January 5, 2014

Super Sets, And A Little Trick To Increase Size And Strength (By Training Biceps or Hamstrings First!)

What A Super Set Is

Two sets performed in succession for either the same muscle group, opposing/antagonist muscle groups, or unrelated muscle groups, is referred to as a ‘super set’.

The Three Ways To Practically Apply Super Sets

If the goal is to recruit and fatigue as many motor units as possible, with the purpose of building muscle, performing a super set for the same muscle group is the most appropriate way to go.

If the goal is to pump as much blood to a given area (the arms or legs in most cases) for hypertrophic purposes, or to maximize performance and minimize recovery, than performing a super set for opposing/antagonistic muscle groups is the most appropriate way to go. The reason being is that when one muscle group is acutely fatigued, the opposing muscle group will receive the added benefit of a greater level of net motor unit recruitment during the succeeding set.

If the goal is to improve conditioning and/or body composition, or direct more volume to a lagging bodypart, performing a super set for unrelated muscle groups is the most appropriate way to go. Generally these types of super sets involve fairly large muscle groups, unless the goal is to bring up a lagging smaller bodypart, to ensure the body is exposed to as much tension as possible so that caloric expenditure and cardiovascular conditioning is maximized.

As always, your goal should dictate just what type of super set would be best for you. There is no shortage of material out there about the benefits of super sets, and there are countless options in which an effective super set can be done, but there is one principle that has remained under the radar that is worth mentioning, and that is – FLEXION before EXTENSION.

Flexion Before Extension

This principle is not necessarily limited to ‘super sets’ either, as you can choose to perform all your flexion movements, before your extension movements, or in super set fashion, depending on your routine.

Performing flexion movements, meaning bicep or hamstring work before triceps/pressing or quad work has some very promising benefits for those training for both hypertrophy and strength development.

Flexion Before Extension For Strength

When training for strength, even the smallest little adjustments or tweaks can have a profound impact on performance. Stability is paramount when the goal is to lift as heavy as you can, as the more stable you are, the more force you will be able to generate, and thus the more weight you can lift. The opposite is true as you lose stability, which is why training on an unstable surface makes little to no sense. By performing your flexion movements prior to your extension movements you increase intrinsic stability which can dramatically improve performance, and here’s how.

Squats, and bench presses, are arguably the top two compound extension movements, to which all strength based programs are built around. When performing the eccentric (lowering) portion of the rep for these movements (for all movements, really), you want to have as much control as possible, so that you have the most stable ‘platform’ to press off of when you reach the end of the range of motion and begin to reverse the movement. If the biceps or hamstrings are fatigued, or better yet, pumped, the platform you will be lowering to, will be in a much more stable position, as the swelling in the hamstrings or biceps will aid in stabilizing the elbows or knees.

This antagonistic swelling effect will only work for (primarily compound) extension movements (presses, squats, leg presses, etc.). The reason is, as the knee or elbow joint flexes, the forearm or calf will press against the pumped bicep or hamstring, and this will apply pressure that will cushion the joint and oppose it from flexing further, which assists in reversing the movement. The same effect cannot be had by pumping the triceps, or quads, and then performing compound flexion movements.

Depending on your training experience, and how well you know your body, you may or may not want to apply this principle when training for strength, as the fatigued muscle group could be more susceptible to injury if you are lifting extremely heavy weights. Then again, it may in fact enable you to lift more than you normally would be able to because of the effect it has, so practice this technique first, and go from there. By no means would it be wise to pump the hell out of your hamstrings before trying to be a hero and attempting to break a personal squat record if you’ve not at least played around with this technique beforehand. On the flip side, I’d argue that the risk of a bicep injury during a record breaking bench press attempt is not very likely (especially in relation to a hamstring injury during a squat record attempt), but then again, anything can happen.

Flexion Before Extension For Size

When training for size, the goal is to recruit and fatigue as many motor units as humanly possible, deplete as much glycogen from the muscle as humanly possible, and stretch the surrounding connective tissue which envelopes the muscles as much as humanly possible to facilitate the most amount of growth to occur (providing you do not overwork your body’s ability to recover, and give it the rest and nutrition it needs to grow). While super sets can be very effective at accomplishing all of the above, they are especially effective when performed in a flexion before extension manner due to the effect on stretching the connective tissue, and here’s how.

When you perform a compound extension movement, the hamstrings and biceps are stretched further and further, under load, as the elbow and knee go into full extension (this works with isolation movements as well). The bigger the biceps or hamstrings are, the more outward pressure that will be applied to the surrounding fascia as the knee or elbow goes into extension. This is magnified when the hamstrings or biceps are pumped, and you place a loaded stretch upon them by performing an extension movement, resulting in an increase of protein synthesis, as well as increased sensitivity of IGF-1 receptors.

This effect will not be as great with extension movements prior to flexion movements, as the amount of elbow or knee joint flexion is greatly limited by the size of one’s biceps or hamstrings, whereas the size of one’s quads or triceps will not limit the degree to which the knee or elbow can extend and stretch the hamstrings or biceps under load. Basically, the elbow and knee will rarely have a problem fully extending and placing a loaded stretch upon the biceps or hamstrings, regardless of who you are, but the degree of flexion in your knee or elbow can be greatly limited, the bigger you are, or more pumped you get.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Regardless of whether you are training for strength or muscle mass, performing a flexion movement prior to a compound extension movement, in either a super set fashion (A1 + A2), or standard fashion (A, B), may be the missing piece to the puzzle for you.

If training for strength, you may want to get your flexion movement out of the way first, so that you can focus entirely at the task at hand, instead of divide your attention back and forth between two movements, even if there’s a greater level of net motor unit recruitment. If so, the beginning of a workout may look like this:

A)   Leg Curl 5 X 8, 45-60 seconds rest
B)   Squats 6 X 2-4, 2-3 minutes rest

If training for muscle mass, you may want to pair a flexion movement with an extension movement, so that you can drive as much blood to the area as possible, and create as much outward pressure on the connective tissue around the circumference of the upper arm or thigh, as possible, so that the cells perceive the swelling as a threat to their integrity, to which they’ll respond to by releasing an abundance of growth factors. If so, the beginning of a workout may look like this:

A1) Any Bicep Curl 3 X 15-20, as little rest as possible
A2) Close-Grip Bench Press or Dips 3 X 12-15, 30-45 seconds rest
B1) Any Bicep Curl 3 X 15-20, as little rest as possible
B2) Pressdown 3 X 15-20, 30-45 seconds rest

When Working Biceps Before Pressing Is A Bad Idea

Like everything, there are pro’s and con’s to this principle, and the major drawback from performing flexion before extension would be if someone has a history of shoulder issues. Because the shoulder joint has a limited amount of space for all the muscles and nerves that pass through it, pumping the biceps may actually decrease the amount of space within the joint and could cause impingement, during the subsequent compound extension movement. If you deal with shoulder pain, you may want to avoid performing flexion movements before compound extension movements, but as with anything, try it out first. Who knows, maybe the added stability from a pumped up bicep passing through the small shoulder joint will decrease the amount of pain felt, by way of warming up the joint which could have a ‘lubricating’ effect.

If you have any questions about how you can implement any of the content outlined throughout this article into a routine, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).


  1. Will deadlifts before front squat be good?

    1. First question would be, define 'good'?

      Before you answer though, I'll assume, as it relates to the content in the article presented, that 'good' means, would it be beneficial to use deadlifts to pump the hamstrings, prior to performing front squats (which I assume you are doing to increase strength levels, or build your legs). Should I be right in my assumption, the short answer would be, yes, they would be 'good'.

      However, it comes down to your goal, and also the amount of work you are doing in terms of deadlifts. If you are performing a high volume of deads, then it could potentially be dangerous as a result of fatigue, depending on how many reps you intend to perform with your front squats. The more reps you intend to perform, the more fatigue will become a limiting factor. So those are some things that also ought to be considered, when trying to determine if deadlifts before front squats is 'good'. Hope that helps!