Superset and Circuit Mistakes You Might be Making Part 2

As stated in my previous article on supersetting mistakes, supersets create better results in less time than performing conventional sets with periods of rest in between. Since supersetting is both an art and a science, it’s easy to mismatch exercises when designing the workout. It’s important to avoid these mismatches when performing circuits as well, as these are best performed as quickly as possible with minimal rest between movements. Here are four more mistakes to avoid when supersetting.

Mismatch #4: Pairing a unilateral exercise followed by a bilateral exercise for the same body part

Unilateral exercises train one side of the body at a time. They can be single-arm, single-leg, or even one side of the core.  A very common lower body pairing mistake is to start with a unilateral exercise such as a step-up and finish with a bilateral exercise such as a back squat. When performing the bilateral exercise, one leg will be more fatigued than the other, leading to movement compensation somewhere in the kinetic chain. The most likely compensation is an asymmetrical hip shift leading to a possible spine injury.

An example of an upper body pairing mistake is to perform a single arm horizontal row followed by a pull-up or other vertical pulling movement. The potential compensation is hiking of the shoulder on the more fatigued side, since the lower trap is too fatigued to depress the scapula.

The superset fix for both examples is to simply perform the bilateral exercise first.

Avoid these pairing orders:

  • single arm presses followed by double arm presses
  • single arm rows followed by pull-ups
  • single leg hamstring curls followed by deadlifts
  • step-ups or split squats followed by squats
  • any rotational core or lateral core work followed by squats or deadlifts.

Pro Tip: As covered in part 1, most athletes should not pair core work with lower body compound movements.

Mismatch #5: Too many exercises within a circuit

For upper body exercises such as the bench press, the second set is often the best set. For lower body exercises such as squats, the third or fourth set may be the best set. This is due to both the nervous system becoming more excited and muscle and joint temperature increasing with each set.

When performing circuits, rest is needed between exercises within the circuit, and rest is needed after completing each round of the circuit. The more exercises you have, the longer the circuit will take. Since 3-5 minutes is recommended between sets of an exercise for strength, anything more than 2-4 exercises will take too long. World-renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin stated that if it takes more than 8 minutes to return to an exercise, you are cooling off from that exercise.

Too much rest between sets of an exercise may lead to:

  1. A drop in neural excitation specific to the exercise
  2. Loss of body temperature and muscle temperature specific to the exercise
  3. Decrease in performance
  4. Possible injury

Mismatch #6: Performing too many unilateral exercises in a circuit

Performing too many unilateral exercises within a circuit increases the time required to complete it. Coupled with the time you spend resting for recovery, and you are well past the 5- or even 8-minute mark before returning to the first exercise in the circuit. As stated in mismatch #5, this will lead to a reduced performance or even injury when returning for the second round of the circuit.

Mismatch #7: Pairing conditioning exercises with strength or power movements

If obtaining maximal strength and power is your goal, then pairing exercises that ramp up heart rate and breathing rate for 30 seconds or more is a mismatch. For example, if you are lifting heavy loads (85-100% 1 rep max) for 1-5 reps, you are training for max strength. When you are lifting moderately heavy loads (75-85% 1RM) for 3-5 reps, you are training for max power.

In order to maximize either power or strength, athletes need full recovery. Therefore, they need their heart rate and respiratory rate to fall back down before performing another set. Pairing conditioning exercises with strength or power exercises must be avoided as they create high levels of fatigue.

Studies show how this fatigue changes the chemistry of the blood in a way that decreases gains from subsequent strength and power exercises. However, several studies show that there is a way to combine these two parameters in a session. Perform your strength and power work first, then perform your conditioning work at the end of the session.

Whether using supersets to build muscle or dabbling in circuit training for a well-rounded program, there are a variety of ways to incorporate these two training styles to achieve a variety of your athletes’ goals. The tips above will help you avoid common mistakes while researching which exercises will work well for your program. Just keep in mind that while highly effective, supersets and circuits intense exercise modalities designed to test athletes’ limits while reducing—or entirely removing—rest periods. So, think wisely about what you want to achieve for your athletes before including them in your program.

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