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Effects of drop sets on muscle hypertrophy

by P. Debraux | 19 September 2023

drop sets, resistance training, hypertrophy, muscle, failure, training, sport, bodybuilding, gains, mass, science, sport

Resistance training is the principal means of stimulating muscle hypertrophy. But for training to bear fruit and optimize the expected results, it's essential to understand and know how to manipulate numerous variables such as session frequency, volume, intensity, load, choice and order of exercises, speed of execution, type of contraction, whether or not to train to failure, range of motion and interval rest between sets. In addition to these, specialized techniques have been developed to enhance muscle hypertrophy over and above so-called traditional methods. Such is the case with drop sets. These are sets which, during an exercise, consist in reducing the load after reaching momentary muscle failure, while continuing to perform as many repetitions as possible with this new load, with virtually no downtime between different loads. Depending on the protocol, one or more "drops" (i.e. load reductions) may be performed on some or all sets. In general, loads are reduced by 20-25% during drop set training.

The idea behind this intensification technique is to promote muscle growth by playing on systematic muscle failure. Muscle failure refers to the point in a resistance exercise when the muscle can no longer generate sufficient force to control the given load. Theoretically, achieving this failure could activate all motor units, which is better for muscle hypertrophy. This way, metabolic stress would increase sharply, leading to greater fatigue of a greater number of fibers, and thus enabling a great deal of mechanical tension to be applied to them, which is the main way to muscle hypertrophy. Unlike sets to failure with relatively light loads, this technique allows you to work with both heavy and light loads in the same set. As a result, volume can be increased in a shorter training time. However, as this approach is fairly intense, it can have an impact on neuromuscular performance and recovery periods. But what impact will this technique have on hypertrophy? And will it enable you to gain more muscle mass than traditional sets?

The Study

To answer these questions, Norwegian researchers carried out a meta-analysis to compare the effects of drop sets and classic sets on muscle hypertrophy. To do this, the researchers analyzed the results of 6 studies. A total of 142 participants (28 women and 114 men), aged between 19 and 27 on average, took part in protocols lasting from 6 to 12 weeks. Five studies involved men only, and the sixth involved both men and women. All but one of the studies included active/resistance-trained participants of varying levels of fitness.

Before and after each protocol, hypertrophy was systematically assessed. For this purpose, 3 studies used ultrasound, 2 used MRI and one used Bod Pod (densitometry).

Results & Analyzes

The main results of this study show that whatever the method, drop set or traditional series, a significant increase in muscle mass is observed. However, no significant difference was observed between the two groups. By systematically training to muscle failure with successive decreasing loads, the idea of drop sets is to enable more motor units to be recruited due to fatigue caused by metabolic stress. This could potentially lead to better muscle growth... However, this meta-analysis (and one before it, Coleman et al., 2022) shows that there are no significant differences after 6-12 weeks of training with traditional sets.

However, the notable difference is that drop sets enable much shorter training sessions. Two of the 6 studies reported much shorter training times with drop sets: 145.4 ± 21 s vs. 315.8 ± 42.2 s, and 2.1 ± 0.1 min vs. 6.8 ± 0.13 min. In other words, a 54% to 70% reduction in exercise duration for the same hypertrophy effect at the end of the cycle. This makes the drop set a more time-efficient muscle-building strategy.

Practical Applications

There are still too few studies on the effects of drop sets on muscle hypertrophy. What's more, the protocols for these studies are fairly short. The conclusions to be drawn are therefore very limited, and it's difficult to give clear instructions. But even if drop sets are not a superior method compare to traditional sets, it nevertheless delivers similar results in terms of mass gain for a significantly reduced training time.

It's also important not to see this technique as a binary choice (drop sets OR traditional sets). It is entirely possible to incorporate both in the same session, for the same exercise. Given the well-established dose-response relationship between training volume and hypertrophy, adding a drop set to the last set of an exercise for a given muscle group is an effective strategy for adding volume while reducing overall session duration compared to simply using additional sets, without compromising muscle growth.

Finally, advanced training methods such as drop sets can help overcome plateaus and prevent training monotony, which in turn can help improve motivation and exercise adherence. But be careful not to overdo it. Systematic training to failure is associated with hormonal changes. Some authors believe that this increases the risk of overtraining, which in turn harms hypertrophic adaptations. As with training to muscle failure, the threshold for using drop sets depends each individual.

Drop sets can be used several times a week on the last set of an exercise, for example. This can be done with all exercises, but if you're training alone, to avoid any risk of injury, it's best to place drop set on a single-joint exercise or on a machine/pulley. The load can be reduced by 20-25%. Two to three load changes can be made. There should be no rest, only time for load changes.


  1. Sodal LK, Kristiansen E, Larsen S and van den Tillaar. Effects of drop sets on skeletal muscle hypertrophy : A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med 9 (66), 2023.

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