Are we doing drop sets wrong?
There is a growing collection of literature on the advantages and disadvantages of drop sets. Although there are conflicting studies in reference to hypertrophy and strength associated with drop sets, there is also a lack of consensus on exactly how to most effectively execute a drop set. A review of the literature can, nonetheless, help develop recommendations on how to put science into practice to maximize your workouts.
A 2017 study by Fink et al. compared triceps hypertrophy in two groups, one using drop sets and one conventional sets. The study showed that, when volume was equal, the drop set group had greater muscle growth and less time per workout. There are two other studies that showed a similar trend but were not statistically significant.
Strength improvement measurements have also been examined comparing drop sets and traditional sets in the same group of studies. The consensus here is that traditional sets are more effective at developing progressive strength.
So the debate should be whether or not there is a place in the weightlifter’s usual workout regimen for drop sets. We know that for efficiency, drop sets can be great time-savers. For those chasing a “pump,” drop sets certainly deliver. But what about using drop sets as part of the trusted schedule of progressive overload that is aimed at muscle growth and strength. I believe it is a very valuable tool when we look at the forrest and not the trees.
There are a number of benefits that can be incorporated into the big picture of the progressive lifter. First, it is an excellent solution for “mixing up the workout.” In a video about gaining mass, Arnold Schwarzenegger describes how he would “shock the body” when it hit a wall from repetitive training habits. His description includes a form of drop sets as a solution to this plateau. Used as a type of variation of training, drop sets allow the lifter to continually introduce different spins on training.
There is some consensus about the likelihood that hypertrophy is a benefit of drop sets. They can be cycled with a traditional group of sets to have the best of both worlds. Increasing time under tension and maximizing muscle fatigue are definite benefits was well.
Which brings us to the real basis of this discussion. Are we doing drop sets right? Ozaki et al. defined drop sets in their study as “a single high-load (SDS) set with additional drop sets descending to a low-load.” Fink used a protocol of one heavy set of 12 rep max and then immediately went to failure with 2 drop sets using lighter weight.
The goal of drop sets should be to match the traditional sets and then add the drop sets. I know, that would constitute a different overall volume. Exactly. That’s the point. If we take a leap of faith and just accept that there’s benefit in a workout structured this way, then drop sets can be a game-changing addition.
So, use the schedule below to try some variation through drop sets and be the judge yourself.
Choose an appropriate lift such as dumbbell bench, curls or triceps pushdown. Use a weight that will allow number of reps with 1-2 reps in reserve.
Set Example wt. # of reps
Set 1 45lbs 10-12 reps
Set 2 55lbs 8-10 reps
Set 3 60lbs 6-8 reps
Set 4 45lbs max reps
Immediate drop set 30lbs max reps
Use this structure for one or two body parts in a workout but avoid drop sets for that body part again for 72 hrs. Be careful not to overwork and plan occasional reload weeks.