Drop sets are a popular training technique among strength athletes. But how effective is it really? Does new research provide an answer?
1. With drop sets, after a set you reduce the weight by 10 to 30 percent and immediately do another set of reps. Limit training volume to three drops.
2. An advantage of dropsets is the time savings, because you hardly rest between sets. Ideal for gym goers with little time.
3. In addition, like supersets, drop sets may provide ‘extra’ muscle growth, namely because they cause more metabolic stress than traditional sets. As a result, they may stimulate more sarcoplasmic muscle growth. This is the type of muscle growth associated with the “pump,” where you keep your muscles under tension for an extended period of time. More research is needed to confirm this potential benefit of dropsets.
4. If you are a beginner and have enough time to train, focus on traditional sets. At a later stage you can add some metabolic techniques, such as dropsets.
WHAT ARE SETS?
In strength sports you work with sets: series of repetitions until you (almost) can no longer. That means training to (almost) muscle failure. The most common form of this is that you finish your set at roughly two reps before muscle failure. So two reps remain ‘in the tank’, also known as 2 RIR (Reps In Reserve). Training with RIR means that you train hard, but don’t push yourself too hard. The latter prevents unnecessary effort and allows you to complete more productive sets (training volume). On balance, that produces more muscle growth than training to complete muscle failure.
By training to near muscle failure you create mechanical tension, the main mechanism behind muscle growth. The right amount of mechanical tension gives a growth stimulus: it triggers muscle protein synthesis.
You should take sufficient rest between sets: 2 to 5 minutes, depending on your goal and the type of exercise.
WHAT ARE DROP SETS?
Just because you’ve approached or reached muscle failure doesn’t mean your muscles can’t do any more work. In fact, if you immediately continue with a lower weight, you can complete an entire next set. And then even a third set and so on.
That’s the principle of drop sets (also called strip sets): After reaching near-failure, drop the weight by 10 to 30 percent and immediately do another set of reps, again to near-failure. You hardly rest between the (drop) sets: you drop the weight and grab the next. Or you adjust the pen.
With drop sets you also create mechanical tension, although you have to sacrifice some repetitions and/or weight. But because you do several sets immediately after each other, you also cause a ‘pump’ in your muscles. That’s a sign of metabolic stress, another mechanism behind muscle growth. The pump is the phenomenon of sending more and more blood, oxygen and nutrients to the trained area. This causes muscles to swell, which immediately makes you look a lot fuller.
WHY DROP SETS?
Sounds interesting, but what are the benefits of dropsets? To answer that question, we distinguish between two types of muscle growth: myofibrillar muscle growth and sarcoplasmic muscle growth. Simply put, myofibrillar muscle growth is muscle growth due to mechanical stress and sarcoplasmic growth is mainly due to metabolic stress.
With dropsets, the mechanical tension from the second set is less than when you do regular sets, with rest in between. However, the metabolic stress is greater, as you will notice at the pump. This implies that dropsets are a way to achieve (extra) sarcoplasmic muscle growth. In other words, muscle growth that you ‘miss out’ if you only do traditional sets. This type of muscle growth increases muscle volume, but does not increase size or number of fibers, so does not result in improved performance.
Is the foregoing also confirmed by science? To answer that question, muscle growth professor Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues dove into the scientific literature. The yield is a meta-analysis (pdf) of five studies. The result: traditional sets and drop sets lead to the same amounts of muscle strength and muscle growth, with equal training volume (ie the same number of sets). In the conclusion we read:
Based on current data, it appears that drop sets have a similar effect on muscle strength and hypertrophy as traditional sets.
As a side note from Schoenfeld:
While the findings are interesting, only five studies met the inclusion criteria. This does not give us much guidance at the moment. I would consider the results preliminary and it highlights the need to do more research on the topic so we can draw stronger conclusions about potential benefits/disadvantages.
We’d like to add that in a short time frame (6 to 8 weeks) it is difficult to determine whether one training method is better than the other. In addition, no distinction is made between sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar muscle growth.
‘Our’ conclusion is that both training protocols can help you achieve your goal – optimal muscle growth. But you don’t have to choose: you can incorporate both methods into your training program. In principle, do traditional sets for optimal myofibrillar muscle growth and add metabolic training (by means of drop sets, but also supersets and rest-pause sets, for example ) at a somewhat later stage in your training career, in order to stimulate more sarcoplasmic muscle growth.
It is striking that dropsets, according to the meta-analysis, also have a similar effect on muscle strength. This while you use less heavy weights with drop sets than with traditional sets.
Mind you, we write this article from a bodybuilding point of view, so with muscle growth as the main objective. Metabolic training is also beneficial for fat loss, fitness and muscle endurance. However, exercising too much metabolically seems unfavorable for muscle growth, just as you shouldn’t do too much cardio either.
The makers of the meta-analysis agree convincingly on another advantage: dropsets save you time. After all, you do several sets immediately after each other, while with traditional training you build in at least one to two minutes of rest between sets. In this article you will learn in which six ways you can reduce your training time – drop sets are one of them.
For example, studies from 2017 and 2018 show that drop sets (5 sets with 10% weight reduction each time) are just as effective as regular sets (3 sets to failure with 90 seconds of rest between sets). But individuals using dropsets completed each training session in less than a third of the time as the traditional training group!
Some practical tips:
- Limit training volume to three drops. More drops can result in junk volume;
- Reduce the weight with each drop by 10-30% of the training weight;
- Not every exercise lends itself to ‘dropping’ weights. In the bench press, for example, a true drop set without training partners who quickly take weight off the bar is practically impossible. This becomes a lot easier with dumbbells, namely by quickly changing dumbbells. However, drop sets are best suited for equipment or cable exercises;
- Use minimal (actually none) rest intervals between each drop. No more than the time it takes you to change weight. With devices, this is usually just a matter of flipping a pen;
- Train in the range of 6 to 15 repetitions;
- Do not train your sets (including the ‘follow-up’ sets) to muscle failure, but use 2-3 RIR for compound exercises and 1-2 RIR for isolation exercises.
CONCLUSION AND ADVICE
With drop sets, you reduce the weight by 10 to 30 percent after a set and immediately do another set of reps. Limit training volume to three drops.
An advantage of dropsets is the time savings, because you hardly rest between sets. Ideal for gym goers with little time.
In addition, like supersets, dropsets may provide ‘extra’ muscle growth, namely because they cause more metabolic stress than traditional sets. As a result, they may stimulate more sarcoplasmic muscle growth. This is the type of muscle growth associated with the “pump,” where you keep your muscles under tension for an extended period of time. More research is needed to confirm this potential benefit of dropsets.
If you are a beginner and have enough time to train, focus on traditional sets. At a later stage you can add some metabolic techniques, such as dropsets.
Originally published March 1, 2018, revised March 13, 2023.