You’ve probably heard of drop sets before because they’ve been around a long time and drop sets are one of the most popular high intensity muscle building training methods.
Drop sets were invented in 1947 by Henry Atkins. The charismatic Arnold Schwarzenegger helped make drop sets more popular in the 1970s. The terminator famously used drop sets on barbell curls to build some of the best biceps the bodybuilding world has ever seen. Today you see recreational lifters doing drop sets every day in every gym.
Maybe you already do them too. Or maybe you’ve heard experts say that “drop sets are no more effective than regular sets” so you might have your doubts about them. Could drop sets just be bro science? Or perhaps you want to try drop sets but aren’t sure of the ideal way to do them. It’s a fact that most people do drop sets wrong and miss out on the best gains.
Well, here’s good news: real modern exercise science has confirmed that drop sets are an effective technique. (List of studies at bottom of page below the videos)
Drop sets are at least as effective for muscle growth as traditional sets. They also have some unique advantages that regular sets don’t have.
I recently spent days catching up on all the new drop set studies. I nerd out on muscle-building (and fat-burning) research at times, but today I didn’t want to write anything too sciencey. I simply wanted to write a practical blog post showing you step-by-step how to do drop sets to build muscle in a way that’s supported by the science.
I took 10 of the most important studies on drop sets, including papers published right up to this year and I extracted from them the steps for how to do drop sets in a clear, simple manner.
I also added in what I know from my own experience. I’ve been doing drop sets for almost 40 years. (Whoops, just revealed my age). But seriously, I love drop sets. I think drop sets, supersets and rest pause sets make up a trifecta of the best specialized muscle building techniques. If you do them right, they can even be easier on the joints than regular heavier sets for us lifters getting a bit older.
It will only take you about 3 or 4 minutes to read my tutorial below about how to do drop sets to gain more muscle. It’s a punch list. I also posted a few short videos that show this muscle building technique in action. Then you’ll be ready to go straight to the gym and try this.
Why should you use drop sets?
One thing the science does confirm is that drop sets are not necessarily better than straight sets when the total volume of the workouts is the same. (Volume is also known as tonnage, which is the product of sets X reps X weight).
If that’s the case, why bother with them? The most cited reason is that drop sets can be a great efficiency technique if you want to use them to save time. It’s possibly the number one benefit.
Drop sets are also a superb way to apply progressive overload. I’m surprised at how few people use drop sets for overload. And most experts only explain that drop sets are “a good way to increase volume in a time efficient manner.” If you use drop sets for overload the right way, then this method can help you build a lot more muscle.
By the way, if you want to learn ALL the methods of overload be sure to download my overload manual before the price goes up next year: The Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle Guide To Progressive Overload
In addition, you can use drop sets for priority training to build more muscle right where you want it. Simply add drop sets for any body part you think is lagging behind others.
Need some work on your quads? Finish your leg day with leg extension drop sets (video below). Sun’s out, but you’re embarrassed to let your guns out? Do some bicep curl drop sets down the dumbbell rack. You’ll be proudly going sleeveless in no time (video below).
So without further ado, here’s what you need to know about drop sets and how to do them right:
How To Do Drop Sets To Build More Muscle
1. Drop sets are a specialized training technique designed to build muscle, increase muscular endurance, provide a great pump, save time, and increase volume in an efficient fashion (which counts as progressive overload).
2. Drop sets probably do not build more muscle than traditional (straight) sets if the volume is equalized. However, studies have shown that drop sets can build the same amount of muscle in half the time or less. One drop set with 3 weight drops is the equivalent of 3 traditional sets. Use drop sets this way if you want to save time.
3. This technique can also allow a time efficient increase in volume (progressive overload) by adding drop sets on top of your current workload. For example, add one additional drop set each week for several weeks and you have achieved progressive overload all month long even if you didn’t lift any more weight.
4. Here is the drop set technique: You start your set of weight training or resistance exercise like a normal set with a moderately heavy weight you can lift about 8 to 12 times. Carry out the set as usual to failure or very close to it (within 1 to 2 reps of failure). Instead of stopping and taking a rest period for recovery, at this point you reduce the weight and keep going for even more reps. (Usually 6 to 12 more, but this number of additional reps may vary).
5. When doing drop sets you can reduce the weight only once, or it’s also popular to drop the weight again up to 3 or even 4 more times.
6. The amount of weight reduced is usually 20% to 25%, but could range anywhere from 10% to 30%. For example, if you were doing barbell curls starting with 100 pounds, a 20% reduction would be dropping to 80 pounds. Then dropping to 60 pounds would be a 25% reduction. These are approximate numbers because how much you can reduce the weight may depend on the size of the weight plate. Also, some people occasionally take a larger weight drop and do a burnout set for very high reps.
7. When performing drop sets, you take no rest between weight reductions, or as little rest as possible (sometimes it takes several seconds to remove weight from a bar or machine). Occasionally you might need a few seconds rest for the burn and fatigue to dissipate, but taking long rests between weight drops is cheating and means it’s no longer a drop set.
8. You can perform drop sets on any exercise, but they are more commonly done on isolation exercises or machines. Doing drop sets on large muscle compound exercises like squats and deadlifts is less common because it is so fatiguing and demands increased recovery time.
9. Drop sets can be done with barbells with plates, dumbbells, plate loaded machines, or weight stack machines. Weight stack machines are popular for drop sets because it’s so fast and easy to reduce the weight.
10. Drop sets are almost never performed for every set of every exercise in a workout session. This would cause large amounts of muscle damage, high amounts of fatigue and increased recovery time. Drop sets are usually implemented sparingly, in a similar way as training to failure. Too much can lead to overtraining.
11. Drop sets are most often done only on the last set of each exercise. Doing drop sets on the first set of the workout is too fatiguing and reduces performance in subsequent sets. An even more conservative approach is to do drop sets only on one set, usually the last set of the last exercise for a particular body part (it is a common “finisher” technique).
12. Many body builders do a high rep drop set for their last exercise on a particular muscle as a way to finish with a huge pump. This is sometimes also known as a “burnout set.”
13. Scientific research is mixed but most of it confirms that drop sets are at least as effective for building muscle as traditional sets and are more time efficient. However, some studies suggest drop sets are not as effective for building strength as other specialized techniques like rep pause training.
14. More research is need to confirm whether specific types of drop sets are more effective than others. More study is also need to confirm whether drop sets are as effective for women and for older adults. Anecdotal evidence suggests the answer is yes, but most of the research was performed on men in their twenties. Older adults may not recover as well as younger people so over-using drop sets and failure training might be more likely to lead to overtraining.
Until next time, train hard and expect success!
-Tom Venuto, Author of, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle (BFFM)
Author, The BFFM Guide To Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
Founder, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
Leg Extension Machine Drop Set (Three Weight Drops… Looks like it burns!)
Dumbbell Curls Drop Set Down The Rack (Quadruple Drop!!!)
How Drop Sets Can Even Be Used On Body Weight Exercises (Pull Up Single Drop Set)
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss coach. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and is today a full-time fitness writer, blogger, and author. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details
Anglieri V et al, 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, 2017.
Coleman M et al, Muscular adaptations in drop set vs traditional training, a meta-analysis, International Journal of Strength And Conditioning, 2022.
Enes A et al, Muscular adaptations and psychophysiological responses in resistance training, Research Quarterly For Exercise And Sport, 1-8, 2022
Enes A, et al, Rest pause and drop set training elicit similar strength and hypertrophy adaptations compared with traditional sets in resistance trained males, Applied nutrition, physiology and metabolism. 2021.
Fink J, Schoenfeld B, et al Effects of drop set resistance training on acute stress indicators and long-term muscle hypertrophy and strength. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2017.
Goto K et al, Muscular adaptations to combinations of high and low intensity resistance exercise, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 18, 730-737, 2004.
Goto K et al, Effects of drop set and reverse drop set methods on the muscle activity and intramuscular oxygenation of the triceps among trained and untrained individuals, Journal of Sports Medicine, 15, 562-568, 2016.
Ozaki H et al, Effects of drop sets with resistance training on increases in muscle CSA, strength and endurance, Journal of Sports Science, 1-6, 2017.
Schoenfeld, B, Grgic J, can drop set training enhance muscle growth? Strength And Conditioning Journal, 40: 95-98.
Varovic D, et al, Drop set training elicits differential increases in non-uniform hypertrophy of the quadriceps in leg extension exercise, Sports, 9:119, 2021.