Drop sets and pre exhaustion training are advanced body-building techniques that can help you build muscle faster and more effectively. Check out the research studies to see if they live up to their promises of building muscle faster!
DROPSET TRAINING: WHAT THE LEADING EXPERTS IN THE FIELD OF MUSCLE GROWTH RECOMMEND SUMMARY
· Dropset training involves dropping the weight of each set but result in similar muscle growth as traditional exercise when the volume is similar.
· Pre-exhaustion training leads to decreased performance and does not lead to greater increases in muscle growth.
WHAT IS A DROPSET TRAINING?
A Drop Set consists of using a weight and completing the set until failure, then without rest, as the name implies, lowering or dropping the weight and doing additional sets to failure. This is done several times, depending on how many drop sets you want to perform. Another drop set meaning is running the rack, strip sets, etc. Remember, making an exercise harder is not always better for muscle growth.
Drop sets normally decrease the weight by 20–25% with each drop set and is taken to complete failure. An example of a drop set would be doing leg extensions with 100 pounds until muscular failure, immediately dropping the weight to 90 pounds and completing an exercise to muscular failure, and then without rest, dropping the weight to 80 pounds until muscular failure. The principle of drop sets allows for more volume in a shorter period. Fitness magazines use sexy headlines like “Shock Your Muscles into Growth with Drop-Sets!”
DOES DROPSET TRAINING BUILD MUSCLE FASTER?
Most studies that have compared drop sets to traditional resistance exercises have found similar muscle growth when the total workout volume is similar.[1,2] One study favored muscle growth when using drop sets over traditional resistance exercise when the volume was equated. It may be worth considering adding a dropset after your normal sets. One study found that including a single drop set resulted in greater muscle mass than a traditional weight training routine.
The addition of the single drop set resulted in a 23% greater volume than the conventional weight training group. This suggests that it was not the drop set that increased muscle growth but the extra volume of performing an additional set. Drop sets should be used for machine-based exercises and limited for high coordination exercises such as the squat and bench press due to high fatigue and greater risk of form deterioration.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU REDUCE THE WEIGHT WITH A DROPSET TRAINING?
A drop set is normally performed without a rest period, but does the amount of weight dropped in each set affect muscle growth? Researchers compared lifters who trained biceps to failure for three sets and another group that trained to failure in the first set but reduced the weight by 5 or 10% on the following sets. At the end of the study, all the groups had a similar increase in muscle growth. Still, the group that dropped their weight by 10% found it was less stressful.
This suggests that when you are training to failure with arms, you can drop the weight by either 5 or 10 pounds, and it won’t make a difference for muscle growth if you are training to failure.
DROPSET TRAINING STUDIES
Another study determined what training principle is the king of muscle growth. Researchers compared pyramid sets (gradually increasing the weight of each set), drop sets, and traditional resistance exercises for 12 weeks. The training volume was similar for all the training groups. They also used fairly heavy training percentages in their first set (65–85%) and used a high exertion level.
At the end of the study, all groups had similar increases in muscle growth; interestingly, the drop-sets and pyramid sets trained to muscular failure, whereas the traditional exercise did not, but all groups had similar increases in muscle growth. It also highlights that training volume appears to be the most important determining factor for muscle growth rather than routine or metabolic stress.
DROPSET TRAINING FOR HYPERTROPHY
In a 2021 study, drop sets resulted in certain regions of muscle growth that were not found with traditional training. The resistance training study lasted eight weeks, with the drop set protocol consisting of a 5RM load to failure, reducing the load by 20% to failure again, then reducing the load by 10-15%.
The traditional strength protocol consisted of 15RM to failure. At the end of eight weeks, although both had similar increases in leg muscle mass, drop sets resulted in a superior increase in the rectus femoris (front middle region of the thigh). Upon analysis of the training volume, the drop set group resulted in a higher training volume. The greater exercise volume with dropsets was suggested to enhance the targeted rectus femoris hypertrophy compared to the traditional strength training group.
SINGLE JOINT DROPSET TRAINING TECHNIQUES
Drop sets can be a great way to add volume to single-joint exercises such as bicep curls, triceps extensions, and calf training to bring up lagging body parts. They incorporate many stimulating reps in a very short time and are great for a time-efficient workout. Using drop sets for multi-joint exercises such as the squat, bench press, and other major body parts would be extremely fatiguing.
The risk-to-reward ratio is too high for drop-sets with squats because of fatigue’s rapid deterioration with exercise form. It’s best to use drop sets for single-joint exercises where you can easily drop the weight yet maintain proper form. A drop set workout is good to use if you are short on time, but it’s not some magic training principle that makes you grow faster.
LEG EXTENSION DROP SET EXAMPLE
100 lbs. x 10 reps or till failure, immediately drop the weight
90 lbs. x till failure, immediately drop the weight
80 lbs. x till failure, immediately drop the weight
70 lbs. x or till failure, immediately drop the weight
WHAT IS PRE-EXHAUST TRAINING?
The theory behind pre-exhaustion training is that if you perform an isolation exercise before a multi-joint exercise, the muscle is pre-fatigued, which results in greater muscle fiber activation during the compound joint exercise. The classic example is leg extensions performed by squats or leg press. Pre-exhaustion training has been advocated to “bring up weak body parts.” The premise of pre-exhaust training is based on maximally fatiguing the muscle.
The truth is, just the opposite occurs. When researchers measured muscle activation, pre-exhaustion training with leg extensions before the leg press decreased muscle activation of the quadriceps. Compared to traditional resistance exercises, subjects performed fewer reps in the leg press after pre-exhaustion training.
PRE-EXHAUST TRAINING STUDIES
A 2007 study investigated smaller muscle groups being performed before larger muscle groups. On one visit, they performed a free-weight bench press, seated machine shoulder press, seated machine triceps extension, leg press, leg extension, and leg curl. On the second visit, they performed the exercises in reverse order. When single-joint exercises precede, multi-joint exercises resulted in a decrease in the total number of repetitions.
Research implies that for optimal muscle growth, individuals should prioritize multi-joint exercises. This recommendation extends to the upper body. When individuals performed pec deck flies before the bench press, they achieved similar muscle activation in the anterior deltoid and pectoralis major muscles. However, the pre-exhaustion from the pec deck exercise increased triceps activation and negatively affected performance during the bench press exercise.
The study suggests that pre-exhaustion exercise is no more effective in increasing the activation of the pre-fatigued muscles than during multi-joint exercises. Furthermore, to maximize the performance in a specific resistance exercise, this exercise should be placed at the beginning of the training session.
DOES PRE-EXHAUSTION TRAINING INCREASE MUSCLE GROWTH FASTER?
The final nail in the coffin for pre-exhaustion training was a 2019 study in which subjects performed either 3 sets of leg presses to failure or one set of leg extensions until failure and immediately performed leg presses to failure for nine weeks. At the end of the study, muscle growth responses were the same between both groups. Others have reported that pre-exhaustion results in no greater muscle growth than traditional training. It should come as no surprise since both groups were trained to failure. These results suggest that pre-exhaustion will not lead to greater muscle growth.
Leg Extension followed immediately by squats.
Chest flyes followed immediately by bench press
All these intensity techniques promote better muscle pumps and increase the density of a training protocol in a short time. If you are looking for a deep dive into all the research on these training principles, I would recommend the review article “No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review.”
The authors concluded that advanced training techniques, such as supersets, drop sets, and rest-pause training, roughly halves training time compared to traditional training while maintaining training volume. However, these methods are probably better at inducing hypertrophy than muscular strength, and more research is needed on longitudinal training effects.
You will undoubtedly get a great pump with any of these techniques. Still, these exercise principles result in similar muscle growth to traditional resistance exercise when the volume is similar. If you use these techniques, use them sporadically, as they can increase fatigue. These techniques help get in and out of the gym faster by increasing the workout volume, but the research does not suggest that they are superior to traditional training when the volume is similar.
THE TRAINING PARTNER EFFECT
Another training technique to boost volume is to have a good training partner that motivates you during exercise. When lifters were tested on the bench press with and without a training partner, on average, when they had a spotter, they performed almost 2 more reps per set and with less exertion. This was just one session; imagine taking these results and spreading them over a year of training.
These techniques will work better for smaller muscle groups, such as the calves, arms, etc. When you train smaller body parts, greater peripheral fatigue (muscles) is tolerated. These techniques are great if you need to get in and out of the gym faster, but continued use can lead to greater training stress, excess fatigue, and longer recuperation times. In a review titled Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods, the author made the following key points about these advanced techniques:
- Athletes may consider advanced training techniques to provide an additional stimulus to break through plateaus, prevent monotony, and reduce the time of training sessions.
- To maintain high time efficiency of training, using agonist/antagonist supersets, drop sets, and cluster sets may be advantageous to the traditional approach.
- Supersets (two back-to-back exercises using opposing muscle groups) can stimulate muscle growth in a shorter time because you can pack more tension on a muscle in a shorter time. However, they are not superior to traditional training when the volume is similar.
- Compound Sets (using similar muscle groups) result in higher muscle activation and more muscle damage than supersets.
- Compound sets result in similar muscle gains to traditional exercise.
- Supersets allow for greater performance than Compound Sets.
- Drop sets involve dropping the weight of each set but result in similar muscle growth as traditional exercise when the volume is similar.
- Cluster sets, rest-pause, and other studies involving shortened rest periods found that rest-pause was equally effective as traditional resistance exercise with less fatigue development.
- Pre-exhaustion training leads to decreased performance and does not lead to greater increases in muscle growth.
1. Vitor Angleri, Carlos Ugrinowitsch, and Cleiton Augusto Libardi, “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, no. 2 (February 2017): 359–69.
5. Bruce M. Lima et al., “Planned Load Reduction Versus Fixed Load: A Strategy to Reduce the Perception of Effort With Similar Improvements in Hypertrophy and Strength,” International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 13, no. 9 (October 1, 2018): 1164–68.
6. Alysson Enes et al., “Rest-Pause and Drop-Set Training Elicit Similar Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Compared to Traditional Sets in Resistance-Trained Males,” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, July 14, 2021.
7. Dorian Varović et al., “Drop-Set Training Elicits Differential Increases in Non-Uniform Hypertrophy of the Quadriceps in Leg Extension Exercise,” Sports (Basel, Switzerland) 9, no. 9 (August 29, 2021): 119.
8. Jesper Augustsson et al., “Effect of Pre-Exhaustion Exercise on Lower-Extremity Muscle Activation during a Leg Press Exercise,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 17, no. 2 (May 2003): 411–16.
9. Walace Monteiro, Roberto Simão, and Paulo Farinatti, “Manipulation of Exercise Order and Its Influence on the Number of Repetitions and Effort Subjective Perception in Trained Women,” Revista Brasileira de Medicina Do Esporte 11 (March 1, 2005).
10. Gentil, P., Oliveira, E., de Araújo Rocha Júnior, V., do Carmo, J., & Bottaro, M. (2007). Effects of exercise order on upper-body muscle activation and exercise performance. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 21(4), 1082–1086.
11. Trindade TB, Prestes J, Neto LO, et al. Effects of Pre-exhaustion Versus Traditional Resistance Training on Training Volume, Maximal Strength, and Quadriceps Hypertrophy. Front Physiol. 2019;10:1424.
12. James Peter Fisher et al., “The Effects of Pre-Exhaustion, Exercise Order, and Rest Intervals in a Full-Body Resistance Training Intervention,” Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism = Physiologie Appliquee, Nutrition Et Metabolisme 39, no. 11 (November 2014): 1265–70.
13. Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 51(10), 2079–2095.
15. Michal Krzysztofik et al., “Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 16, no. 24 (December 4, 2019): E4897.