If you follow the fitness research closely, you’re already very familiar with Brad Schoenfeld and Jeremy Loenneke. Brad has made tremendous research contributions in recent years, primarily focusing on very applied, practical questions that are common among gym-goers. Dr. Loenneke is an extremely prolific researcher, with focuses on blood flow restriction and responses to resistance training.
In the past few weeks, both researchers have co-authored brand new research papers discussing drop sets. Drop sets generally take the following form, more or less: You start with a weight, and do it to failure (or near failure). Without resting, you drop the load a little bit, allowing you to get some more repetitions in. The exact protocol can vary, but you’d usually drop weights once or twice in a single drop set. This has been a favorite “intensifying technique” among gym-goers (and even the old bodybuilding magazines) for years, so it’s fun to see it pop up in academic research from time to time.
In the paper by Schoenfeld’s group (Fink et al.), they did a 6-week study comparing a single drop set to 3 normal sets. Loenneke’s group (Ozaki et al.) had a similar set-up for their 8-week studying, comparing three groups: 3 normal sets with a heavy load, 3 normal sets with a lighter load, or a single drop set “cluster” progressing from heavy to light as the load was dropped.
For strength outcomes, the results are fairly intuitive. Fink et al. found greater strength gains from the multiple-set protocol; Ozaki et al. found significant strength gains in the heavy group and the drop set group, but not the light load group. At this point, the research seems pretty clear that in order to improve strength, going heavy is key; we can still make strength gains with light loads, but you’ve got to really push the intensity and approach failure to make it happen.
For muscle growth, the research generally tells us a slightly different story. Heavy training can be an important, effective part of a hypertrophy program, but it appears that light loads elicit plenty of growth when taken to failure. In line with this concept, Ozaki et al. found similar muscle growth across all three groups in their drop set study. Fink et al. saw improvements in both groups as well, although the drop set group experienced a little more growth than the group performing traditional sets.
Getting to the Point
These new studies both support the idea that drop sets may be a helpful technique for promoting strength and hypertrophy. In addition, you’ll note that the drop set groups completed their workouts in less time as well, providing the additional benefit of a more time-efficient workout.
I’m still not a huge advocate of single-set workouts, as the body of evidence largely shows some benefit to multi-set protocols. On the flip side, if you complete a true drop set to failure for your first set of an exercise and try to do more, the quality of sets 2, 3, and beyond are going to be garbage.
When I implement drop sets into my own training, I do it selectively and intentionally. For a muscle group that needs some extra attention, I’ll throw in a drop set as my final set of the final exercise, and really push the intensity to achieve failure. If you’ve never done drop sets before, this new evidence suggests it may be worth a shot.