 (focus on biceps squeeze)
  • B2. Hammer curls 3021

In both compound sets the idea was to work the biceps to failure on the first exercise with a heavy load and then switch to a lighter load (1okg dumbbells for both) and take it to failure again.

chin-ups-strong-womenCompound your training

If you are trying to bring on a weak or lagging muscle group, or just want to work a specific area that little bit harder, I can’t recommend compound sets enough. I’m a big fan of using the bodyweight movements we sometimes take for granted as part of this; throwing in press-ups after a chest/push move or the planks after something that hits the core. A really tough one is chin-ups (supinated or neutral) with a squeeze and hold at the top after a biceps exercise.