Sunday, June 21, 2015

Super-Setting is Time-Efficient, but What About the Volume and Quality of Your Workouts? They Will Improve! The Question that Remains is: Will Size & Strength Benefit, Too?

Supersetting is fun, time-efficient, exhausting and based on the reasonable assumption that you can benefit from training agonist + antagonist together, but does it build size & strength?
If you've been around the SuppVersity for some time, you will probably know what "super-setting" or "paired-sets" is. Right? Exactly! It's doing different exercises back to back. Like doing a bench press first and go to bend-over rows without taking more time to rest than it'll take to grab the barbell you already placed next to the bench.

Yes, that's intense and yes, that's fast, but the question is: "Super-Setting is Time-Efficient, But is it Also "Gain-Efficient"?" And we will deal with it at the bottom of this article. Before we do so, let's take a look at what happens to workout volume and the quality of each of your reps when you super-set.
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If we go by its ability to stimulate your muscle, data from a recent study designed to investigate the acute effects of performing paired-set (PS) versus traditional set (TS) training over three consecutive sets, on volume load and electromyographic fatigue parameters of the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, pectoralis major and triceps brachii muscles.
Image 1: This is how you do it - you bench and from the bench you head right over to the seated row (Paz. 2015).
Fifteen trained men (22.4 ± 1.1 years, height of 175 ± 5.5 cm, weight 76.6 ± 7.0 kg, percent body fat of 12.3% ± 2.1% | resistance training experience (3.5 ± 1.2 years), averaging four, 60-min sessions per week) performed two testing protocols (TS = traditional and PS = paired set) on four test sessions on non-consecutive days using 10-repetition maximum loads.
Differences between complex training and agonist-
antagonist paired training (Robbins. 2010).
  • The TS protocol consisted of three sets of bench press (BP) followed by three sets of wide-grip seated row (SR). Under the TS protocol two-minute rest intervals were implemented between all sets.
  • PS consisted of three sets of BP and three sets of SR performed in an alternating manner. Under the PS protocol, sets of SR were performed immediately following sets of BP. A two-minute rest interval between the completion of the set of SR and the subsequent set of BP was implemented (e.g.,, between paired sets).
Volume load was calculated as load x repetitions, so if the super-setting cost the subjects reps the total volume value would drop. The same would go for the electromyographic signal, time (CRMS) and frequency (Cf5) domain, which - if it actually dropped - would indicate that doing exercises back to back would reduce the contraction time or the frequency at which the neurons fire (meaning the "quality" of the muscle contraction would suffer).
Figure 1: Surprise! The total volume increased in the paired-set (PS) condition. On all sets where you have a $ or § the volume was either sign. increased compared to the traditional set or sign. less reduced (Paz. 2015).
If you look at the data Gabriel Paz et al. created, you'll see that the bench press (BP) and seated row (SR) volume loads decreased significantly from set 1 to set 2 and from set 2 to set 3 under both conditions.
The longer you rest, the less the enhanement in muscle activation. The same goes for the maximal reps on a given set (Maia. 2014)
Don't rest within a superset! It's important that you minimize the time between the paired exercises. A study by Maia, et al. that was published last year shows that the shorter the rest period, the greater the agonist repetition enhancement and muscle activation. As the data in the figure to the left hand side shows. This didn't occur in every muscle, but it occured persistently and was accompanied by a 19% decrease in the number of reps the subjects were able to perform when you compare the "minimal" to the 3-min rest group; and the performance suffered sign. (-6%) even w/ only 30s rest.
Now what is interesting, though, is that the volume load was greater for all sets of both exercises under PS as compared to TS. Or, in other words, in contrast to what you may have expected the subjects performed more sets x reps during the super-set workout compared to the traditional set training.
Figure 2: The total time the muscle is firing increased when the subjects did paired-sets. For the back and biceps this increase was even statistically significant (Paz. 2015).
What is less surprising is that the muscle fatigue indices were greater under the super-/paired-set condition. That's not bad, though, if the volume, the quality of the muscle contractions and the intensity remained the same - an observation that confirms the results of previous studies but which has not yet been fully explained from a mechanistic point of view (an example of a suggested mechanism is the facilitatory stimulation of Golgi tendon organs and muscle spindles during antagonistic super sets).
Table 1: The efficacy analysis Robbins et al. conducted in their 2010 review leaves no doubt that antagonist-agonist paired sets (APS) kick traditional training's ass when it comes to strength and power efforts per time (Robbins. 2010).
In spite of the fact that the responses and underlying mechanisms remain unclear, we an probably all subscribe to Paz's conclusion that "in general, these results indicate that as compared to TS, PS produced a greater training volume in less time and may induce greater fatigue and thereby provide an enhanced training stimulus" (Paz. 2015 | my emphasis) - one thing I would to emphasize, though, is that this is the case for antagonistic super sets if the contemporary speculations about how it works are not totally off, doing DB and LH curls as an synergistic super-set is not going to work any "magic".
Figure 3: Rel. strength & power gains during 8-week study with identical training protocols using traditional sequential sets or super-/paired sets (Robbins. 2009). Only values where the label gives the exact percentage were sign. different from baseline. So both protocols weren't super effective.
There's still one important question left: Will super-setting increase or diminish your gains? As Robbins et al. (2010) point out, the "dearth of research" makes it difficult to answer this question. Based on studies by studies like Robbins et al. (2009), an 8-week resistance training study that compared antagonistic super sets to traditional sequential training, we can yet say that it is (at least) not inferior to traditional training when it comes to its ability to build power and strength (see Figure 3); and even if we don't know for sure what their effects on your body composition is, the increased muscle activity and volume observed in the study at hand, as well as the 35% increase in energy expenditure during and 33% increase in energy expenditure after the workout Kelleher et al. observed in their 2010 study are unlikely to compromise either muscle gains or fat loss.

It is thus not surprising that Jason B. White observed minimally more pronounced increases in the total muscle cross-sectional area when he compared tested the effects of supersets (SS | +22.1%, p < 0.05) versus traditional strength training (T | +20.6%, p < 0.05) methods on muscle adaptations, recovery, and selected anthropometric measures for his dissertation at the Ohio University in 2011. Two things are surprising, though, (a) the ultra-sound measured thickness of the vastus lateralis of the subjects in the SS group didn't reach the same statistical significance, as it did in the traditional training group and (b) the traditional training group lost more body at. Since the latter also started at a 19% higher body fat % the comparison may be slightly unfair. And while I have to admit that there's not enough evidence to support the claim that supersetting builds more size than traditional training regimen, there certainly isn't enough evidence to support the opposite hypothesis | What do you think?
References:
  • Kelleher, Andrew R., et al. "The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.4 (2010): 1043-1051.
  • Maia, Marianna F., et al. "Effects of different rest intervals between antagonist paired sets on repetition performance and muscle activation." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28.9 (2014): 2529-2535.
  • Paz, Gabriel, et al. "Volume Load and Neuromuscular Fatigue During an Acute Bout of Agonist-antagonist Paired-set Versus Traditional-set Training." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2015).
  • Robbins, Daniel W., et al. "Effects of agonist–antagonist complex resistance training on upper body strength and power development." Journal of sports sciences 27.14 (2009): 1617-1625.
  • Robbins, Daniel W., et al. "Agonist-antagonist paired set resistance training: A brief review." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2873-2882.