Antagonist Supersets: a Time-Saving Way to Train

With antagonist supersets you're working two opposing muscle groups back-to-back.

With antagonist supersets, you’re working two opposing muscle groups back-to-back.

Most of us lead busy lives. As such, you want to pack as much impact into each training session as possible – get the most done in the least amount of time. Right? You already know high-intensity interval training torches calories and fat in the least amount of time, but you can get more done in less time when you strength train too. One way to do this is with antagonist supersets.

You’ve heard about supersets where you do two resistance exercises in a row with little or no rest between each exercise.  One way to do this is to choose two exercises that work the same muscle group and do them back-to-back. An example would be biceps curls followed by hammer curls. The disadvantage of this approach is the fatigue your muscle incurs due to the first set, so when you proceed to the second set, you can’t do as many reps because you’re working the same muscle groups again. One way around this is to do antagonist supersets, a technique that works opposing muscle groups in succession with no rest.

 The Principle of Antagonist Supersets

Antagonist supersets are built around the same protocol as any superset – performing two exercises in a row without resting. The difference is with antagonist supersets, you’re working two opposing muscle groups back-to-back. Examples of opposing muscle groups are biceps and triceps, chest and back or quadriceps and hamstrings. So you might do biceps curls followed by a set of triceps kickbacks, bench press followed by bent-over rows or leg extension followed by leg curls, to name a few. Once completing both exercises in the superset, you’ve earned a minute of rest before moving to the next opposing superset in the series.

How are Antagonist Supersets a timesaver? You’re not resting between each exercise in a superset but moving immediately to the opposing exercise. You don’t really need to rest because you’re working an antagonist muscle group rather than the same one again. While you’re doing one exercise, the opposing muscle group is resting, so a rest period is already built in. With this approach, you can pack more training into the same period of time and shave a significant amount of time off of your routine – perfect for days where you have less time to train.

Antagonist supersets where you work opposing muscle groups can also improve the quality of your lifts by allowing you to do more volume. How so? It all has to do with reciprocal inhibition.  At the point where your muscles meet your tendons lay Golgi tendon organs. It’s their job to monitor how much force or tension a particular muscle is generating. If the muscle is producing too much tension, the Golgi tendon organ sends nerve signals to the brain telling it to relax the muscle as a way to protect the muscle and tendon from injury. It essentially serves as an emergency release button. Golgi tendon organs are sensitive to both muscle tension and the rate at which a muscle develops tension.

What do Golgi tendon organs have to do with antagonistic training? When you do a set of biceps curls, the Golgi tendon organs in the opposing muscle group, the triceps, will relax more than if you hadn’t done biceps curls. So, when you work the triceps, the Golgi tendon organs put up less resistance. As a result, you may be able to use a heavier weight or do a greater volume than if you hadn’t worked the biceps immediately before. Over time, greater work output can lead to more muscle hypertrophy and strength. Gotta love that!

 Greater Metabolic Benefits and Calorie Burn with Antagonist Supersets

Antagonist supersets have other benefits as well. During traditional weight training, there’s a tendency to stand around too much between sets, taking a longer than expected rest period. Unless you happen to time yourself, which many people don’t, you may be resting too long. Antagonistic sets keep you moving. The lack of rest creates more of a metabolic effect so you burn more calories and fat than with a traditional approach to training where you do a set, rest, do another set, rest, etc.

According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, antagonist supersets boost calorie burn by 25% relative to traditional resistance sets with rest periods in-between. You also burn more calories after the workout is over due to EPOC or the after-burn effect.

Break Through a Plateau with Antagonist Supersets

By mixing things up and exposing your muscles to a different stimulus, Antagonist Supersets can help you break through a training plateau. We all know how frustrating plateaus can be and that’s why you can’t use the same training methodology all the time. To keep progressing you have to vary the stimuli you place on your muscles, at least once you’re more advanced. When you first begin training, it’s better to stick to basic training with progressive overload so you get the necessary neurological and muscle adaptations that allow you to do the movements with good form. Only after you’ve reached a certain level of strength and conditioning do you want to “mix things up” or try more advanced techniques like supersets.

The Bottom Line

Now you know how antagonist supersets can help you build a better physique. It may allow you to do more total volume due to relaxation of the Golgi tendon input and it burns more total calories than traditional resistance sets. Finally, it’s a timesaving way to train when you need to condense a lot of training into a short period of time. It’s one more way to challenge your muscles and get better results. Why not give it a try?



Neuroscience. Second edition. Purves D, Augustine GJ, Fitzpatrick D, et al., editors. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2001.

Men’s Health. “The MH Guide to Supersets”

J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1043-51. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d3e993.

“Reciprocal Superset Training Burns More Calories” Len Kravitz, Ph.D.

On Fitness. September/October 2015. “Antagonistic Supersetting”


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