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.
The key to effective superset workouts is specificity. The specificity principle states that the muscles worked during an exercise will respond according to the specific training demands. When the specificity principle is applied to strength and cardio supersets, the same muscles must be used during both sets. The muscles will respond to the unique demands of each mode of exercise and will increase the total work.
The specificity principle is easy to see from a training perspective, but it can be difficult to apply in fitness settings. This is because the client’s health-related goals are not always easy to identify (Shortliffe & Jamnik 2010). The challenges that personal trainers face are to help clients define their long-term goals and then to determine a training program to reach those goals. Strength and cardio supersets target specific muscles yet are basic enough to contribute to attaining general health–related goals.
For workouts to be effective, muscles must be overloaded. They must be subjected to mechanical stress (beyond the activities of daily living) that forces them to respond physiologically. The most common ways to overload muscles are to increase the weight that a muscle must lift and to increase the speed of the exercise.
But another way to overload muscles within a session is to apply different movements to the same muscles. This varies the pattern of muscle activation, recruiting different fibers within the same muscle. The result is that more of the muscle is worked.
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 to alternate leg extensions (isolated) 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. Each of these three types is characterized by a unique movement pattern, as noted below. Although the movements are all similar to one another, each one targets different muscles. The key to designing effective supersets is to choose strength exercises that most closely match the muscles used during the cardiovascular mode.
Steps and stair climbers use a simple step pattern that is hip flexion followed by hip extension. The primary muscles used to step are rectus femoris, iliacus, psoas major, sartorius, hamstrings and gluteus maximus.
The rectus femoris (RF) is the primary large muscle responsible for hip flexion. Therefore, an effective but high-intensity session would target the RF during both sets. A suggested isolated exercise to use is seated knee extensions. Compound exercises that would work well with stepping include any squat variation (front, standard, hack or power), lunges and dead lifts. It is important to note that although the RF is activated during these suggested compound exercises, it is acting as a knee extensor—as opposed to a hip flexor, as it does during stepping.
The gluteus maximus (Gmax) is the primary large muscle responsible for hip extension. An isolated exercise that targets the Gmax and complements stepping would be a prone hip extension. When you’re selecting a Gmax compound exercise, remember that the Gmax is most effective when the hip starts at a flexed position and moves to full extension, as in a squat or a dead lift. However, other compound exercises may be used, including those mentioned above for the RF, along with stiff-legged dead lifts and good mornings. But for activating the Gmax, these will be less effective than a squat or a dead lift.
Cycling is knee extension with hip extension. The movement is produced primarily by contraction of the quadriceps and hamstring muscles. The Gmax is also involved in hip extension, but to a lesser degree. The primary muscles used to cycle are quadriceps, hamstrings and Gmax.
Cycling is a simple movement. Use it to design simple or low-intensity supersets. Pair cycling with basic isolation exercises such as knee extensions. However, add variety to that superset by asking clients to rotate the leg outward (toes in) from the hip to isolate the vastus lateralis or inward (toes out) to isolate the vastus medialis. A unique and slightly more advanced compound exercise to pair with cycling is the angled leg press. This targets both the knee extensors and the hip extensors.
Treadmills and Ellipticals
Treadmills and ellipticals use a walking pattern. In its most simplified analysis, walking is spine, hip and knee flexion and extension. Using a treadmill is true walking. An elliptical simulates walking, but the biomechanics of an elliptical motion differ slightly from those of walking. An elliptical motion has been shown to require greater spine, hip and knee flexion than treadmill walking does (Burnfield et al. 2010). The same study showed that compared with treadmill walking, elliptical training increased Gmax muscle activity while decreasing hamstring activity. The primary muscles used for walking are tensor fasciae latae, sartorius, pectineus, iliopsoas, adductor longus, hamstrings, quadriceps and gluteus maximus and medius.
Of the three modes of cardio training mentioned here, ellipticals and treadmills use the most muscles. This creates numerous superset options. However, because the adductors are activated during walking, but not during the other modes, pairing adductor strength sets with the treadmill or elliptical would be a good way to target the adductors. Seated adduction is an excellent isolation exercise; a compound exercise like plié squats (toes turned out) is also a good choice.
Minor differences in muscle activation between treadmills and ellipticals create unique superset options. Because Gmax activity is greater during elliptical training, pair the elliptical with an isolated exercise like the cable kickback. Since hamstring activity is greater during walking, use the treadmill in conjunction with an isolated exercise such as standing cable or prone hamstring curls against manual resistance.
Exhaustion supersets should be used 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 could become a factor and lead to injury. Therefore, it is recommended that you adjust the superset paradigm for novice exercisers or persons for whom advanced training techniques may be contraindicated. Include strength exercises that use a different muscle group than is used in the cardio exercise. For example, alternate an upper-body exercise with cardio. Core exercises may be substituted for the strength set when the client is fit enough for isolated core work. These could be paired with sustained cardio work in which the core is required for balance.
Another critical safety consideration is joint loading during cardio exercise. While ellipticals have the advantage of no impact, Lu, Chien and Chen (2007) showed that knee loading was greater during elliptical training than during treadmill walking. Additionally, in a recent study (Turner et al. 2010) participants reported increased hip discomfort during exercise on an elliptical trainer versus exercise on a treadmill. Take joint loading into consideration, and be careful not to overuse any one joint or action during a session. One final consideration when designing supersets using the elliptical versus treadmill walking is to keep the greater spine, hip and knee flexion (Burnfield et al. 2010) in mind. To balance out joint flexion and extension, incorporate exercises that use full ranges of motion.
Strength and cardio supersets are an easy and fun way to maximize results in minimum time. The options for pairing strength and cardio exercises are unlimited. The variety afforded by supersetting makes fitness exciting for clients and gives trainers choices where time, injury and condition might otherwise have limited them.
Lu, T.W., Chien, H.L., & Chen, H.L. 2007. Joint loading in the lower extremities during elliptical exercise. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39 (9), 1651–58.
Shortliffe, C., & Jamnik, V. 2010. Applying the principle of specificity in health-related fittness settings. The Health & Fitness Journal of Canada, 3 (1), 25–30.
Turner, M.J., et al. 2010. A comparison of physiologic and physical discomfort responses between exercise modalities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24 (3), 796–803.