Superset vs Compound Sets: Differences in Training Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 2, 2022

The terms “superset” and “compound set” are often thrown around in the fitness community without much explanation as to what they actually mean, often confusing novice lifters who believed that there was only one kind of set that may be performed.

Fortunately, the actual meaning of these terms is rather simplistic, and it is likely that you have already encountered a superset or compound set during the course of your training.

In simple terms, the superset means performing two different exercises back to back, whereas a compound set means performing two exercises targeting the same muscles without a pause for rest between each set.

What is a Superset?

A superset is the performance of two exercises targeting different parts of the body so as to avoid excessive fatigue in a particular muscle group, though it can also refer to two exercises that target opposing muscle groups instead.

This presents a wide variety of advantages that the performance of normal sets do not give - though that is not to say that you should be supersetting every exercise in your workout program.

An Example of a Superset

Among one of the most commonly seen supersets in a training program is the combination of a biceps isolation exercise and a triceps isolation exercise - done because they are two opposing muscle groups that are particularly easy to activate in an isolated manner.

superset example muscles
As the Biceps are relaxed, the Triceps are contracted and vice versa

This may be seen as a set of bicep curls immediately being followed by a set of tricep kickbacks or overhead extensions, with each muscle group being unfatigued by the performance of the former set despite a lack of rest time.

Benefits of Supersets

Supersets present quite a few advantages, such as a significantly higher intensity found in a workout session, alongside time being saved as the exerciser has no need to wait between sets.

Furthermore, this particular style of training produces a stimulus that improves aerobic and muscular endurance, contributing to overall athletic conditioning and allowing the exerciser to work at a higher intensity in the future.

What is a Compound Set?

A compound set is the performance of two or more back to back sets of different exercises that target the same muscle group, significantly stimulating the muscle and providing a myriad of advantages that ordinary training set methods struggle to replicate.

Because compound sets are meant to target the same part of the body with each succeeding exercise, there is often a reduction in volume or resistance as each subsequent set is performed - as well as an unfortunately smaller group of available exercises, unlike in the case of the superset. 

An Example of a Compound Set

Compound sets are somewhat less common in modern training programs, though one of the more frequently seen utilizations of a compound set is the combination of a barbell bench press set with that of a dumbbell fly - both targeting the pectoral muscles and resulting in significant activation of this area.

compound set example exercises

Benefits of Compound Sets

Compound sets allow a greater specificity of training stimulus to be achieved, as well as absolute fatigue of a particular muscle group as it is subjected to constant exercise. This can improve the conditioning and work capacity of a particular muscle, as well as that of the cardiovascular and nervous systems of the lifter.

Furthermore, compound sets allow a muscle group to be targeted in more than a single manner, be it from a different angle of resistance or with the use of different types of training stimulus, such as with a free weight exercise and a machine-based exercise.

How are Supersets Used?

Supersets are best taken advantage of around the end of a training session, wherein the heavy compound exercises that significantly tax the body have already been completed and it is individual muscles that are being isolated instead.

Using supersets within this context can allow an exerciser to save time, up the intensity of their training session and improve the development of smaller muscle groups of opposing position and function.

Generally, performing a set of a larger muscle group or a set of particularly high intensity can result in the subsequent second set being poorly performed, and as such the exerciser must strike a balance between the intensity and muscle recruitment of both sets within a superset.

How are Compound Sets Used?

Compound sets are better left reserved for intermediate to advanced level lifters who understand muscular activation and exercise mechanic principles already.

They are best used within a training session by performing a more intense exercise followed by a second exercise of lesser exertion or complexity, such as in the case of a military press followed by a secondary exercise of dumbbell lateral raises, for example.

This ensures that no premature fatigue will result in a failed set or the lifter otherwise injuring themselves, as well as allowing them to “finish off” their targeted muscle group with a high volume but low resistance set of the secondary exercise.

Furthermore, it is advisable to use exercises that do not place excessive wear and force on the smaller joints of the body, such as the wrists, ankles and shoulders. This is simply because excessive and constant pressure on connective tissues can easily result in tendonitis or similar issues.

In addition, the usage of compound exercises with compound sets may prove to be too exhausting for many lifters, and as such it is also advisable to begin with only one compound exercise set followed by a more targeted isolation exercise, if not two or more isolation exercises altogether.

Which Technique is Better for Bodybuilding and Muscle Mass?

In terms of inducing greater muscular hypertrophy and “chasing the pump” as many lifters may put it, the usage of the superset is far more effective.

Supersets allow the exerciser to target two opposing muscle groups simultaneously, ensuring that the muscles remain at an unfatigued state between sets alongside the amount of time the lifter saves by performing multiple isolation movements at once.

This is especially applicable with bodybuilding training programs, of which will often feature multiple isolation exercises and significantly more volume than what one would see in a powerlifting or athletic training program.

Which Technique is Better for Athletes and Strength Training?

Though supersets also see some usage in strength training or athletic training in particular - it is compound sets that are more effective for the development of muscular strength adaptations.

This is simply because compound sets allow an exerciser to place more training stimulus on a particular muscle group, as well as extend the activation of a particular muscle beyond what they would be capable of with a single ordinary compound exercise.

In certain types of strength training programs, compound sets may even be used to split an exercise between its unilateral and bilateral variations, such as would be the case in a bench press and one-sided dumbbell press, aiding in central nervous system adaptations and mental conditioning towards particularly heavy loads.

Are Supersets or Compound Sets Applicable to Your Training Program?

Both supersets and compound sets are frequently added to workouts because of the advantages they provide.

However, it should also be noted that not every single situation or training program is compatible with these concepts, as they are both known to induce more fatigue than traditional sets normally would - as well as the fact that they are rather situational in their use.

In particular, it is not advisable to perform two compound exercises back to back, especially those of higher intensity - or in a compound set, as doing so may result in a breakdown of form or the exerciser otherwise excessively fatiguing their central nervous system.

Supersets are most useful when performed with two separate isolation exercises of low to moderate intensity, while compound sets may best be used with one compound exercise of high intensity and one isolation exercise of low intensity.

Final Words

Now that you have come to understand the difference between supersets and compound sets - as well as how to use them - you can take full advantage of these training methods in your workout program, maximizing your results.

One should keep in mind, however, that there is a reason not every training program makes use of supersets or compound sets, as performing ordinary sets also has its own merits and is otherwise irreplaceable within the contexts of progressive overload and fatigue management.

References

1. Weakley J JS, Till K, Read D B, Roe G AB, Darrall Jones J, Phibbs P J, Jones B. The effects of traditional, super set, and tri set resistance training structures on perceived intensity and physiological responses. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017 Sep ;117(9):1877-1889. doi: 10.1007/s00421-017-3680-3. Epub 2017 Jul 11. PM ID: 28698987; PMC ID: PMC 5556132.

2. Andersen V, Fimland MS, Iversen VM, Pedersen H, Balberg K, Gåsvær M, Rise K, Solstad T EJ, Stien N, Saeterbakken AH. A Comparison of Affective Responses Between Time Efficient and Traditional Resistance Training. Front Psychol. 2022 Jun 16;13:912368. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2022.912368. PMID: 35783742; PMCID: PMC9243264.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
Inspire US serves as an informational hub for people looking to start their fitness journey.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information being shared is for educational purposes only. You must consult with a medical professional before acting on any content on this website.
Copyright © Inspire US 2022