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Drop Sets vs Normal Sets for Muscle Growth: Which Is Best?

by Jeremy Ethier - October 28, 2018

If you want to learn whether drop sets are worth incorporating to maximize growth... Then you need to read this article. 

When it comes to the quest of maximizing muscle growth, a variety of different training methods are often employed. One such popular method are drop sets.

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What is a drop set?

Drop sets simply involve performing one or more sets with a lighter weight immediately after you finish your heavy set. They can be incorporated into any exercise - you could even perform a whole "drop set workout" if you wanted to.

Why are they used?

Well, they’re typically used to:

  • Accumulate volume in a shorter amount of time
  • Achieve a greater muscle pump
  • Elicit more metabolic stress than you would with standard straight sets

And this would theoretically lead to better growth since metabolic stress is proposed as one of the main drivers of muscle growth.

However, given that recent research has revealed that metabolic stress may not be as important for muscle growth as we once thought....

...it begs the question as to whether drop sets are worth incorporating at all. Or whether sticking to normal straight sets would instead be best.

And to figure this out, fortunately there are a handful of studies that can provide us with some insight.

Drop Sets vs Normal Sets: What The Research Says

Let's start this off with one very recent 2017 paper by Fink and colleagues. The researchers compared the effects of using drop sets versus normal sets on muscle growth and strength during the triceps pushdown.

The drop set group performed one heavy set of their 12 rep max and then immediately went into 2 drop sets with lighter weight to failure. Whereas the normal set group simply performed three heavy sets of their 12 rep max with rest periods in between.
drop set study
The result?

Despite the drop set protocol taking just half the time to complete AND despite volume being equated between the groups...
drop sets vs normal sets
After just 6 weeks the drop set group experienced almost double the triceps growth as the normal set group!
BUT – before you go ahead and start implementing drop sets for all your exercises, there are a few things to keep in mind.

The Problem With Drop Sets

1) Drop Sets Seem to Be Inferior For Strength Improvements

First off, although the drop set group experienced greater muscle growth, there was a trend for greater strength improvements in the normal set group:
drop set strength gains
This makes sense since they were able to use heavier weight rather than dropping it throughout the sets - which we know is better for strength gains.

Meaning that overtime normal sets would likely lead to significantly better strength gains and likely better muscle growth in the long run due to the concept of progressive overload. Especially if the comparison was done on compound movements as opposed to just the triceps extension!

2) These Findings Have Yet to Be Replicated

Secondly, this study was done on just 16 subjects and their findings have yet to be replicated. The only two other drop set studies out there where volume was equated between groups showed no significant difference in muscle growth when drop sets were employed.

2) Drop Sets Require You to Train to Failure

And lastly, it seems that training to failure is required in order for drop sets to be effective.

And since we know based on recent research that training to failure causes more fatigue and extends your recovery time when compared to non-failure training...

...this can become problematic if you start overusing drop sets since each set requires you to reach failure which can negatively affect the rest of your workout AND even workouts later in the week.

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So does this mean that drop sets have no place in your routine?

Not necessarily. As with supersets, it just means that their implementation should be carefully considered. And to provide you with some guidelines, here’s what I’d recommend.

How to Properly Incorporate Drop Sets

Tip #1: If you find yourself time constrained for a workout, drop sets are an effective way to significantly reduce the duration of your training session without hindering muscle growth.

Since the studies previously mentioned found that the drop set protocols took half the time to complete then the normal protocols, they seem to be a time-efficient way to get your workouts done.

And to implement them, instead of performing 3 sets of a biceps curl with rest in between for example, you’d instead do the following:

  • Start with 1 heavy set to failure
  • Immediately drop the weight by roughly 20% and do another set to failure
  • Repeat this again by dropping the weight by another 20% and going to failure

The drop set protocol is also illustrated below:
what are drop sets
Now this definitely shouldn’t be used for all of your workouts due to recovery issues, but it can be useful to occasionally implement whenever you’re short on time.

Tip #2 – You mainly want to incorporate drop sets on accessory exercises or machines rather than compound movements.

This is because implementing drop sets on compound movements tends to lead to form breakdown which can be risky especially when you don’t have a spotter available.

And not only that, but research has also indicated that training to failure on major compound exercises diminishes performance for at least 48 hours and likely even longer.

And since drop sets require you to train to failure, this lingering fatigue could negatively impact training sessions later on in the week. Whereas doing so with isolation exercises doesn’t interfere with your recovery to the same extent.

Tip #3 – Use drop sets sparingly!

For instance, don't replace every single set for every single exercise with drop sets. You can instead reap the possible benefits of them without causing recovery issues by simply adding in a drop set to just the final set of the last one or two exercises in your workout.

So for example, in the following upper body workout, this is how you could employ drop sets using what I previously mentioned:
drop set workout
Doing so is a time-efficient way to quickly add more volume and induce more metabolic stress within your workouts without causing much interference with your recovery.


So to sum up the article, here are the main takeways:
drop set summary
Just keep in mind that there is definitely more research needed to be sure as to whether combining drop sets with traditional sets does actually enhance muscle growth in the long run.

Because based on what we have right now, it’s just relatively unclear.

But regardless, if anything, drop sets really are just icing on the cake in the grand scheme of things. Although it’s perfectly fine to incorporate them for their possible added benefits and their time-saving capabilities... just know that your main focus and priority needs to be on progressing your main compound movements overtime.

As it’s clear both anecdotally and through research that this is what’s going to deliver the majority of your results.

Anyways, that’s it for this article . Hope this was interesting and helps you out! Let me know if you have any questions down below and show your support by giving me a follow on Instagram , Facebook , and Youtube where I’ll be posting informative content on a more regular basis!

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Drop Sets vs Normal Sets for Muscle Growth: Which Is Best?