What Is A Drop Set? How To Promote Muscle Gain With Drop Sets

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After you spend a little time in the weight room at the gym, you quickly become aware of the fact that there are many different ways to structure your strength training workouts.

You can adjust the number of reps and sets you do for each exercise, the amount of weight you lift per movement, and the order in which you sequence the exercises you perform.

One of the various training techniques or structures you can employ is the drop set. But what is a drop set?

Drop sets are particularly popular in bodybuilding training programs due to the fact that this approach is a great way to facilitate hypertrophy or muscle growth.

In this article, we will discuss what drop sets are, the benefits of drop sets, and how to do a drop set in order to arm you with an effective training approach for big muscle gains.

We will cover: 

  • What Is a Drop Set?
  • How to Do a Drop Set
  • 3 Benefits of Drop Sets
  • 2 Risks of Drop Sets

Let’s get started! 

A person lifting weights.

What Is a Drop Set?

Before we delve into the nitty-gritty of how to do a drop set and why you may want to add drop sets to your training, let’s start with the basics: what is a drop set?

A drop set is an advanced strength training technique designed to maximize potential hypertrophy or muscle growth.

Performing a drop set involves completing a set of a given exercise until failure, meaning that you are unable to perform another repetition with the proper form and technique. Essentially, you go for broke.

Immediately after you have completed the first set to exhaustion, you reduce the weight or resistance that you are using by 10 to 30% and then begin another set.

You then complete a set with the lighter load again until failure.

As soon as this occurs, in most cases, you then drop the resistance one more time (by another 10-30%) and complete one final set to failure with the lightest load.

There is no rest in between sets, aside from the time it may take to grab the lighter weight. 

In this way, it should almost feel like one continuous set that only included a momentary pause to reduce the weight.

Because you are not giving your muscles any break between sets and you are ultimately performing quite a few reps by the end of the drop set, drop sets are a fantastic way to maximize your muscle gains and truly eke out every last bit of muscular strength and endurance you can muster.

A person learning what a drop set is on a bench press.

How to Do a Drop Set

Although it’s easy to theoretically understand the concept of a drop set, putting it into practice can be a little more challenging to understand.

Let’s consider an example of a drop set doing the dumbbell chest press to paint a tangible picture of how to do a drop set.

The first set is performed with the heaviest weight.

Although we gave the somewhat nebulous description that the first set should be performed to failure, you want to use a resistance that will result in failure in 6-8 reps.

In other words, start with a weight that you can perform a maximum of 6 to 8 reps with perfect form.

Bench press.

In our theoretical example, this might involve using 60-pound dumbbells in each hand.

After 6-8 reps, you should feel completely spent such that you can’t do a ninth rep (or potentially seventh or eighth) with proper technique.

Then, you would drop the weight and pick up lighter dumbbells (usually 10-30% lighter).

For the second set of a drop set, you should be aiming for a rep range of 10 to 12 reps. 

This means the second weight that you use should be one that you can handle for 10-12 reps at maximum effort. 

Since we started at 60 pounds, the weight for the second set of the drop set would be about 6-18 pounds less, so we might go to 50-pound dumbbells as a happy medium.

Using the 50-pound dumbbells, you would perform 10 to 12 reps of the chest press exercise.

Finally, we will drop the weight and choose your lightest load for the third set of the drop set, again reducing the resistance by another 10 to 30%.

The target rep range for the third set of a drop set is usually 12 to 15 reps.

Because the second set used 50-pound dumbbells, the third set would reduce the load by another 5-15 pounds, so we might drop to 40 pounds.

After 12-15 reps with the 40-pound dumbbells, the drop set is over, and you should be at complete failure.

A person lifting weights.

3 Benefits of Drop Sets

As with any strength training technique or approach, there are pros and cons to doing drop sets.

The benefits of performing drop sets include the following:

#1: Drop Sets Promote Hypertrophy

The primary benefit of drop sets is that they are a great way to promote muscle growth or gains in muscle size (hypertrophy).

Studies have found that performing a single drop set of a given exercise is a more effective way to build muscle than performing utilizing the conventional protocol of performing three sets of the exercise with the same weight and a break between sets.

This is because drop sets fully fatigue all of your muscle fibers, stressing both the smaller and larger muscle fibers. By recruiting all of your muscle fibers and utilizing them to failure, a greater amount of damage is inflicted on the muscle fibers.

Although this doesn’t sound like a good thing, it is actually the microscopic damage you cause to your muscle fibers during exercise that induces myofibrillar protein synthesis, the reparative process that builds larger and stronger muscle fibers.

When your body undergoes damage to your muscle fibers, it stimulates amino acids and other nutrients to be shuttled to the muscle, where they can be assembled into new proteins.

These proteins then reinforce the damaged muscle fibers, strengthening and thickening them. This is what causes gains in muscle size, or hypertrophy.

When the damage to your muscle fibers after a workout is minimal, the reparative and rebuilding process is minimal, so you will not see as much muscle growth.

When the damage is more significant (but within reason), it triggers a more dramatic reparative response, yielding greater muscle gains.

People doing deadlifts.

#2: Drop Sets Improve Muscular Endurance

Research has demonstrated that drop-set training can increase muscular endurance, which refers to the ability of your muscles to continually exert force without fatiguing.

Although the primary function of using drop sets in your resistance training program is to promote hypertrophy, drop sets also increase muscular endurance.

If you follow the standard drop set protocol, by the end of a drop set, you will have performed anywhere from 28-35 reps of the exercise with little to no rest in between.

Even modified drop sets that use lower rep ranges for each of the three tiers still require quite a few reps by the end.

This builds muscular endurance and helps prevent fatigue when you are performing normal sets or engaging in functional movements with the muscles you have trained.

A person grasping a barbell.

#3: Drop Sets Are Efficient

When your training time is at a premium, drop sets are a great way to get an efficient workout.

Because there is minimal rest involved when you perform a drop set, you end up getting in a lot more work or training volume than you would in the same amount of time performing conventional sets.

Studies have found that improvements in muscular endurance through drop sets can be achieved in less training time than when performing conventional sets.

2 Risks of Drop Sets

A drop set is an advanced resistance training technique that is extremely difficult by nature. Therefore, drop sets aren’t really appropriate for beginners.

A person lifting weights.

Here are the potential risks and drawbacks of drop sets:

#1: Higher Risk of Injury

As is the case when performing any type of strength training exercise, using proper form is critical with a drop set, especially because you are working to failure throughout the exercise, so the risk of injury is inherently higher.

#2: Overdoing Drop Sets Can Compromise Muscle Gains

While there are many benefits to doing drop sets, relying too heavily on this technique (doing drop sets too often in your training program or with too many exercises in a workout) is overly taxing for the body and can actually compromise your gains.

Studies have found that weight lifting to failure increases the levels of adenosine monophosphate (AMP) compared with training without reaching the point of exhaustion.

AMP is a molecule that is derived from ATP, the molecule that serves as the cellular currency for energy. 

Elevated levels of AMP not only indicate that energy levels in the cell have been totally depleted, but it also can slow down or decrease muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth and repair).

As long as you incorporate drop sets strategically into your training plan and don’t overdo it, the drop set can be a valuable tool to maximize your muscle gains.

Looking for a diet to assist with your muscle gains? Check out our Ultimate 7-Day Meal Plan For Muscle Gain.

A person chalking their hands.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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