The science of drop sets
What if there was a fun, challenging way of smashing your muscles in a much shorter time period than usual resistance training?
Enter the drop set.
A drop set: Working an exercise to muscular failure, decreasing the weight and working to failure again. Often performed multiple times in order to induce more muscular fatigue to create more potential for growth.
These were most often associated with meatheads. Nothing says "no pain, no gain!" like working until your muscle physically can't move anymore, then lowering the weight and doing it all over again without rest! If you're chasing that "pump" or "burn" feeling, it is found in abundance here.
For all the specific reps and sets which have been extensively proven in the literature, I still find simple pleasure in choosing a muscle I want to smash, picking out a weight and grinding out as many reps as I can do, then repeating with lighter weights until every muscle I own is on fire. It's just a fun way to challenge yourself!
But the godfather of hypertrophy (muscle growth) research, Brad Schoenfeld, has once again taken us all under his wing and provided a scientific basis for performing dropsets. His journal article in The Strength & Conditioning Journal in 2017 looked at multiple studies to determine whether drop set training is an effective strategy to fully fatigue the musculature, thus enhancing adaptations.
Let's dive in to the science.
Drop sets are believed to enhance muscular growth because working to failure recruits more muscle fibers. This is because as some of the fibers within a muscle begin to fatigue, they can no longer produce a contraction with enough force to perform the desired movement. So to complete the movement, other fibers within the same muscle which wouldn't usually be firing off are recruited. Drop sets also feature a higher time under tension (TUT), creating more metabolic stress in the muscle, which has been linked to the hypertrophic response.
Despite some researchers theorising that drop sets are obligatory for muscular growth, the research had some mixed results when compared to straight set resistance training.
There were multiple studies which found no significant difference in muscle size, yet multiple other studies which found that drop sets resulted in double the amount of hypertrophy! That in mind, these studies all had confounding variables such as Fink et al who did not reach statistical significance due to a low number of participants, or Goto et al who did not monitor total training volume - which has a known positive relationship with muscle growth. Thus, more research must be done on the topic to determine it's effectiveness beyond regular resistance training.
One undisputed finding was that the groups performing drop sets could be finished in the gym in HALF the time it took the groups performing straight sets. This is a HUGE finding, as one of the most commonly reported barriers to exercise is a lack of time. Imagine being able to spend half the amount of time at the gym for the same result, you could spend so much more time eating! Well that's where my mind goes, I'm sure you probably have other things on your mind...
Because drop sets are incredibly taxing on the body, especially to the neuromuscular system, they can lead to overtraining when performed too often. This will, in turn, impair muscle growth. The exact number of drop sets that can be performed is specific to the individual performing them, so should be adjusted according to fitness levels and fatigue.
So while a higher level of muscle fiber recruitment and increased TUT provide a sound rationale for drop set training, the research seems ambiguous as to whether it is more beneficial for growing muscle than traditional resistance training. Drop sets remain an effective, time-efficient way to increase total training volume which can be added in to a traditional resistance workout to fully fatigue your muscle.
That's all the science, now what's the best way to include drop sets in your training?
Since drop sets are conducive to a high training volume, they work best in a muscle growth or endurance phase of a program. Adding a drop set or two to the last set of an exercise for a given muscle group is a wonderful approach to increasing muscle growth without increasing time spent at the gym.
The following variables have been adapted from table 1 in Brad Schoenfeld's article.
Load: The load should be dropped by ~20-25% each time you go down. This will allow you to get more reps in while still challenging the muscles (and not making your cardio the limiting factor).
Rest: The only rest you should get is the time it takes you to change weights. Ain't no rest for the wicked.
Volume: Use 2-3 drops in weight. No need to do any more than that.
Tempo: Both slower and faster tempos can be used (1-3 seconds on the way down and 1-3 seconds on the way up). Anything slower than that and you will struggle to get in many reps.
Exercise selection: Single-joint exercises are preferred as they are much safer to push to fatigue, whereas your really large 'bang for your buck' exercises such as the squat or deadlift often run into practical problems - imagine going to absolute failure on squats, how are you going to get back up to the top? Common exercises to use are: bicep curls, tricep extensions, glute bridges, hip thrusts, DB rows, lat pull downs, DB overhead press. Think twice before performing drop sets on large, compound movements especially if you don't have a friend/spotter/personal trainer with you, and always use common sense. For once I can actually recommend doing machine work - it's safe and easy to go to fatigue on them.
Frequency: Drop sets can be used multiple times per week, just be aware that continuous use can lead to overtraining (this is very bad for your goals!). Again, use common sense on this one. Drop sets don't just burn your muscles, they put on a Sunday roast for the messaging system within your body too, so ensure you have recovered adequately before you go again.
Drop sets are an effective way to create a high volume of work in a short period of time, which is especially important when training for hypertrophy (muscle growth) or muscular endurance. Add in one or two drop sets at the end of a workout to enhance muscular fatigue. Use simple exercises where hitting failure isn't going to be a practical issue and make sure to stay on top of your rest to avoid overtraining.
So, before you claim you don't have enough time to exercise, try adding in a drop set at the end of your workout to get the most out of your efforts and feel that pump! You'll be a meathead before you know it. Okay not really but you might actually enjoy it.