Read this before the following article if you haven’t already 🙂
Drop-sets and super-sets are a mainstay in the routine of many gym-goers. However, the usefulness of these techniques in inducing muscle growth have been overrated.
This article will cover:
- an explanation of drop-sets and super-sets
- why they are overrated
- when they should be used
Drop sets often involve taking a set to failure (usually at around 70-90% of a one rep max (1RM)), followed by 1-3 more sets at descending weights which are taken to failure. The amount of weight being moved during the final drop set is often at an intensity (weight) of around ~30% of 1RM. Super-sets are when sets of two separate exercises are performed back to back with minimal rest in between. This is often done with exercises that utilise antagonistic musculature (for example bicep curls and tricep extensions) or with exercises which use similar musculature (for example squats and leg extensions). While these techniques have their merits and can be fit into a well structured routine, I feel they are often overrated in relation to other training variables.
Over-utilisation of drop sets results in huge amounts of fatigue and hinders performance on subsequent sets, making it difficult to do much work with heavier weights, frequently throughout the week. Sure, reps completed at a low percentage of 1RM while fatigued make you feel “the burn” and a pump (metabolic fatigue), and fast twitch fibre recruitment (both stimuli for hypertrophy), BUT this can greatly hinder your performance on a following set and thus hinder volume accumulation. Large amounts of metabolic fatigue is a stimuli for muscle growth however inducing this should not be your main priority at the expense of volume performed at a higher % of 1RM. Sure, it makes you feel good afterwards and makes you feel like you’ve worked hard, but aimlessly performing drop sets is simply not the best for long term progress. Your effort is better spent prioritising performing multiple sets at a higher percentage of your 1RM, slightly shy of failure. This will cause more mechanical tension, likely the main factor in driving long term hypertrophy (1).
When should drop-sets be used?
-If you are short on time in the gym, drop sets could be used effectively.
-For the final set of a training session where it doesn’t matter if performance is hindered after that. Thus metabolic fatigue can be achieved without total training session volume being hindered (the best of both worlds).
However, they are certainly not required for muscle growth, and should be used sparingly. The fatigue and muscle damage resulting from drop sets also needs to be managed so it does not influence the next training session in a negative way.
Super-sets which utilise different muscles (curls and tricep extensions) are fine to implement so long as you can maintain performance on both of the exercises when performing them back to back. However, super-setting exercises like squats and leg extensions, or lunges and leg curls, is counter-intuitive. The fatigue accumulated in the quads during leg extensions will greatly hinder your performance on squats, limit the amount of weight you can use and volume you can perform, and thus the stimuli from each lift may not be as great as you want. Form may also be affected, increasing injury risk. Therefore the positives of increased metabolic fatigue would probably not outweigh the negatives. For these reasons I would almost never recommend supersetting exercises which utilise the same musculature, when your goal is muscle gain.
The Take Home Message
Increasing volume over time in the main exercises (squats, bench, deads, overhead press, rows etc) is the most potent stimuli for whole-body muscle growth, and so should be prioritised, over fancy ways of fatiguing your muscles through drop sets and super-sets.
-Plan your training so that you can increase volume over time in the exercises that use the musculature that you want to improve.
-Utilisation of drop sets can be effective in aiding a little additional hypertrophy, when placed at the end of the training session so as to not hinder volume accumulation.
-Avoid super setting exercises which utilise similar musculature when your goal is muscle gain.
- (1) Schoenfeld, B. J. (2013). Potential mechanisms for a role of metabolic stress in hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training. Sports medicine, 43(3), 179-194.