It has been widely accepted that training to concentric muscular failure is needed to maximize exercise-induced muscle hypertrophy. Muscular failure can be defined as “the point during a resistance exercise set when the muscles can no longer produce sufficient force to control a given load.” However, muscles are not completely fatigued at the point of concentric muscular failure as they are still capable of producing force at a lower weight. Therefore, some have speculated that drop sets (also known as descending sets or breakdown sets), may be an effective strategy to more fully fatigue a given muscle and in turn, further enhance muscular adaptations.
The current research to date is questionable as to whether drop set training provides an improved hypertrophic benefit to performing traditional resistance training with straight sets, at least when total training volume is equated between conditions. Moreover, the studies to date have been considerably diverse in their designs and the training status of subjects. Thus, it’s difficult to draw conclusions and more research is needed in this area. Where improvements can be seen from drop sets came from groups with greater volume compared to the control group; therefore, the added volume may explain improved muscle hypertrophy compared to actual drop sets.
Nonetheless, drop sets are a great tool to have as part of a training program especially when individuals are caught for time. It has also been hypothesized that drop sets further enhance type I muscle fibers, given that these fibers are “endurance-oriented.” Further, they break away from the traditional sets, which can make a workout more enjoyable.
It’s advised to incorporate drop sets into your training program as this extra volume over time would improve muscle size. One to 3 drop sets are advised with minimal rest. Optimal frequency is yet to be determined, but it should be used on single-joint exercises (compound exercises, when a spotter is available), multiple times throughout a training week. This should be used few and far between at first and gradually increased over time. To avoid overtraining, a de-load week should be incorporated every four to six weeks. These can vary individually, so it’s best to monitor your progress accordingly.
Steve O’Mahony, BSc MSc