Someone recently asked me to write a post about the difference between training in a straight set style (for example, three sets of eight repetitions with 60 seconds rest between each set) and training using supersets (two exercises performed back to back with no rest between them) and circuits (more than two exercises performed consecutively with no rest between them), as well as lowering rest times between sets.
You can perform supersets and circuits with opposing muscle groups (for example, supersetting bicep curls with tricep extensions) or the same muscle group (for example, squats, followed by lunges, followed by kettlebell swings).
Why I prefer straight set training
If you have read my blog for any length of time, you may know that I prefer the straight set approach to training. I believe it is more beneficial as it will allow you to get stronger (which will, in turn, change your physique and also feel incredibly rewarding) and is a less stressful form of exercise on your body.
However, you may have noticed that most workouts published online by bloggers, fitness websites and programs such as Beachbody are fairly high intensity. These workouts commonly utilise higher rep-style training, including many supersets and circuits. Rest periods are kept to a minimum, and even a 30-minute workout can leave you dripping in sweat.
Compared to the slower paced, less sweat-inducing workout style of straight sets, many people feel as though the higher intensity workouts are more efficient.
However, the effectiveness of a workout cannot be judged by how much you sweat. These high-intensity workouts are gimmicky and meant to make you feel as though you’re doing a lot, however, 90 per cent of the results someone will gain from such programs comes from the accompanying diet plan. It cannot be stressed enough that the workouts themselves are not the deciding factor in causing physical changes.
Dietary factors aside, I can guarantee that if you take two people and set one up on a high-intensity, circuit-based program and put the other on a periodised, straight sets strength-focused program, and then follow up with them both a year later, the first person will have seen minimal physical changes while the second person will look considerably different.
I have seen this time and time again with my clients: their physiques have stayed the same for years as they have been doing the wrong type of workouts – understandably so, considering this is what is promoted in 95 per cent of fitness publications – but only begin to respond when they switch to a heavier, more individualised training program.
The reason circuit training is less effective is simply because it makes progression very difficult. You can’t expect to get significantly stronger when you are performing as many as eight to ten exercises in a row with minimal rest, and tiring yourself out. Your body will not change unless it is regularly presented with a new stimulus. The easiest way to ensure this is by increasing the weight you are lifting – and this is where straight sets come into play, as they allow you adequate time in between each set to recover and attack each set with maximal strength.
Beginners can get away with performing more supersets, as they are simply not lifting as heavy weights and will thereby recover faster. It can also help to maintain their motivation and interest, as the workouts will be faster. Complete beginners should stick with straight sets until their form is perfect, however.
How to incorporate supersets and circuits
All of the above said, I do appreciate that some people enjoy getting their heart rate up and sweating out some frustrations. It’s totally fine to incorporate some supersets into each workout (however, think one or two pairs of supersets at most, rather than an entire workout based around supersets), or to add in two or three circuits to your regime each week. Don’t use supersets or circuits for the main lifts (squat, deadlift, bench and overhead press).
The important thing to understand is that these types of workouts should be considered more as cardio than strength training. High-intensity workouts release a greater amount of cortisol into your blood stream, which can actually backfire and make fat loss more difficult, especially if you are dealing with a hormonal condition or some kind of metabolic damage.
As I have said many times, if your main goal is to improve your physique and become a better, badder version of yourself, strength training should make up the base of your exercise regime. High-intensity workouts should be seen as mere accessories to your heavy lifting regime, like the icing on a delicious and magical cake designed to help you drop body fat. Many people prefer to do circuits as their cardio, instead of traditional forms such as running on a treadmill.
So, in conclusion, you should focus on following a heavier, “calmer” style of workout. Supersets and circuits can be great tools to keep things exciting and indeed burn more calories, however, they should not be the base of your workout. Ultimately, the most important thing is training smarter and following a diet which is targeted towards your needs. That is where your results will come from.
Do you incorporate supersets and circuits into your training?