The Drop Set – Scientific Review and Practical Advice

Authors
Brandon Roberts (ResearchgateThe Strength Guys)
Adam Tzur
(Facebook, Twitter)

Contributions by
Richard Nijholt

Reviewed by
Eric Trexler (Researchgate)

Published: December 30, 2018
Updated: 
December 30, 2018


Drop set sci-fit

Plain Language Summary

What You Will Learn

Discover whether drop sets can help you maximize your strength and muscle mass gains. Learn about the benefits and drawbacks of drop sets, and check out how to use the different types of drop sets.

What We Did and Why

Drop sets are said to be great mass builders for bodybuilders. We wanted to see if this is supported by the scientific literature. We searched several databases for studies on drop sets, and analyzed their data. Read more about how we found and analyzed the studies in our methodology section.

How Drop Sets Affect Strength and Hypertrophy

There are currently not many studies on drop sets 1There are only 3 volume equated studies that measure muscle strength and muscle mass directly. . The studies that exist suggest that drop sets are as a good as regular sets for increasing muscle mass. In terms of increasing strength, drop sets might not be ideal.

Still, there are limitations to the studies, and more research is needed for stronger conclusions. 2Two studies have subjects train each limb (arm or leg) with different training programs. The left leg might train only with drop sets while the other trains regular sets. This does not reflect how people train in real life, and is thus not ecologically valid.

Benefits of Drop Sets

Drop sets are an efficient way to make progress while spending little time in the gym. You can also combine it with other time-saving methods such as super sets. Drop sets lead to similar levels of exertion and fatigue as other types of training.

“[Drop set] training might be an efficient way to increase muscle mass with minimal time spent training.”
- Fink et al., 2017

Drawbacks of Drop Sets

If you use drop sets excessively, you might become fatigued and possibly injured. As with all types of training, excessive workloads can lead to overreaching and overtraining.

“The continuous use of drop sets may be detrimental over time (...)”
- Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017

Strength and Hypertrophy Graphs

These graphs visualize the evidence on a continuum. On the left side of the line are studies which support regular sets over drop sets. On the right side, the studies support drop sets over regular sets. Below the continuum are the studies and the statistics we have calculated.

Dropset infographic strength sci-fit.net

How to Do Drop Sets

Check out our guide on how to do drop sets. You can run the racks, up the stacks, and more!

Science is ever-evolving and our conclusions may change as more research is published in the future.

What Are Drop Sets?

Drop sets involve doing many sets in a row where you drop the weight between each set.

Here is how you do a drop set:

  1. Lift a weight until you reach muscular failure
  2. Reduce the weight and continue your second drop set without any rest
  3. Do as many sets as you prefer

Note that failure is traditionally used in drop sets, but is not required. You can use machines, dumbbells, and barbells for drop sets. Barbell drop sets can be tricky because you need to rerack the barbell and remove plates between each set. This can be dangerous if done quickly, as in the example of the bench press.

It is easier with dumbbells and machines. In the case of running the rack, you move down the dumbbell rack and pick lighter dumbbells for each set. This is very quick for exercises like biceps curls.

“Drop sets involve performing a set to concentric failure with a given load and then immediately reducing the load and continuing to train until subsequent failure.“ - Schoenfeld, 2011

“Breakdown sets require the performance of a set to MMF with a given load before immediately reducing the load and continuing repetitions to subsequent MMF. -  Fisher et al., 2016

Drop sets involve an athlete reaching a point of MMF (or at least approaching MMF) and reducing the load in order to increase the work completed and extend the set duration, resulting in greater fatigue. - Howe & Waldron 2017

The Drop Set is an exercise protocol, in which resistance exercise is initially performed with a higher load and then gradually decreased. - Goto et al., 2016

How to do drop sets

You can do drop sets with machines, dumbbells, barbells, and even your own body weight. we will cover the first three methods in our guide. It is practical and safe to do drop sets with machines and dumbbells, but barbell exercises require more planning. You might need a spotter to help you drop the weight.

Running the rack / Down the rack (dumbbells)

This is when you work your way down a rack of dumbbells while continuing the same exercise. Bicep curls and shoulder flys are traditionally used with this method.

If you are in a hurry, you may want to do run the rack like this:

Exercise Set Weight/reps
Biceps curl 1 Choose a weight you can do 12 reps to failure with
Biceps curl 2 No breaks! Move down the rack and choose a lower weight that allows you to do 10-14 reps
Biceps curl 3 Keep moving down the rack. Choose a weight that allows you to do 10-14 reps
Biceps curl 4 Keep moving down the rack. Choose a weight that allows you to do 10-14 reps, and so on.

As you can see, you need to experiment with drop sets to figure out the right weight and reps. Also, you should be mindful of other people who are exercising with dumbbells so that you don’t run into them on your way down the racks.

Strip sets (barbell)

This is when you strip plates off of a barbell between each set. For example, if you have 175lb on a barbell, on the next set you could remove 10lb from each side and continue doing reps with little to no rest. A training partner can speed up the process and help you strip plates between each set.

Up the stack / Run the stack (weight machine)

With this drop set, you move the pin upwards for every set. This is very easy and allows you to do many drop sets on your own. It’s generally safer to have muscular failure on machines such as chest presses, because they won’t crush you under their weight compared to how a barbell bench press would.

Other types of drop sets

We have described the most commonly used types of drop sets above. But if you’re interested, there are other types as well:

  • Tight drop set: When you decrease the weight by a small amount (5-10%) in a drop set.
  • Wide drop set: When you decrease the weight by a large amount (10%+) in a drop set.
  • Drop super-set: When you add drop sets to a super-set. For example, on your last set of leg extension and leg curl super-set you use one of the above methods to decrease the weight.
  • Rest-pause set: When you pause for an extended period of time (10-30 seconds) while continuing to decrease the weight.
  • Halving method: When you decrease the weight by half on a drop set.

As you can tell, there are an endless amount of ways to incorporate drop sets into your workout.

Do Drop Sets Maximize Hypertrophy?

Why drop sets should work - hypotheses and mechanisms

If we look at the scientific literature, there are two main hypotheses:

  1. Even if you train to muscle failure, there are still muscle fibers that are not entirely fatigued. Drop sets could hypothetically fatigue the muscle to a greater extent. (Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017; Howe and Waldron 2017).
  2. Drop sets increase time under tension, which could increase hypertrophy (Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017; Howe and Waldron 2017).

Muscle failure, fatigue, and time under tension should increase metabolic stress  (Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017; Howe and Waldron 2017). You can also do more volume quickly with drop sets. This is the rationale for why drop sets could maximize hypertrophy. On the other hand, it should be said that going to failure won’t necessarily give greater hypertrophy.

“(...) muscles are not completely fatigued at the  point of concentric muscular failure as they are still capable of producing force at lower loads. Therefore, some have speculated that  drop sets (also known as descending sets or breakdown sets), may be an effective strategy to more fully fatigue the musculature and, in turn, en hance muscular adaptations (15).” - (Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017).

“Multiple drop sets can be performed  to induce even greater levels of fatigue and  metabolic stress, and hence potentially further enhance anabolism.” - (Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017).

Information about the drop set studies

From our literature search, we identified five studies with hypertrophy data. Two of the studies used a within-subject design (i.e. Ozaki et al., 2018, Angleri et al., 2017). What that means is that they randomized the arms or legs of the participants. One arm/leg trained with traditional sets, while the other trained using drop sets. Here’s some key data about how the studies were structured:

Study Training Program Training Experiencen
Angleri et al., 2017

12 weeks
Within-subject design, unilateral

Leg extension and leg press.
2x per week
6.4 ± 2.0 years
Ozaki et al., 2018

8 weeks
Within-subject design, unilateral

Dumbbell curl.
2-3x per week.
Untrained for ≥ 1 year
Fink et al., 2017

6 weeks
Between-subject design, RCT

Tricep pushdown.
2x per week
Recreationally trained for

≤ 1 year

Fisher et  al., 2016
12 weeks,
Between-subject design, RCT
Full body training.
2x per week.
Trained with

6 months  of experience

Goto et al., 2004

10 weeks

Leg press and leg extension.
2x per week
Recreationally active, no RT for ≥ 6 months

“Thirty-two volunteers had their legs randomized in a within-subject design in TRAD (3-5 sets of 6-12 repetitions at 75% 1-RM) (...) and [drop sets] (3-5 sets of ~50-75% 1-RM to muscle failure) protocols.” - Angleri et al., 2017

Drop set hypertrophy graph

The drop set literature is small. Four studies measure muscle hypertrophy directly by MRI or ultrasound (Fink et al., 2017, Angleri et al., 2017, Ozaki et al., 2018, Goto et al., 2004) and one measures muscle hypertrophy indirectly by bod pod (Fisher et  al., 2016). We extracted and analyzed the data from the studies that measure muscle size directly.

Drop set hypertrophy sci-fit

[Advanced discussion]

In two studies, Angleri and Ozaki, participants increased their CSA by a mean of 2.16 cm² to 2.43 cm². The between-group effect sizes were tiny ranging from 0.02 to 0.05 and the confidence intervals were wide and non-significant. Mean changes were neither statistically significant nor clinically significant between groups. Both of these studies used within-subject design where each limb was randomized to drop set or traditional training.

The Fink study had a much smaller absolute gains in muscle cross-sectional area (0.35 to 0.7 cm²). It’s unclear why, perhaps the training protocol wasn’t challenging enough. It is also the study with the largest between-group effect size (0.26 favouring drop set group). But the CI for the ES is wide and so is the significance test for the mean between-group change (p=0.577, as reported by the authors).

Drop set hypertrophy statistics

Note: the ES’ and CIs were calculated by Sci-Fit based on the reported means, standard deviations, and participant numbers (more details in the method section).

Study Mean change
(muscle CSA)
Effect size (ES) and 95% confidence interval (CI)
Angleri et al., 2017

12 weeks,
thigh ultrasound CSA

Traditional group: +2.33 cm²

Drop set group: +2.43 cm²

ES = 0.02 favouring drop set

CI = -0.58 to 0.62
Common language effect size: 50.6% (0.6% favouring drop set)

Ozaki et al., 2018

8 weeks,

biceps MRI CSA

High load* group: +2.26 cm²
Drop set group: +2.16 cm²
ES = 0.05 favouring high load

CI = -1.09 to 1.17

Common language effect size: 51.3% (1.3% favouring traditional)

Fink et al., 2017

6 weeks,
triceps MRI CSA

Traditional group: +0.35 cm²
Drop set group: +0.7 cm²
ES = 0.26 favouring drop set

CI = -0.74 to 1.23
Common language effect size: 57.3% (7.3% favouring drop set)

Goto et al., 2004

10 weeks,
MRI

Traditional group: NA
Drop set group: NA
Unable to calculate, lacking data

*Ozaki had three groups, low load (30% 1RM), high load (80% 1RM), and drop set. The high load group was most similar to traditional training, therefore we compared it to the drop set.

An important difference between the studies was the muscle group used during training. Fink et al., used the triceps, Angleri et al., used the thigh and Ozaki et al., used the biceps.

The final study, Goto et al., 2004, used a traditional design for 6 weeks of training, then split the groups in two during the final 4 weeks. During those four weeks one group completed five traditional sets and the other group completed the same but with an extra drop-set at the end. The drop-set group continued to gain a significant amount of the muscle while the traditional group did not (Goto et al., 2004). This could be due to the drop-set group completing 23% more volume than the traditional group.

“..it is possible to suggest that DS cannot provide advantages to muscle CSA gains over other RT protocols for resistance-trained individuals when TTV is equalized.” - Angleri et al., 2017

“The major finding of this study was that a single high-load (80% 1RM) set with additional drop sets descending to a low load (30% 1RM) without recovery intervals can... increase muscle CSA...in untrained young men.” - Ozaki et al., 2018

“We propose that the larger CSA increase in the DS group observed in our study might be due to increased mechanical and metabolic stress and muscle damage due to dropping the load without rest.” - Fink et al., 2017

Hypertrophy Conclusion

There is only one study indicating drop sets might be better than traditional sets when volume is equated. Our current conclusion is that drop sets are as good as regular sets for hypertrophy. More research is needed to determine if drop sets can be beneficial for specific muscle groups or if it should be used for certain exercises.

Do Drop Sets Maximize Strength?

Drop set strength graph

Drop set strength graph sci-fit

Drop set strength statistics

The effect sizes for strength are larger compared to hypertrophy. Both Fink and Ozaki have a between-group ES of ~0.6. Let’s say we picked one participant at random from both groups in these two studies. We’d have a 66-67% chance of picking someone who made greater gains from the traditional groups versus the drop set groups.

Study Mean change Effect size and 95% CI
Angleri et al., 2017

12 weeks
Leg press, 1RM

Traditional group: +57.5 kg

Drop set group: +55.7 kg

ES = 0.04 favouring traditional

CI = -0.56 to 0.64

Common language effect size: 51.13 % (0.1% favouring traditional)

Ozaki et al., 2018

8 weeks
Dumbbell curl, 1RM

High load group: +3.4 kg
Drop set group: +1.8 kg
ES = 0.64 favouring traditional

CI = -0.57 to 1.75

Common language effect size: 67.4% (17.4% favouring traditional)

Fink et al., 2017

6 weeks
Triceps pushdown, 12RM

Traditional group: +25.0 lbs
Drop set group: +16.4 lbs
ES = 0.59, favouring traditional

CI = -0.44 to 1.56

Common language effect size: 66.2% (16.2% favouring traditional)

Goto et al., 2004

10 weeks

Traditional group: NA
Drop set group: NA
Unable to calculate, lacking data

Drop set strength conclusion

One study supports drop sets for strength (Goto et al., 2004). But it was not volume equated. The small amount of literature seems to suggest that training with drop sets is not ideal for increasing strength. This is assuming that you’re not doing more volume with drop sets. Drop sets might help if they allow you to do more volume. Still, due to the diversity in study designs, it is difficult to make any firm conclusions if drop sets are superior or inferior to other types of training.

Benefits and Drawbacks of Drop Sets

Save time in the gym with drop sets

Drop sets are a good way of getting in the volume while spending as little time as possible lifting (Fink et al., 2017; Looney et al., 2016; Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017; Howe and Waldron 2017). In other words, they are efficient. There are also other ways to save time, such as doing super sets with other muscle groups while you are recovering.

“DS training might be an efficient way to increase muscle mass with minimal time spent training.” - Fink et al., 2017

“Given the significantly greater training volume performed on the drop-set day, drop sets may offer considerable utility as a means of augmenting training volume without substantially increasing training time.“ -  Looney et al., 2016

“Adding a drop set or double drop set to the last set of an exercise for a given muscle group is a feasible strategy for accomplishing this goal while keeping total session duration shorter…” - Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017

“...when time limitations exist, a drop set protocol can be employed in order to increase the efficiency of the training session when seeking to increase muscle mass.” - Howe and Waldron 2017

“The mean training time per session, including recovery intervals, was lowest in the SDS condition.” - Ozaki

Excessive use of drop sets can be harmful

We must be careful with using drop-sets since they are generally completed to failure, which could cause excessive fatigue and/or injuries over time (Nóbrega and Libardi 2016; Howe and Waldron 2017; Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017). Nonetheless, there is no direct evidence that drop sets increase injury risk over the long term. In addition, there are very many ways to implement drop sets into your routine, so it’s impossible to say how it will work out in terms of injury risk.

For now, the idea that drop sets are harmful remains a hypothesis that needs to be tested. Yet, it is always a good idea to be careful.

“The continuous use of drop sets may be detrimental over time. Chronic hormonal alterations have been associated with repeatedly training to muscular failure....” - Schoenfeld & Grgic 2017

“With the nature of drop sets requiring that athletes repetitively reach the point of MMF, non-functional overreaching may occur, with a reduced anabolic environment potentially negating any positive benefits.”  - Howe and Waldron 2017

“(...) some studies suggest that RT to failure for a prolonged period may result in overtraining; higher risk of musculoskeletal injury by repetitive effort; and stronger hemodynamic responses, with pressure peaks near muscular failure (MacDougall et al., 1985; Stone et al., 1996).” Nóbrega and Libardi 2016 

Will drop sets make you exhausted in the gym?

There are five studies that have tested rating of perceived exertion. This rating is used to identify how difficult an exercise or training method is. The participants give a rating of how difficult they felt the exercise or training session was. Surprisingly, the studies found no difference in perceived exertion between drop sets and other sets (De Paula Simola et al., 2015, Raeder et al., 2016, Looney et al., 2016, Fisher et al., 2017).

This might go against our intuition that drop sets are exhausting. Nonetheless, if a drop set is taken very far, it can certainly become exhausting.

Note that rating of perceived exertion is an acute (temporary) measure of fatigue, not a long-term measure.

Our Methodology

How we researched drop sets

We researched drop sets using two search engines: Pubmed, Pubmed PMC, and Google Scholar.

We used the following keywords for searching pubmed, PMC, and Scholar:

("drop set" OR "drop-set" OR "drop sets" OR "drop-sets" OR "dropset" OR "dropsets" OR "breakdown set" OR "breakdown sets" OR "breakdown-set" OR "breakdown-sets") AND ("hypertrophy" OR "strength training" OR "resistance training" OR "bench press" OR "squat" OR "strength").

Only human studies were used. We also reviewed the references of each drop set study to help us find more studies. During our literature search on drop sets we found a number of studies which use load reduction. Load reduction is similar to drop sets, but instead of continually decreasing weight with no rest between sets, the load is reduced 5-10% with normal rest periods (Lima et al., 2018, Willardson et al., 2010, Willardson et al., 2012). We excluded load reduction sets.

Data collection and extraction

We extracted data of means, standard deviations, percentage change (pre-post), as well as data about the study design (duration, etc.). In the case some data was not reported, we requested it from the authors.

Some studies such as Angleri and Goto lacked absolute data of pre and post means and standard deviations. Angleri and colleagues sent the data on request and thus we would like to thank the authors for their openness and helpfulness. We used the data to calculate effect sizes, confidence intervals, and various statistics.

Effect size and CI calculation

Effect size

We used Cohen’s Dppc2 (“Pre-Post-Control”) to calculate the between-group ES based on the difference in mean change with pooled pretest SDs (described in Morris, 2008).

Confidence intervals

The 95% CI of the ES was calculated using the Wald method (based on SEM).

Common language effect size

The common language effect size gives the probability that a person picked at random from the group with the largest mean change will have a larger individual change than a person picked at random from the group with the smallest mean change.

50% indicates that the probability is equal between groups. 66% indicates that there's a 16% greater chance that the person chosen from the largest change group has a superior outcome

It was calculated in Excel using:
=NORMSDIST(ABS(mean_change_largest-mean_change_smallest)/SQRT(pre-SD_mean_change_largest^2+pre_SD_mean_change_smallest^2))*100

Interpretation

Our interpretation of the studies is based on:

  • Study design and methodology: how long was the study? How was the training program structured? How many participants took part in the study? How trained were they? Etc.
  • Mean changes: how much did the groups improve their strength and hypertrophy, on average?
  • Effect sizes: standardized effect sizes are helpful when compared between multiple studies.
  • Confidence intervals
  • P-values and significance tests of mean changes, as reported by the authors.
  • Visual presentation: the visual graphs helped us interpret the data and put it into perspective and context

Overview of excluded studies

During our literature search we also found the studies below and give a brief description of why they were excluded from our analysis.

  • Giessing et al., 2016 - This study used circuit training in combination with drop sets vs traditional circuit training. The HIT group used a repetition duration of 2 seconds concentric, 1 second isometric contraction at the top of the range of motion, and 4 seconds eccentric (2-1-4 seconds). The traditional group trained using a repetition duration of 2 seconds concentric and 2 seconds eccentric (2-2 seconds). This difference in repetition duration, along with the circuit training, makes it difficult to determine the isolated effect of drop sets.
  • Berger and Hardage, 2013 - This study has continual load reduction, but is not a drop set, strictly speaking
  • Johannsmeyer et al., 2016 - This study compared older subjects using a drop set protocol who were taking creatine vs. a placebo supplement. Since both groups used drop set training we could not determine if drop sets were superior.
  • Goto et al., 2016 - This study compared acute changes in a drop-set vs a reverse drop set protocol. The outcome measures were muscle oxygenation, EMG, and MVC.  The study used rest period of 2-3 minutes between sets while either increasing or decreasing the %1RM, which falls under a load reduction model rather than a drop set model.
  • Bentes et al., 2012 - This study was acute and used pre-exhaustion in combination with drop sets. They suggest that exercise order with the drop set method and pre-exhaustion or post-exhaustion have an acute influence on total training volume in a session.
  • Goto et al., 2004 - This study used a single set protocol with a 50% or 20% 1RM drop set after traditional training to determine changes in growth hormone and maximal isometric strength. There were no differences in testosterone, but an increase in growth hormone with the 50% and 30% drop sets compared to traditional training.
  • Greiwing and Freiwald - This study was from a book chapter. Numerous pages were missing from the methods and discussion section. We are also unable to tell if it was peer reviewed.