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Drop Sets vs Straight Sets: Exploring Training Methods


In the realm of fitness, the quest for muscle growth often leads to a large variety of training techniques and methods.


Among these, drop sets are a very popular approach, but the question needs to be asked, is there any benefit to performing drop sets versus regular straight sets? In this article, we're going to go over this topic and when to use this tool, if you use it.


What Are Drop Sets?


Drop sets are characterized by performing a set of an exercise to failure or near failure, then immediately reducing the weight 20-30%, and continuing for additional repetitions. You can do this for multiple drops, but usually 1-3 drops is best.


For example, you can do a set of Cable Bicep Curls for a set of 10 at 60lbs. Once you fail (or almost fail) on that tenth rep, you drop the weight to 40lbs and continue. Once you can't do any more at 40lbs, drop it again to 30lbs.


There are a few theories as to why Drop Sets are valuable in training. One of the most interesting ideas is that since drop sets allow you to continue "past muscle failure" (since you are able to extend the set after you first failed) will place more stress on the muscles and hopefully stimulate a stronger anabolic signal [1]. The big question is will this acute spike in signaling actually make a difference in the long term? *

 

* To date, I haven't seen a study showing this, but I'll keep my eyes open.


Benefits of Drop Sets

Time Efficient:

There are a number of potential benefits to performing Drop Sets. First of all, drop sets offer a time-efficient way to increase training volume compared to straight sets. For those of us who don't have the schedule that allows 90 minute sessions, we can still get more work done in a shorter period, potentially maximizing muscle stimulation.


Increases Metabolic Stress:

Second, drop sets elevate metabolic stress, a key factor in muscle hypertrophy alongside muscle damage and mechanical tension. While the exact importance of metabolic stress in comparison to the other two factors remains debated, it undoubtedly contributes to the overall muscle-building process. It's important to note that we are all a little different. Some people respond really well to these extended sets, and for those individuals this may be a way to unlock some more gains.


Potential Downsides of Drop Sets


So far, drop sets seem like a pretty good way to go right? But now let's look at some potential downsides to this method. We need to understand that there are limits to this way of training, especially when it comes to exercise selection, equipment you have available to you, and your overall weekly training structure.


Exercise Selection:

First off, exercise selection. Drop sets are usually best paired with exercises that are more isolated in nature. A bicep curl is going to be a more appropriate option for drop sets than compound movement like a deadlift because we're only worried about elbow flexion. There aren't any major stabilizer muscles at work, we don't need to coordinate other joint actions, and if we fail there is a good chance it comes from the target muscle, the biceps.


Now if we look at a Trap Bar Deadlift, we see a great exercise that could potentially have a disastrous consequence if used in a drop set. There are many moving parts in this exercise, we have stabilizers to worry about and it is going to create a massive amount of fatigue. A max/near max set of barbell back squats is going to be difficult to perform drops with, since many times you won't even have the cardiovascular system response needed to recover and get back under the bar. The last thing you want is to have your lower back fail chasing a little extra stimulus for the hamstring/glutes.


Word of advice, stick with accessory/isolation exercises that you normally load in the 12-20 rep range.


Equipment:

Next, let's consider equipment that we have available. Since we want to complete our drops with very minimal rest, we usually want to limit these to cable machines and dumbbells.


I think almost every gym bro has "run the rack" at least once in their life, and it's relatively simple to do so if the gym isn't busy, the dumbbells are hopefully all lined up in a row.


A barbell bench press however, is going to present some challenges as you'll need to rack the bar, take the clips off, take some weights off, and set back up. It's going to take too much time to actually perform a drop set.


Weekly Schedule:

Finally, let's consider your program as a whole. If you are performing drop sets, chances they are going to take some time to recover from. We are after all going until failure or near failure on these. It's important to give yourself adequate time to recovery from these sessions as we don't want it to affect the next session. Training hard is good, but we don't want to be testing our limits every session. It's like the late Yuri Verkhoshansky once said:


"Any idiot can make another idiot tired"


You need to make sure that High Intensity modalities like this does not drain your battery too much.


What Does the Research Say?


While most studies show that drop sets are effective (when used correctly) to stimulate muscle growth, the research landscape on drop sets versus straight sets is far from definitive.


Many studies show that when you see superior results from drop sets, there is usually an increase in total volume (sets x reps x weight) [2] [3].


Some studies suggest that when volume—the total amount of work performed—is equated, there isn't a significant difference in muscle growth between the two methods [4]. This implies that while drop sets may offer an effective means of increasing volume, they might not necessarily be superior in promoting muscle hypertrophy when compared directly with traditional straight sets.


Conclusion


So, should drop sets be a staple in your training arsenal? The answer largely depends on personal preference and individual goals. If you enjoy the intensity and challenge of drop sets and find them to be a motivating addition to your workouts, incorporating them periodically can certainly be beneficial.


They can inject variety into your routine and help break through plateaus. However, it's essential to strike a balance and not rely solely on drop sets, as overuse may lead to overtraining or increased risk of injury.


In conclusion, while drop sets offer a convenient way to increase training volume and induce metabolic stress—a key component of muscle hypertrophy—their superiority over straight sets in promoting muscle growth remains uncertain.


Ultimately, the decision to incorporate drop sets into your routine should be based on personal preference, training experience, and individual goals. Experimentation and variety are key principles in any effective training regimen, so don't hesitate to give drop sets a try, but remember to listen to your body and adjust your approach accordingly.


 

[1] Schoenfeld, Brad. (2011). The Use of Specialized Training Techniques to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 33. 60-65. 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182221ec2.


[2] Varović D, Žganjer K, Vuk S, Schoenfeld BJ. Drop-Set Training Elicits Differential Increases in Non-Uniform Hypertrophy of the Quadriceps in Leg Extension Exercise. Sports. 2021; 9(9):119. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9090119


[3] GOTO, KAZUSHIGE1; NAGASAWA, MASANARI2; YANAGISAWA, OSAMU3; KIZUKA, TOMOHIRO1; ISHII, NAOKATA4; TAKAMATSU, KAORU1. MUSCULAR ADAPTATIONS TO COMBINATIONS OF HIGH- AND LOW-INTENSITY RESISTANCE EXERCISES. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 18(4):p 730-737, November 2004.


[4] Angleri, V., Ugrinowitsch, C., & Libardi, C. (2017). Crescent pyramid and drop-set systems do not promote greater strength gains, muscle hypertrophy, and changes on muscle architecture compared with traditional resistance training in well-trained men. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 117, 359 - 369. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00421-016-3529-1.

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