Drop sets are one of the oldest training techniques known to man. They are something of a training rite of passage. If you haven’t experienced the horror of your gym crush walking past, just as you finish a killer drop set lifting the pink dumbbells, you can’t really claim to be a fully-fledged member of the lifting community. One of the reasons drop sets have been around so long is because they are effective. They can help you to rapidly pack on muscle. The question is, what makes them so effective? If we know this then it is possible to devise the best strategy for implementing them in a training program. Fortunately, Brad Schoenfeld and Jozo Grgic recently conducted a meta-analysis on the research of drop sets to give us understanding of their use.
The Theory Behind Drop Sets
Hypothetically, training to failure engages the full spectrum of high threshold motor units. These fibers have been shown to be the ones with the greatest growth potential. Reaching failure at a given weight does not mean the muscle is completely fatigued. It is capable of performing additional reps at a lighter weight. It is for this reason that drop sets have been promoted as a strategy to fully fatigue muscle fibers, and cause optimal growth. Drop sets also extend the time under tension (TUT) during sets. This increases the metabolic stress of a set. Combined with increased motor unit fatigue, this represents a potentially powerful anabolic signal to the body.
Nice theory. So, what does the research say?
When analyzing drop sets, researchers found that they increase post training levels of anabolic hormones, such as, growth hormone (GH). So far so good. Unfortunately, more recent research on the effects of acute spikes in hormones after working out, indicate that these spikes have little impact on long-term muscle gain.
On a more positive note, several studies have shown drop sets deliver superior gains in muscle mass when compared to traditional straight sets. However, this finding might be confounded by the fact that the drop set groups performed more overall volume. Training volume has a dose-response relationship with hypertrophy. As such, it is impossible to determine if it was the drop sets or added volume which caused the increased hypertrophy.
In an attempt to determine if it was drop sets specifically, or greater training volumes which explained the higher levels of hypertrophy, more recent studies have looked at overall volume. For example, a recent study compared performing drop sets using a 12RM and then 3 subsequent drops of 20% versus 3x12RM with a 90 second rest. They found that the muscle’s cross-sectional area (CSA) increased by nearly twice as much in the drop set group.
Sadly, the study did not reach statistical significance. This is not an uncommon situation in training studies. Such studies often have little statistical power due to the small number of participants who complete a study. Just because a finding doesn’t reach the significance threshold does not mean it is not valid. The confidence threshold of 95% required by sports science journals does not mean these results should be ignored. In fact, this study showed an effect size which favored the drop sets for hypertrophy. It isn’t possible to make any concrete claims that drop sets are better for hypertrophy on the back of this data, but it does provide a tentative indicator that they may be a superior strategy for hypertrophy.
While fast twitch fibers have the most growth potential, slow twitch fibers should not be ignored when training for size. They can hypertrophy, but training in the traditional 6-12 rep range doesn’t supply much of a growth stimulus to these fibers. Schoenfeld and Grgic pointed out that drop sets might be an effective training protocol to maximize hypertrophy in the type I (slow twitch) fibers. Greater TUT is required to hypertrophy these fibers and drop sets are one way to achieve an extended TUT. If maximal size is your goal, then hypertrophy of all fibers should be your focus. Drop sets are one way to achieve this.
Practical Implications of Drop Sets
Drop sets allow you to fatigue and stimulate a wide spectrum of muscle fibers. This maximizes your potential for growth. As such, if you only ever train in the 6-12 rep range you are missing out on gains. Implementing drop sets into a properly periodized training plan will increase your chances of reaching your muscular potential.
One major advantage of drop sets is the time efficient training stimulus they can provide. Numerous training studies have indicated that participants performing drop sets were able to complete their workouts in under half the time of those doing more traditional set and rep schemes. Given the research to date indicates at least equal and potentially better results from drop sets when compared to standard training, it seems sensible to make use of drop sets. Especially, when time is at a premium. Schoenfeld and Grgic stated that, “robust gains in muscle mass can be achieved with limited training time by incorporating drop set training.”
Increasing Volume Over a Mesocycle
While drop sets are useful when time is limited, they can also be beneficial when used as part of your usual training schedule. It’s established that drop sets enable you to get more work done in less time. This means it is possible for you to do considerably more work in your usual training time. Given overall training volume is so closely correlated to hypertrophy, this is an important consideration for your workout design.
Once you hit a plateau it might be the lack of total volume that is holding you back. You need to progressively overload yourself through increased training volume. Time constraints might restrict your ability to add sets, reps, and the requisite rest periods to your training sessions. Instead, the use of drop sets could allow you to get much more work in the same time. Assuming you don’t spill over into the territory of overtraining, this added volume equates to one thing, more muscle.
Here is an example of how I implement drop sets in practice:
Week 1 – Normal training (around 60 minutes per session)
Week 2 – As above, but aim to increase load and/or perform more reps
Week 3 – Add one set per body part, per session
Week 4 – As above, but aim to increase load and/or perform more reps
Week 5 – Add one set per body part, per session
At this point you might have reached the maximum duration per training session you can cram into your busy diary. You still need to increase volume to keep progressively overloading the body to force it to grow. The chances of you making considerable jumps in volume through adding reps or load are now getting slimmer. Any increases you do make will be very small. Incorporating drop sets at this point can solve this issue and provide you with a powerful hypertrophy stimulus.
My favorite way to utilize drop sets in week 6 is to add a drop set to the last set of the last exercise for each muscle group, every time that muscle is trained. Then in week 7, this becomes a double drop set. Most people need a deload at this point, but if you are made of stronger stuff you could add a triple drop in week 8 to finish off the muscle. If you’ve reached week 8 then congratulations, you will have made excellent gains and deserve a well-earned deload.
Periodizing Drop Set Only Macrocycles
The periodization of your training is important to elicit maximal adaptations. Training volume is a key driver of hypertrophy and it is recommended that you structure your training in a manner which increases training volume over time. One such strategy is a reverse linear model. Within a reverse linear framework, repetitions increase as intensity (as % of 1RM) reduces. For example, phase one might focus on sets in the 6-10 range, phase two centers on 10-15 reps, and phase three on 15+ reps. This final phase could be described as a muscular endurance/metabolic stress focused phase.
Rather than just doing sets of 15+, drop sets could offer some variety and a more time efficient way to achieve high training volumes in a muscular endurance phase. Doing so also provides a nice change from the monotony of hitting straight sets. The added motivation from having a new training stimulus might spark growth through two pathways. Firstly, the physiological benefits of drop set and their contribution to achieving high TUTs, overall volumes and metabolic stress. Secondly, the psychological benefit. Namely that you might work harder with a new, exciting training protocol to sink your teeth into. Effort is often underestimated by keyboard warriors who suffer from paralysis by analysis when trying to build the “perfect” program. Sometimes, what is needed is a sensible training plan executed violently rather than an intricate one left unused.
Drop Sets Are On Your Side
The research on drop sets is very positive—they closely match a theoretical model of how to rapidly gain muscle. They appear to deliver as good as, if not better than, results as compared to traditional straight sets. Drop sets may allow you to get more work done in less time. As with any training strategy, your body will adapt to drop sets. So, it is sensible to implement them tactically into a periodized training plan to elicit continued increases in training volume and, therefore, growth. Given their time-efficient nature, drop sets are also an extremely effective training protocol when life throws you a curve ball and you need to get your training done ASAP. Armed with this knowledge you can now make sure you optimize your use of drop sets to laser focus on delivering maximal results.