The Unknown Benefits of SuperSets!

One of the best formulas for a challenging weightlifting workout which is efficient in time, hypertrophy, challenges your stamina, and increases your VO2 max, is utilizing a superset. No, this is not a typo, weightlifting will increase your VO2max.

Merriam-Webster defines VO2 max as: “The maximum amount of oxygen the body can use during a specified period of usually intense exercise that depends on body weight and the strength of the lungs.” Traditionally, people think cardiovascular exercise (running, biking) as the best way to develop your VO2 max. While VO2 max can increase from performing cardio consistently, weightlifting by supersets will provide better results without the negative effects of cardio. (Refer to my past article Is Cardio Harmful?)

The definition of a superset is, pairing weightlifting exercises for specific body parts which are opposite with each other. Some examples of pairing opposite body parts are: chest and back, legs and shoulders, even biceps and triceps. In order for the superset to be successful in development of your VO2 max, we need to minimize recovery between sets. For example, we will lift 8 sets of 8 repetitions (reps) of legs (barbell squat) and shoulders (db shoulder press). At the conclusion of each set, you must be at momentary muscle failure (reference We Strive For Failure article). Upon completion of your squats, immediately pick up your dumbbells and train your shoulders with the shoulder press; again to momentary muscle failure. Once you complete the first superset of squats and shoulder press, we will take a 30-60 second break before we begin our second set of squats. The recovery time is critical for developing your VO2 max.

How does supersets benefit your VO2 max?

Ben Greenfield Fitness explains how one develops their heart performance,

"Your cardiovascular performance is based on three primary variables:

1) Heart rate (how many times your heart beats per minute)

2) Stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat)

3) Heart contractility (the forcefulness of each actual contraction of your heart muscle)

As each of these variables increase, the amount of blood flow and oxygen supply to your exercising muscles also increases."

Every time we lift, legs, our heartrate increases in order to pump blood to our legs to perform the difficult squat. Once we achieve muscle failure and our legs are filled with blood, we then begin training our shoulders. The heart now has to redirect the blood out of the legs and transport it to the shoulders. As you go back and forth between muscle groups you are "transferring blood". Because of the minimal recovery, the immediate "transfer of blood" is now increasing the stroke volume and heart contractility. The combination of opposite muscle groups and minimal recovery times are the key critical components for developing your heart's VO2 max. Too much recovery time, and you will not increase your VO2 max. Too little recovery time will and you will not be able to perform your lift effectively. 30-60 seconds is the recommended time I have found that works for most clients. It's challenging yet doable for the workout.

Supersets are not easy. It is a challenging and hard work out. You will be shocked as to how out of breath you become! The first set will be difficult due to the momentary muscle failure. However as you continue with minimal recovery, you will experience fatigue, feeling winded, and your overall stamina will be challenged. Persevere! Keep up with lifts but as you continue on with your sets, you may need a little more recovery (closer to 60 seconds) to be able to lift the load properly and safely.

What are you to do?

Incorporate supersets in your weightlifting. Make sure you pair opposite muscle groups together with minimal recovery. While it will be difficult to perform the workout, know that as your body adapts to the workout, you are increasing your heart rate, stroke volume, and heart contractility. In other words, you are increasing your VO2 max by weight training without the negative effects of cardio.


Steven Zahn

ACE Certified Personal Trainer

NASM Certified Personal Trainer

Pre and Post Partum Certified

Dragondoor Publications: HKC Russian Kettlebell Certified