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What's Better for Beginners,
Straight Sets or Supersets?

Whats Better for Beginners, Straight Sets or Supersets?

I'm writing this week's article for those of you just starting a workout program. If you're thinking about exercising, or if you've just begun, don't jump into any complicated workouts. Take it slow and spend your first 4 to 8 sessions learning proper form.

Here's the really important thing. Beginners should only do straight sets, not supersets or trisets.

*A straight set is when you perform a single exercise, then rest one to two minutes before repeating.

*A superset involves doing two exercises back-to-back without a rest between them.

*Trisets are three exercises back-to-back.

The first few times you workout, you're laying a foundation. The techniques, habits and methods you learn, will likely stay with you for years. Learn something the wrong way and it can be challenging to break the habit.

If you wait until you're more advanced to learn proper form, the combination of accumulated bad habits and heavier weights can easily cause permanent injury.

There's another, more practical reason to stick with straight sets the first few months. According to researchers at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, straight sets are more effective for beginners.

In their 2007 study, the untrained males who did straight sets gained 40% more strength on curls and 60% more strength on lateral raises than the subjects who were trisetting. Even more incredible, those beginners who used straight sets gained 70% more muscle in their arms than those using trisets.

You read that right. Straight sets were 40% to 70% more effective than supersets or trisets for building strength and muscle on beginners!

Researchers think supersets or trisets may simply be too stressful on the untrained muscles of novices. When you're a beginner, your muscles may need to take a little time between sets to recover. Be aware that may be a problem if you want to workout with a personal trainer.

Most trainers (myself included) want to get the most from a client in the smallest amount of time. That means they have you show up about 15 minutes before your scheduled session. You change into gym clothes and do 8 to 10 minutes of cardio, so you're properly warmed up. Then your trainer will generally take you through a 30 minute workout, emphasizing supersets and trisets, so you get the maximum amount of muscle stimulation in the shortest time.

When your muscles have some conditioning, that approach works wonders. Unfortunately, as I've noted above, that approach does NOT work best for beginners.

For every rule, there is an exception. This study was done with people using opposing muscle groups, like biceps and triceps. It did not cover supersets that involved completely separate muscles, like chest and then leg exercises. If you're a beginner looking to save time, supersets WILL work as long as you start with one area (like the upper body) and finish with a separate area (like the lower body).


The first six months you go to a gym, if you're on your own, plan on your workouts taking up to an hour. Read the description of how to do each exercise carefully and SLOWLY work through the motions. Shoot for 8-12 reps per set. Don't work any muscle group more than twice in one week, making sure you take at least one day off in-between to recuperate.


If you're working with a trainer, the first couple of sessions might be better if you book a full hour. Your trainer should show you what perfect form is and be teaching you how to maintain it.

Once you begin understanding how it's done, and your muscles start to respond, then you can try and pack ever more intense programs into that 30-minute timeframe. It may cost a little more initially or take a little more time to learn, but if you do it right from the beginning, the foundation you build will be strong.

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Updated 8/15/13