My coaching goal is to be as effective and efficient as possible. In other words, I strive to yield the best results in the least amount of time. Therefore, I am a big fan of using supersets (pairing exercises), as opposed to single station training (performing one exercise at a time).

Research continually shows that supersets yield better results than single station training. For example, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2017 showed that supersets creates more damage than single station training. A 2009 study in the Journal of Sport Science showed that supersets took only half the time and yielded the equal results as single station training.

However, not all supersets work well with one another. For maximum performance and safety, avoid the three common mismatches below.

Mismatch #1: Posterior-loaded squats with low back work

Squatting with a load placed on your back puts high strain on the spinal erector group (low back). Avoid pairing with other exercises that stress the spinal erectors.

posterior loading - supersets

Examples of posterior-loaded squats:

  • Barbell back squat
  • Barbell back box squat
  • Safety bar squat

Avoid pairing the above with:

  • Deadlifts and any variants
  • Back extensions, hip extensions or hyper-extensions or any variant
  • Bridges or hip thrusts

Anterior-loaded squats such as front squats do not follow these rules. An anterior-load produces a more erect torso. As a result, placing fewer demands on the spinal erector group. This allows for pairing with deadlifts and deadlift variants like hip extension and bridges.

Mismatch #2: Pairing Dynamic Axial Loads With Core Work

When coaches think of axial loading, they tend to think of “big bang multi-joint exercises like squats and overhead presses”. However, any time you hold a weight in your hand, that weight will be transferred through the spine.  Even barbell shrugs or bicep curls are axial loaded. 

A dynamic axial load is different since it meets one of two criteria. Criteria one is that the lever arm is dynamic meaning it changes length. In weight training, a lever arm is defined as the horizontal distance between where the load is applied, and where the fulcrum is (where rotation can occur). With dynamic axial loaded exercises the lever may be the spine, and will change length as an athlete squats or deadlifts.  This requires a tremendous amount of core strength and control.

The second criteria for a dynamic axial loaded exercises is when an “axial load” moves a great distance from the body’s center of gravity (around the belly button). This too requires a tremendous amount of core strength and control. 

Dynamic axial-loaded exercises can combine heavy loads, longer moment arms (horizontal distance between the load and working muscle) that change length or loads that are distant from the body’s center of mass. For example, barbell back squats (high load and long spinal moment arm) and overhead presses (high load and load far from the body enter of mass). As a result, pairing core exercises with these movements can lead to injury as the core muscles are responsible for stabilizing the spine under load.

moment arm - supersets
Moment Arms

Examples of dynamic axial-loaded exercises:

  • Olympic lifts and most of their variations
  • Squats, deadlifts
  • Overhead presses regardless of implement

Avoid pairing the above with:

  • Anterior core work (crunches, leg raises, and planks)
  • Posterior core work (bird dogs, spinal extension, hip extension, and hyperextension)
  • Lateral or rotational core work (side crunches, side bridges, chops, and pallof presses)

There are other exercises that transmit forces vertically through the spine, such as split squats, lunges, and step-ups. Therefore, this gives them the potential for high axial load and greater than neutral moment arms. Use discretion when pairing these with core work, especially when using a barbell. Doing so places the load farther from the body’s center of mass and lengthens the moment arm with changes in trunk angle. If you wish to pair with squats, consider using dumbbells which will rest at the athlete’s sides keeping the load close to their center of mass, decreasing the moment arm. Barbell shrugs should be addressed. They have high axial loads, have short moment arms and the load is near the body’s center of mass. Therefore, shrugs may be paired with “dynamic axial loaded exercises”.

Mismatch #3: Pairing two or more exercises that work your grip

The wrist acts isometrically in many exercises. In other words, it can often be the weak link in shrugs, deadlifts, step-ups, lunges, and split squats. Pairing exercises that further challenge the athletes grip will not only reduce performance in that exercise, but all other grip-intensive exercises in the circuit as well. Vertical and horizontal upper body pulling exercises such as pullups and rows are commonly-paired in supersets with heavy pulling exercises like deadlifts, shrugs, etc. yet, grip is often what limits performance in these supersets. Furthermore, rotator cuff movements such as lateral raises with a dumbbell are also poor matches for heavy lower and upper body pulls. Below are two examples of circuits that will be too strenuous on the grip for the average trainee.

Consider how limiting the grip is with the following circuit:

A1) Barbell deadlift (heavy grip)

A2) Pullup (moderate grip)

A3) Dumbbell shrugs (moderate grip)

Even gripping a dumbbell would be difficult for the rotator cuff in the following circuit:

A1) Barbell deadlift (heavy grip)

A2) Dumbbell lunges (heavy to moderate grip)

A3) Dumbbell shoulder external rotation from the knee (working elbow on the knee)

Above all, there are always exceptions to the above pairing mistakes. For instance, those that are very fit, highly experienced may be situations to break these rules. As well as those that are doing metabolic circuits.