How to Use Drop Sets to Build Muscle & When to Avoid Them

A step-by-step guide based on science and personal experience

How to Use Drop Sets to Build Muscle & When to Avoid Them

Drop sets are one of my favorite training techniques.

They’re simple, fun, and they’re one of the most efficient ways to maximize hypertrophy gains. But if you overuse them, they can backfire.

In this article, I’ll show you how to do them step by step, when you should use them, and when it’s best that you avoid them.

How to do a drop set

In a drop set, you perform a movement for as many reps as possible, you drop the weight, and you do several more reps. This technique lets you do more reps than you would have normally, had you not dropped the weight.

Drop sets are best done with machines or dumbbells (as opposed to barbells, which are cumbersome to unload).

Drop set example—Dumbbell Curls

  • 30 lbs x 10 reps
  • 25 lbs x 3 reps
  • 20 lbs x 3 reps
  • 15 lbs x 3 reps

You want to rest as little as possible between drops—just long enough to pick up your next weight.

Have a look:

Science of drop sets

In a meta-analysis, researchers Sødal et al. (2023) reviewed the science and synthesized data from 6 studies to "compare the effects of drop sets over traditional sets on skeletal muscle hypertrophy".

In other words, they wanted to see how muscle gain was affected. Here's a breakdown:

  • Six studies met the inclusion criteria, with a total of 142 participants (28 women, 114 men) aged 19.2-27 years.
  • Both drop set and traditional training groups showed significant increases in muscle size from pre- to post-test.
  • There was no significant difference in hypertrophy measurements between the drop set and traditional training groups.
  • However, some drop set protocols took only 1/2 to 1/3 as much time as the traditional training protocols.

In summary, this meta-analysis suggests that drop sets are as effective as traditional sets for promoting muscle hypertrophy, but can be more time-efficient. In the words of the researchers:

"Drop sets present an efficient strategy for maximizing hypertrophy in those with limited time for training."

So if your goal is to build mass and you're short on time, you should definitely consider drop sets. I use and recommend them often, along with rest-pause sets.

What makes drop sets so effective?

Let's dive into their molecular mechanisms for a bit.

Drop sets:

  • Increase mechanical tension
  • Increase metabolic stress

These two factors cause muscle hypertrophy.

Tension is usually best increased by increasing load, but drop sets are actually one of the best ways to increase it without having to do that. This is helpful when you don’t have access to heavy weights.

Drop sets also likely cause more muscle damage, but there’s more and more evidence that muscle damage does not cause hypertrophy.

So again, drop sets most likely work so well because they’re an efficient way to increase tension and metabolic stress.

Common drop set mistakes to avoid

Don’t do them more than once a week

Drop sets are a great way to get the most out of your workout, but they can also take a toll on your body. If you do too many drop sets in one workout, it will be difficult for your body to recover, repair itself, and grow your muscles. Because of that, some trainers recommend doing drop sets only once a week. Others even recommend doing them only one week per month. Doing too many drop sets can lead to overtraining and injuries

Don’t do them when training for strength

Also, doing drop sets when you train for strength with heavy weights is not the best of ideas. That’s because drop sets are taxing. As you drop the weight and accumulate fatigue, your form is more likely to break down. And if you’re lifting heavy weights, you risk an injury. Also, strength is a skill. Most coaches agree it’s best to perform strength moves with close to perfect technique. With drop sets, your technique tends to deteriorate, which could lead to inefficient neural adaptations.