How Do Drop Sets, Supersets, and other Advanced Techniques Affect Hypertrophy?

Hey Angels & Alphas,

Have you ever done a drop set? A superset? Any other similar advanced lifting technique? 

Well, pretty much every bodybuilder ever has made use of these lifting variations. 

What’s interesting is that we don’t have a lot (if any) research that proves the effectiveness of these techniques. 

What we can do, though, is to make a few predictions on their effectiveness (or lack thereof) based on our understanding of hypertrophy and how it works!

That’s precisely what we’re going to talk about today – the effectiveness of these advanced lifting techniques and their relationship with how our muscles work, adapt, and grow.

Let’s begin by giving these techniques a clear definition.

What are the “advanced” lifting techniques?

Advanced lifting techniques include drop sets, antagonist supersets, back off sets, rest-pause sets, spotter sets, stretching between sets, and other general techniques that bodybuilders use to achieve more hypertrophy and higher “burn-outs.” 

These techniques are not advanced in the sense that beginners can’t use them. They’re advanced in the sense that they’re often used by professionals to handle plateaus and introduce new stimuli wherever necessary.

Let’s start off with everybody’s favorite advanced technique – drop sets.

Drop Sets

Unlike most advanced techniques in lifting, drop sets are actually quite well-researched.

This method involves doing multiple back-to-back sets to failure without taking any rest between them. 

And to do this, you naturally decrease the weight on the bar for each consecutive set.

Even though research has been done, it’s somewhat conflicting. You have half the studies indicating that additional drop sets provide no benefit beyond the first extra set. Moreover, you have the other half of the studies showing that drop sets that involve up to 3 sets produce just as much hypertrophy as 3 usual sets to failure.

In addition, it seems that a drop set workout that involves a total of 3 sets to failure (with two decreases in weight from the first) produces the same amount of hypertrophy as 3 sets to failure with the same weight.

The key here I believe is something called a stimulating rep. A stimulating rep is one that actually produces hypertrophy. Since drop sets are usually performed with moderate loads, each set should involve a number of stimulating reps regardless of how much weight you’ve decided to put on the bar. 

However, traditional drop sets involve performing multiple sets immediately after one another with little rest, and we know that longer rests are a *must* if you’re looking to work on hypertrophy. (Because of the rates of muscle protein synthesis). 

Short rest periods reduce hypertrophy. They either allow lifters to do subsequent sets before fatigue in the nervous system has evaporated or trigger greater nervous system fatigue by higher aerobic demand. 

These are both factors produced by drop sets, so they should technically be even worse than conventional sets in terms of hypertrophy.

Nevertheless, it looks as if drop sets allow the same number of stimulating reps to be done in a shorter amount of time. For bodybuilders who struggle to fit their training volume in their workouts, this might be rather beneficial. 

Spotted Repetitions

Forced repetitions are those in which someone (a spotter) is providing you support so you can perform additional reps after reaching muscle fatigue. 

Essentially, they’re mostly identical to drop sets even if you don’t realize this. The difference here is that the spotter reduces the external resistance the weight produces by providing an extra upward force. 

Right now, there is minimal research on whether or not forced repetitions actually work in terms of building muscle size. The little research that *is* done is aimed toward strength gains. 

That being said, based on the identical nature of drop sets and forced repetitions, it only seems natural that they would have similar effects. 

The main negative here is the inability to calculate the magnitude of force being exerted during these “spotted’ reps. 

This practically makes tracking progressive overload impossible.

Antagonist Supersets

Antagonist supersets are, in short, performing back-to-back sets of two exercises for opposing muscle groups. A good example here is the quad/hamstring superset. Same as the biceps/triceps superset. 

There are a couple of variations to this, but the most common one involves performing these alternating sets with short rest periods. Sometimes, they’re even done immediately one after another, and they’re followed by a long rest period. 

This approach is highly favored due to its ability to help you squeeze in more workout volume in a shorter amount of time. 

But until this day, no long-term studies have compared the effects of this type of workout with a more usual sequence of exercises. 

So technically, it seems that antagonist supersets allow the same number of stimulating reps to be done in a short amount of time without much hindrance on the part of the antagonist muscle group. 

For bodybuilders, this again is rather advantageous if they’re trying to fit in more volume in a short workout.

Back-Off Sets

Back-off sets are all about performing additional sets with a lighter weight immediately after a heavier set.

But because heavy loads are used in the main part of the workout, strength athletes tend to gravitate to this approach while bodybuilders ignore it for the most part.

That being said, research is on the bodybuilder’s side! Current research here points to the fact that back-off sets do benefit hypertrophy because they increase the amount of stimulating reps you can do in your workout.

However, these beneficial effects are only present when the main sets are performed with heavy weights. If you only concentrate on moderate loads, the effect will not be beneficial at all.

Rest-pause Training

Rest-pause sets are also one of everyone’s favorite plateau-breakers. 

This type of training involves one main set followed by additional sets with *very* short rests. However, here, the weight is not altered.  

The results on this one are promising! However, it’s still limited. 

Rest-pause training allows lifters to perform *more* stimulating reps. Along with the added benefit that during the later stages of your workout, every rep becomes a stimulating rep.

That being said, it still has a downside. You have to *really* carefully adjust your sets if you want to *not* spend countless hours in the gym. That’s because, after your first set, every rest-pause set will involve less than five reps, which means you need quite a lot of additional sets to reach your desired volume.

This also means you’ll be training to failure again and again, which naturally delays recovery.

What about stretching between sets?

Stretching between sets is regarded as an advanced technique in bodybuilding even though discussions on it have been quite conflicting.

That’s because what we call “mechanical loading” can be applied to muscles with either:

  • Force generation.
  • Or passive stretches.

Whichever form you choose, it will cause hypertrophy. This has been studied thoroughly, and it is shown to be the case in not only people but animals, as well! 

The thing here is that when muscle fibers are subject to both of these types of loading, this leads to more anabolic signaling. This, in turn, suggests that two types of mechanical loading are being produced at the same time and that they’re *additive*. Although this is true, it’s not really as effective as people claim it to be. The effects on loading by stretching are much, much smaller than the effects of force production. 

If you, however, stretch the agonist (prime mover) muscle between sets while you’re going about your workout, this will decrease the number of reps you can perform. This is obvious since stretching is fatiguing the muscle without producing a lot of hypertrophy-building stimulus. 

But stretching the antagonist muscle actually seems to increase the number of reps you can do, probably because the opposing force is lower during the next set with the prime mover. However, no evidence suggests that this enhances hypertrophy.

The Takeaways…

What we learned today is that drop sets, rest-pause training, back off sets, forced reps, and antagonist supersets are ways that you can increase the number of stimulating reps you do. (Without increasing the time you spend in a gym.)

Every technique has its own pros and cons that we tried to best address. But ultimately, they are a way to increase training volume without triggering the problems that come with lower rest periods. Back off sets involve a somewhat bigger time investment, but they are really only useful when training with loads approaching your 1RM. 

Each of these methods will add a new dimension of complexity to your workout.

But in reality, this only makes progressive overload more difficult to track. And when it comes to some of these techniques like spotted reps, they almost seem impossible to monitor. Variations of the drop set and superset are somewhat easier when it comes to tracking the number of stimulating reps you do, as long as you always keep your rest periods the same. 

But this comes down to having a deeper understanding of how progressive overload is affected by pre-exhaustion and the fatigue produced by single-joint exercises.

And when we’re talking about stretching between sets, you’re really better of taking that time for resting. It’s not fundamentally beneficial to your strength gains.

To conclude, we can say that the bodybuilding methods we’ve discussed today *will* help you perform more stimulating reps in a shorter period of time. However, this comes at an expense to the inability to track progressive overload.

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