Agonist Supersets: The Forgotten Muscle Building Technique (with Examples)

A lifter doing straight barbell curls in the gym.

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If you’ve been lifting weights for a while, you’re probably familiar with traditional supersets and their benefits. However, as time has gone by, I’ve found that there’s another type of superset that I’m quite fond of when I’m trying to target growth in a specific muscle for growth: agonist supersets.

Agonist supersets involve pairing two exercises that work the same muscle group back-to-back without any rest in between. They are most often used to target a specific area of weakness or a lagging muscle group and are considered a more advanced or “high-intensity” technique. Therefore, they are most suitable for lifters who have been lifting for a while.

In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of agonist supersets, the two different variations of this technique, and provide some examples of how you can incorporate them into your workouts.

What is an Agonist Superset?

An agonist superset is a lifting technique where the lifter performs two exercises back-to-back that target the same muscle group or movement pattern. This is typically done to target and bring up the strength or size of a specific muscle.

An example of this would be to perform

  • Ez bar curls (an isolation exercise) – 10-15 reps to 3-4 reps in reserve (RIR)
  • Weighted chin-ups (a compound exercise) – 5-6 reps to 2-3 RIR

The result is that the lifter will do fewer reps of chin-ups than usual, but the chin-ups will disproportionately be limited by the biceps.

This example would create a tremendous amount of muscular tension on the biceps, resulting in them being targeted specifically.

This technique is especially effective for targeting a specific muscle group, and it can be used in combination with other training techniques like drop sets and pyramid sets.

Agonist Superset Benefits

Agonist supersets are extremely useful for situations where progress on a lift has stalled due to being limited by a certain muscle group. For instance, a lifter whose squat progress has stalled due to a limitation in quadriceps strength may benefit from targeting the quadriceps specifically:

  • Goblet squat – 12-15 repetitions to 4-5 RIR, followed immediately by
  • Safety bar squat (or barbell squat variation of choice) – 5-6 repetitions to 2-3 RIR
  • Repeated for 3-5 rounds (rest period: 2-3 minutes)

It’s also useful for bringing up a lagging muscle group aesthetically. For instance, if you notice that bench press and weighted dips tend to grow your triceps better than your chest, try:

  • Dumbbell chest flyes – 12-15 repetitions to 4-5 RIR, followed immediately by
  • Low incline bench press or chest dips – 6-8 repetitions to 2-3 RIR
  • Repeated for 3-5 rounds (rest period: 1-2 minutes)

The main benefit of using agonist supersets is that they help you to maximize muscle activation in the target muscle. By working the same muscle group with two different exercises in a row, you can target all the fibers of the muscle group, leading to better growth and development.

If you’ve got a lagging muscle group or a muscle that you struggle to “feel” during your traditional sets, try this technique – many people are surprised by how well they are able to target a certain muscle using this technique.

Two Types of Agonist Supersets

A lifter doing inverted rows using a barbell.

As alluded to earlier, there are two types of agonist supersets: pre-exhaustion and post-exhaustion supersets.

Pre-Exhaustion Supersets

In a pre-exhaustion superset, you perform an isolation exercise for the target muscle group before moving on to a compound exercise that targets the same muscle group. For example, you might perform a set of dumbbell flyes before moving on to bench press. This technique pre-fatigues the targeted muscle group, forcing it to work harder during the compound exercise that follows.

Post-Exhaustion Supersets

In a post-exhaustion superset, you perform a compound exercise for the target muscle group before moving on to an isolation exercise that targets the same muscle group. For example, you might perform a set of floor press before moving on to dumbbell skullcrushers. This technique allows you to work the muscle group to exhaustion, ensuring that you’ve hit all the muscle fibers by finishing with the isolation exercise.

Who Should Use Agonist Supersets?

Agonist supersets are a great training technique for intermediate and advanced lifters who want to either develop a certain muscle (for aesthetics) or target a specific weak point (for strength).

We recommend that you have some experience lifting weights (or doing weighted calisthenics) before you begin using this technique. The reason is simple: if you’re still making progress based on simple linear progressions, then there’s no reason to switch. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.

If you’re a beginner or new to lifting weights, it makes more sense to start with traditional antagonistic supersets first (using opposing muscle groups), because they’re much more time efficient and help you get more work done per training session.

Agonist Superset Examples

Here are some examples of agonist supersets that you can incorporate into your workout routine:

  • Chest: Incline Dumbbell Flyes and Incline Dumbbell Press
  • Back: Lat Pulldowns and Seated Cable Rows
  • Biceps: Barbell Bicep Curls and Chin-ups
  • Triceps: Cable Pull-downs and Weighted Dips
  • Quads: Leg Press and Leg Extensions
  • Hamstrings: Leg curls and Stiff-legged Deadlifts

Remember, the key to performing an agonist superset is to choose two exercises that target the same muscle group and perform them back-to-back without any rest time in between. Be sure to choose weights that are appropriate for your fitness level and perform each exercise with proper form to avoid injury.

Incorporating Agonist Supersets Into Your Training Program

Agonist supersets are an effective technique for targeting specific muscle groups that need to be “brought up”.

They can easily fit into an existing program by replacing traditional sets in their respective slots. For instance, if on Thursday you’re going to do four sets of bench press, try using agonist supersets instead of your normal bench press session.

Beware – the novel stimulus from this style of superset training may make you very sore the first time you try it. Take it slow, do a few sets, assess, and decide whether to add it to your program.

If you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter who has stalled out on a compound lift or is looking to target a specific muscle for growth, agonist supersets are an excellent option for you.

Happy lifting!