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Drop Sets – Strength, Hypertrophy, or What?

Jaime Alnassim

Online Coaching | Strength & Conditioning

May 5, 2020

If you’re like me when you started off lifting you had a friend tell you that “we should do a drop set today”. What is this drop set? They should hardcore… A drop sets involve performing a set to near failure with a given weight (load) and then immediately reducing the load and continuing to train until total failure. These are normally the same muscle or muscle group. Some common drop sets you’ll see in the gym are bench press heavy to lightweight or the famous dumbbell bench press to dumbbell flies. Both are ‘super hardcore’ in their own ways. After your first drop set, you will experience a pump in your muscles like never before. You might be thinking you found the security to getting huge like the IFBB monsters. This is a touchy topic for me because I love and hate drop sets, I do believe they can be used right but I have also seen too many people overuse them. When your form breaks down, even during a drop set, you are not getting the same benefits anymore. 

“Crescent Pyramid and Drop Sets … do not promote greater gains in strength, muscle hypertrophy and changes in muscle architecture compared to traditional resistance training.”

This is a hard line to look at. And it comes from a study too. Let’s break this down. The Crescent Pyramid was done at 3 to 5 sets with 6-15 repetitions at 65-85% of 1 RM (rep max) and the Drop Sets were 3 to 5 sets with at 50 to 75% of 1 RM. Remember a drop set has no set reps, so each set is as many reps as possible. Using the rep range of 6-15 reps in the Crescent Pyramid seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me but They did find that between the two styles of training, the end results were very similar in strength and hypertrophy. 

“Superior muscle gains might be achieved with a single set of Drop Set compared to 3 sets of conventional Resistance Training, probably due to higher stress experienced in the Drop Setprotocol.”2

This line is very powerful… Keep in mind what they are talking about. One set of Drop Sets is better for muscle size compared to three sets of normal training. You’ll see people use drop sets as a burn out at the end of their sets, to get the last of the muscle. However, this study is talking about in order to get the most out of them you can use them as the training. Plus you will be able to gain more size. 

“Drop sets … have the potential to increase total work completed per unit of time. The resultant fatigue induced has the potential to act as a stimulus for structural adaptations. Thus, increases in muscle hypertrophy and maximal strength may be observed following these methods, although the present body of evidence suggests that they are no more superior than traditional training methods as long as training volume is equated and progressive overload is present.”3

This study brings a massive finding. That is, drop sets are superior when you are short on time. Let’s say you only have 30 minutes to workout. Drop sets might be the way to go. But if you are able to get your normal hour with the normal style of training and rest times, with “equated and progressive overload is present” to that of the drop set workout. The two workouts will give very similar results. 

This is all a lot to take in and might be for or against what you thought of drop sets. Or maybe now you can try them for the first time when a smarter way to program them. The hardest part when designing your own programs is trying to find a way to use the older time tested methods but in a smarter modern approach. If the big guy who benches 250kg says he does “x” then it must work, right? Sometimes yes and no… there are a lot of options. What we know about drop sets now can be used in a smarter way to help benefit your goals and help you program them in a more effective way. The drop set at the end of the workout is not the only way to use them. Try three sets of drop sets with 50-75% your 1RM (one rep max). Go till you cannot go anymore with good form. Stay safe and earn your muscle. 

  1. Angleri et al., 2017
  2. Fink et al., 2018
  3. Howe and Waldron 2017

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