What I Learned This Week: Volume 3 (5/28/12 – 6/1/12)

Supersets and Getting Creative With Program Design

The current state of program design

“Are you an English/History or Math/Science kind of person?” is a question we have all been asked. The inquiry implies that there are only two spheres of being, the artistic and the scientific. Furthermore the question allows no room for coexistence in both spheres. Since becoming passionate about fitness I have always questioned whether designing a successful program is an art or a science?

Program Design has gotten a lot of attention recently as a paramount aspect of effective training, and rightly so. As a personal trainer, I pride myself on being able to put together a coherent program using the factual knowledge that I have accumulated. For example, I know that using a repetition range of 10-12 reps on the squat will cause a significantly different physiological impact than a repetition range of 1-3. (Note: Want to seriously help change your body composition fast? Give higher rep squats a shot.)

I could go on spouting more advanced technical jargon (I will spare you), but as you can see Program Design can start getting scientific in a hurry.

If you are designing your own programs it is quite easy to get into a rut and never come out. I know this because it happens to me. When I am away from the awesome minds at Peak Performance some of my programs becomes stale, uninventive, and ultimately ineffective. Currently I am privileged to get to work and train with one of the most creative Program Designers I have ever met, Ed Williams.

While Ed is one of the most technically knowledgeable trainers I have ever come across, he never loses sight of the artistic aspect of program design. Ed uses his years of experience and non-dogmatic approach to innovate fun and effective programs. One of his specialties though is putting together the most interesting supersets I have ever been put through.

Super Supersets

The goal of a superset is combining two movements, manipulating the structure of the program in order to get the best training effect possible. Most supersets consist of exercise pairings, which involve either, antagonist/opposing muscle groups (bench press and barbell row) or two agonist/synergistic muscle groups (bench press and cable fly). Both of the options I mentioned have been around forever because they work, but are they the be all and end all of program structure? Negatory.

This past week I came to realize the superset holds possibilities that I had never explored. Ed has shown me various ways of constructing a superset which involve pairing different variables such as:

  • Agonist Muscle Groups (mentioned above)
  • Antagonist Muscle Groups (mentioned above)
  • Push Patterns (Squats, Military Press)
  • Pull Patterns (Deadlifts, Pull Ups)
  • Upper Body (Bench Press, Pull Ups)
  • Lower Body (Squats, Deadlifts)
  • Unilateral (Using one side of the body – One Arm Dumbbell Rows, Lunges)
  • Bilateral (Using both sides of the body – Front Squats, Barbell Bench Press)
  • Speed Contrasts (Fast and Slow, Strength and Power, Isometric and Dynamic)

Having all those variables initially seems daunting, but with options come possibility for creation. Below are some examples of how Ed and I have used the above options to create challenging and exhilarating supersets.

Superset 1: Deadlifts (4 sets x 5 reps) and 100 Yard Sprints (4 sets x 1 Sprint)

  • Variables Used: Speed Contrast, Agonist Muscle Groups, Lower Body, Unilateral, Bilateral
  • This could easily be called the man maker.
  • This superset is a good example of speed contrast.
  • We used our posterior chain/total body to move a heavy weight (more) slowly during the deadlift and a lighter weight dynamically during the sprint.
  • When first attempting this superset build up to a 100-yard sprint, but always feel free to crush the deadlifts.

Superset 2: Low Bar Back Squat (4 sets x 8 reps) and Backwards Sled Drags (4 sets x 40-50 yards)

  • Variables Used: Lower Body, Speed Contrast, Unilateral, Bilateral, Agonist Muscle Groups, Antagonist Muscle Groups
  • If you haven’t tried low bar back squats I urge you to learn about them and try them out. They involve the hips more so than a traditional high bar back squat. My knees and hips have never felt better while squatting since trying a low bar position.
  • Because the low bar back squat is quite hip dominant it allows for a superset involving a quad dominant movement, like a backwards sled drag, without sacrificing performance on the squat.
  • The ability to create a higher level of density while working lower body is always going to make for a good training effect.

Superset 3: Standing Single Arm Split Stance DB Shoulder Press (3 sets x 8-10 reps) and Bulgarian Split Squats (3 sets x 8-10)

  • Variables Used: Unilateral, Bilateral, Upper Body, Lower Body, Push Movements
  • I designed this superset for a German Body Composition type program last year. When I showed it to Ed to get his take on it he immediately pointed out how good this particular superset would hurt…He was right.
  • I have used this superset in various programs since and I never regret throwing it in.
  • Take this superset head on and reap the benefits.

Superset 4: Clean From The Blocks (5 sets x 3 reps) and Snatch Grip Rack Pulls (5 sets x 3 reps)

  • Variables Used: Speed Contrast, Pull Movements, Agonist Muscle Groups, Lower Body, Bilateral
  • This is another good example of a speed contrast superset.
  • After the heavy snatch grip rack pulls the bar was moving like grease lighting during the cleans.
  • The only possible way programming “Bang For Your Buck” movements can get better is when you put them next to each other.

Superset 5: Hip Flexor Stretch (4 sets x 20 sec hold/leg) and Barbell Glute Bridge (4 sets x 10-12 reps)

  • Variables Used: Speed Contrast, Lower Body, Agonist Muscle Groups,
  • Many of use, because of lifestyle, develop tightness in the hip flexors. Conversely there are many people who have trouble activating their glutes. This superset attacks both of those deficiencies very well.


The Renaissance of Program Design

No textbook I have seen, or class that I have taken ever taught me as much about program design as Ed’s non-linear, yet extremely effective approach to movement placement and pairing. The good news for you is that program design is a skill that can be developed, but it takes practice. That practice comes from getting a little creative when you start structuring your training session. I truly believe the superset is a great place to start letting you come out in your programs.

Lesson Learned: Experimentation into the unknown might teach you more than sticking to the known. Implement, experience, and asses when it comes to program design,, but above all make training interesting. Nothing monotonous is sustainable.


Got any supersets you are particularly fond of? Drop it in a comment below!

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