What The Hell Are Drop Sets And Supersets? Muscle Building Secrets Or Unnecessary Complexity?
If you've ever visited a gym, flicked through a fitness magazine, or have so much as a passing interest in lifting weights, you'll have heard the terms "drop sets" and "supersets".
But you might be in the dark as to what they mean. And even if you're up to speed, you might be unsure if, when, and how you should use them.
Many years ago, in my relative training-infancy, I used drops sets and supersets ALL the time. Barely an exercise would go by without some complex training modality creeping its way into my workout.
More recently, this has all changed. Gone are the copious amounts of drop sets, supersets, giants sets, and 'who-knows-what-else sets".
But that doesn't mean they're completely redundant. As with most things, they have a time and a place, and can be a useful tool in your muscle-building armoury.
In this article, you'll discover everything you need to know about drop sets and supersets. By the end of this article you'll know whether or not these approaches to training are worthy of inclusion in your workouts.
So let's get started.
And if you'd prefer to listen to the audio version of this article, click the play button below.
Supersets: What Are They And How Effectively Do They Build Muscle?
Supersets are the pairing of 2 exercises back-to-back, without rest (or at least a vert short rest period).
There's two ways to plan a superset. First, you can pair two exercises of the same muscle group. For example, Shoulder Press and Front Raises. Both exercises predominantly work the front delt. With this approach, you're likely to see a negative effect to your training.
Why? Think of it like this.
While the two exercises may be different, the primary muscle you are working is the same. Therefore, a superset of this nature is the equivalent of one extended front delt exercise. And it doesn't take a genius to conclude your fatigue will be high, and performance low when it comes to the end of that set. Of course, if it's your intension to obliterate a muscle group (maybe at the end of a workout) then it's a potentially valid thing to do.
Bottom line... to build muscle you need tension. And to create maximum tension, these high levels of local fatigue are likely to be counter-productive. Essentially, increasing the level of cardio metabolic fatigue to the point where training becomes sub-optimal.
What About Antagonist-Paired Sets?
An antagonist-paired superset groups opposing muscle together. For example, Leg Extension and Leg Curl. One exercise works the quad, the other the hamstring. With this approach, you're unlikely to see a drop off in performance versus a standard approach to set structure.
It's not overly clear on the mechanistic reason why, but logic would conclude it's related to the muscle(s) not in use benefiting from a rest while the opposing muscle is trained. Additionally, some metabolic waste might also be cleared while the 'less-active' muscle is moving through a passive motion.
Should You Use Supersets?
The primary advantage of supersets is their ability to save you time, without compromising your goal of building muscle.
If you're time-crunched and need to compact your workout into a relatively short space of time, utilising antagonistic-paired supersets is a good way to structure your training programme.
However, if time is not an issue, adopt the training approach that suits you best. If you're someone who likes a more traditional, straight sets approach because of the longer rest periods, then it's fine to train this way.
You only need to do supersets as and when they fit the way you like to work-out.
Drops Sets: Are They The Secret For Increasing Volume And Muscle Mass?
Drop sets typically involve 1-2 sets of the same exercise performed with lighter weights following the main set. For example, 8 x 15kg of bicep curls followed by 1-2 additional sets with 10kg.
There are a few benefits to drop sets. Mainly they allow you to accumulate training volume in a shorter space of time, and with potentially less joint stress.
But, it's important to remember that progressive overload is still the primary driver for muscle growth. As such, the lighter drop sets don't necessarily have the same mechanical effect on your muscles as volume accumulated through straight sets.
So when you come to measure the training volume of 'straight sets' vs 'straight sets and drop sets', it's like comparing apples with oranges.
Or Blue Milk with Bespin IPA (one for the Star Wars fans).
Similarly to supersets, drop sets offer a time-saving benefit, but shouldn't be prioritised over traditional straight sets.
What About Rest-Pause Sets?
Rest-pause sets can be useful in certain situations, with certain exercises. Here, you'll perform a set as normal, then after reaching failure, rest for 5-10 seconds before completing as may reps as possible with the same weight. And you can repeat this process multiple times, as a means to increase overall training volume.
There is a potential advantage with rest-pause over other advanced techniques, such as drop sets, in that they allow for the same motor-unit usage and a similar level of tension, due to the weight remaining the same.
The rest-pause technique is a tool I use with online coaching clients, when they are struggling to increase the weight of a certain lift. It offers a method of increasing overall training volume, without compromising form.
Again, use this approach sparingly. Opt to include a few rest-pause sets with isolation exercises at the end of a workout, IF you need to increase training volume. But avoid using it with big compound lifts, as the increase in global fatigue is not worth the pay-off.
What About Forced Reps? Are They Better Than Drop Sets And Supersets?
Forced reps are the additional reps you grind out at the end of set, with the aid of a spotter.
Are these beneficial? The answer is, maybe.
The research is pretty much non-existent on the topic. It turns out that research dollars are directed to helping cure disease and improving health, rather than deciding whether Johnny Big Balls would benefit from a spot on his bench press. An alarming revelation!
So we have to resort to experience and logic.
The main issue with forced reps is consistency. Do you have a spotter who knows what they're doing? Can they provide the right amount of assistance when needed? Or are you relying on a random stranger each time you set foot in the gym?
Chances are, the lack of a consistent approach is likely to mean the pay-off provided by forced reps is small (and that's being generous).
In addition to that, learning where your true point of failure is and being able to take yourself there on your own, is an important skill to acquire. Therefore, spending time understanding this, without the external influence and complication of forced reps, might be a good thing.
The Bottom Line On Drops Sets And Supersets
Drops sets, supersets, and ultimate-super-duper-giant-balls-deep sets aren't necessary for building the awesome physique you're striving for. In fact, they might even hold you back.
You don't NEED drop sets, supersets, and other advanced training techniques to build muscle. A simple programme, executed with consistent effort is likely to deliver the majority of your gains in the gym.
Yes, drop sets and supersets have their place in certain situations. But remember, exercise execution and progressive overload are the meat and potatoes of your training. If you start swapping these fundamentals for fancy rep schemes and set extensions, you're probably leaving gains on the gym floor.
So stick to the basics. Work hard. And reap the rewards over the months ahead.
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