A recent study by researchers at Southampton Solent University in the UK have determined based on their research that using “breakdown” style training, otherwise known as Drop Sets is no more effective at inducing muscle, strength and body composition changes than that of normal set resistance training.
The researchers had 33 subjects, both male and female who were randomly assigned to 3 different groups training 2 x / week for a duration of 12 weeks. Exercises included machine variants for full body training sessions.
Results indicated that there were no significant differences between any of the 3 groups.
Evaluation of the study
A couple things with this design and study. It seems that one of the primary things they are trying to determine is: 1. Is failure/fatigue a driving force behind growth and 2. Does metabolic stress have a strong correlation with muscle growth and or strength? 3. Are drop sets more effective than traditional training, outside of increasing volume?
Their discussion indicates that advanced training techniques such as this are not advantageous for growth and should be avoided (since there was no significant benefits found). But… there are a couple of different reasons why it’s really difficult to infer that conclusion.
Dropping load from 75%-80% from the first set to 50% 1 RM might not be advantageous for muscle growth or strength. While taking sets to failure does seem to produce a similar response, regardless of percentage, using a light load such as 50% might not produce an optimal growth response.
This study would have been much more interesting if total volume was equated across all groups. While the actual thing (drop sets) being tested required the volume to be different, it would be nice to further confirm that notion that ensuring greater volume over time is king.
I also don’t believe that 1 (control group) or 2 sets per exercise is ample. Furthermore, 2 workouts per week definitely isn’t optimal. Again, the variable being studied (drop sets) makes the frequency of training irrelevant, it would still be nice to see this used in a protocol that exemplifies real world.
The total volume for the normal breakdown set group was low, in comparison to the other groups. Reasoning for this discrepancy is unclear, but can certainly play a role in the notion that drop sets are ineffective.
While this study indicates that there is no benefit, I believe that there are ways you can implement it to be effective.
Fisher, J. P., Carlson, L., & Steele, J. (2016). The Effects of Breakdown Set Resistance Training on Muscular Performance and Body Composition in Young Men and Women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 30(5), 1425-1432.