Designing Strength and Cardio Supersets" /> Strength and Cardio Supersets

Strength and Cardio Supersets

by Amy Ashmore, PhD on May 25, 2011

Alternating strength sets with time on cardiovascular equipment is a popular way to train clients. When designed and executed correctly, this strategy can very effectively overload muscles, producing maximum results in minimum time.

Designing Strength and Cardio Supersets

Strength and cardio supersets are a hybrid form of exhaustion supersets. A typical exhaustion superset alternates an isolated exercise (which involves only one joint and a specific muscle group) with a compound exercise (which involves one or more joints or muscle groups) for the same muscle group. An example of an exhaustion superset for the quadriceps is leg extensions (isolated) alternating with squats (compound).

In the case of strength and cardio supersets, the work focuses on the same muscle group for both, but it varies the pattern of activation. The strength set can use either a compound exercise like a lunge or an isolated exercise like a lying-down leg curl. Whether to use a compound exercise rather than an isolated exercise depends on the client’s goals and fitness level.

The three most common types of cardiovascular equipment to use during strength and cardio supersets are steps, bikes, and treadmills or ellipticals. The key to designing effective supersets is to choose strength exercises that most closely match the muscles used during the cardiovascular mode.

Session Design for Individual Clients

In strength and cardio supersets, base the design of each session on the client’s goals and fitness level. Below are three types of superset options; they include a strength set alternating with high-intensity intervals, endurance training or active recovery.

High-Intensity Intervals. A high-intensity workout is great for cardiovascular fitness and weight loss. The high-intensity exercise recruits fast-twitch (FT) muscle fibers, thereby increasing the total workload. A high-intensity interval should be thought of as a burst of speed or power (e.g., a 30-second sprint on the treadmill). A good rule of thumb is that the exerciser should not be able to maintain the intensity for longer than 2 minutes. If an interval can be maintained for longer than 2 minutes, the intensity is not high enough.

High-intensity exercise is appropriate for intermediate to advanced clients only. The decision to include intervals is entirely at the trainer’s discretion, based on the individual client’s fitness level. With high-intensity training it is important to keep clients standing during strength sets if they have an elevated heart rate after the cardio set, and always to permit a brief recovery period before transitioning to the strength set.

Endurance Training. Endurance training is good for clients who want or need sustained heart rate training. Low- to moderate-intensity cardio exercise will engage the slow-twitch (ST) muscle fibers. Clients can increase the overall intensity of the workout by supersetting strength sets and using heavier weight to recruit FT fibers.

Active Recovery. Active recovery is a great option for deconditioned clients and special populations. These clients can use the time on the cardio machine to recover from the strength set without actually resting. Appropriate cardio modes for this purpose are cycling or walking. Intensity should remain low.

Safety Considerations

Use exhaustion supersets in moderation. Repeated use of the same muscles and/or joints in the same pattern can lead to overuse injuries. Additionally, neuromotor fatigue during a session can become a factor and lead to injury. Therefore, be sure to adjust the superset paradigm for novice exercisers or persons for whom advanced training techniques may be contraindicated. One adaptation option is to include strength exercises that work a different muscle group than the one used in the cardio exercise. For example, alternate an upper-body exercise with cardio. When the client is fit enough for isolated core work, core exercises may be substituted for the strength set. You can pair these with sustained cardio work in which the core is required for balance.

For more information, including a discussion of the muscles used during stepping, cycling and walking (treadmill and elliptical exercise), please see “Strength and Cardio Supersets” in the online IDEA Library or in the April 2011 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

IDEA Fit Tips, Volume 9, Issue 6

© 2011 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Amy Ashmore, PhD

Amy Ashmore, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Amy Ashmore, PhD, holds a doctorate in kinesiology from the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at amy


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  • Amanda Kelly

    well I guess that depends on what her clients are training for. Yes, if training for a long run or just wanting to build cardiovascular endurance then stick with endurance training, but if weight loss or training for high intensity is needed then stick w/ the hight intensity bouts. For example: Client is running a race w/sprints and obstacles then I would use the High Intensity. It all depends on the goal of your client and the reason for the training.
    Commented Jun 14, 2011
  • Timothy Garbett

    The high intensity cardio intervals do not significantly work the cardiovascular system; the high intensity cardio intervals are primarily concerned with the anaerobic glycolytic energy system and are not significantly working the aerobic energy system. When improving one's cardiovascular fitness, one has to incorporate the utilization of a significant amount of the aerobic energy system. In order to significantly work the cardiovascular system with these supersets, do the one under endurance training. (I am an ACSM Health Fitness Specialist.)
    Commented Jun 11, 2011
  • Erica Horton

    I love this form of training! As a trainer who works in a small gym, this type of workout utilizes the space well, while giving my clients a great session.
    Commented Jun 10, 2011

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