Supersets and Pyramids for Strength and Muscle

Advanced Weight Training with Supersets and Pyramids

Bench Press
Bench Press. (c) Paul Rogers / Cooloola Fitness

Your resistance training goals might be strength, muscle, athletic endeavor, or weight loss. If you've been working out regularly and you're ready to progress, techniques that include pyramids and supersets could be for you; but be warned, these training protocols can hit you hard.

In brief, supersets are sets of weight training exercises done sequentially with no rest in between. The absence of rest essentially defines supersets.

Pyramids involve starting low and finishing high, or starting high and finishing low with a stepped weight loading.

These techniques are for bodybuilders in the main, but you will develop strength and muscle with the hard work that is implicit in these techniques.


In fact, there's nothing too definitive about supersets when it comes to detailed instruction and the results you can expect. Too few measured studies are available. Bodybuilders tend to swear by super setting for muscle growth. For weight loss, and as could be expected, the extra work and intensity in a superset workout is known to increase energy expenditure during the session, and also after the session as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). Supersets also increase lactate production compared to traditional sets, a sign the muscles are working very hard indeed.

These conditions tick the boxes for muscle growth -- metabolic overload and lactate production.

On the other hand, strength trainers will probably do better sticking to the Olympic lifts and their derivatives.

Variations of Supersets

Two primary variations are recognized: A superset where the second exercise hits the same muscle group (agonist); and a superset in which an opposing muscle group (antagonist) is targeted in the second exercise or set.

You can add variety by juggling with compound and isolation exercises and light and heavy sets first and second.

Agonist and Antagonist Sets

Agonist sets mean you hit the same muscle group or groups with both exercise sets, and of course, there is no rest in between with supersets, so you will work very hard, sometimes to near anaerobic exhaustion. Example: dumbbell arm curls followed by cable arm curls.

The other type of basic superset, the antagonist set, hits opposing muscle groups. An example is leg extensions for the quads and leg curls for the hamstrings. When you use this type of superset, you do not get the same degree of stress to a single muscle group as you would with agonist sets -- which is a primary goal of super setting. Antagonist sets might still be good for workout variety, energy expenditure and time saving, but they don't meet the performance criteria for muscle building that agonist sets do.

Pre-Exhaust and Post-Exhaust Sets

You can do agonist sets two ways -- heavy light, or light heavy:

  • Heavy exercise followed by a lighter exercise (pre-exhaust). An example is 10 squats at 150 pounds followed by 10 leg extensions at 100 pounds with no rest in between.
  • Light exercise followed by a heavy set (post-exhaust). Example, 10 bent-over rows with 25-pound dumbbells followed by Romanian deadlifts at 150 pounds with no rest in between sets.
  • You can mix up isolation exercises with compound exercises or do both isolation or compound exercises for both sets. Be warned, though, that two supersets of compound exercises like leg presses and squats are heavy going and you need to ensure safety by using a spotter when appropriate, or at least concentrate very hard because you will be fatigued during the second set.

Pyramid Training

Pyramid training is a stepped approach to sets and repetitions. A 'pyramid' means big at the bottom and narrow at the top. A 'reverse pyramid' means big at the top and narrow at the bottom. And that's what pyramid training means in a weight training context. You start heavy and gradually decrease the weights or reps, or you start light and gradually increase the weight or reps. Or you can include both in an extended set.

Supersets and pyramids are called overload systems. If you create metabolic stress in muscle tissue it will grow bigger. However, this type of training does not hit the sweet spot for strength increases. Strength requires neuromuscular activation, which responds best to heavy loads, low reps, and sufficient rest between sets.

Overload training is best done only 2 to 3 times a week and never in daily succession. Part of the protocol is to let stressed muscles heal and strengthen. Even once each week may be best for beginners.

Warm up and Cool Down

A warm up should include light aerobic exercise and mild stretching for ten to fifteen minutes.

A cool down may help to reduce muscle soreness in the following hours. Pyramid and superset training can make you sore. Cool down with light stretching, calisthenics or with some modest aerobic work on 


J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1043-51. The metabolic costs of reciprocal supersets vs. traditional resistance exercise in young recreationally active adults. Kelleher AR, Hackney KJ, Fairchild TJ, Keslacy S, Ploutz-Snyder LL.

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