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Can drop sets help you gain muscle and strength? Is the sumo deadlift “cheating” compared to conventional deadlifts? Is willpower limited and how do your beliefs affect it?

I’m discussing the latest scientific studies on these questions. Listen now to dive into the research!

This podcast is another installment in my Research Review series of episodes, where I give you concise and practical takeaways from studies that I think are interesting and that can help us gain muscle and strength faster, lose fat faster, perform better athletically, feel better, live longer, or get and stay healthier. 

There is a ton of scientific research that gets published every year, and even if you narrow your focus to fitness research, it would still take several lifetimes to unravel the hairball of studies on nutrition, training, supplementation, and related fields. 

That’s why my team and I put a lot of time into reviewing, dissecting, and describing scientific studies in articles, podcasts, and books. 

Oh and if you like this type of episode, let me know. Send me an email ([email protected]) or direct message me on Instagram (@muscleforlifefitness). And if you don’t like it, let me know that too or how you think it could be better.


0:00 – Please leave a review of the show wherever you listen to podcasts and make sure to subscribe!

1:59 – Should you be doing drop sets?

10:42 – Find the Perfect Strength Training Program for You:

11:28 – Is the sumo deadlift easier than the conventional deadlift?

18-:00 – What is the relationship between mindset and fatigue?

Mentioned on the Show:

Find the Perfect Strength Training Program for You in Just 60 Seconds

What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!


Hello and welcome to Muscle for Life. I am Mike Matthews. Thank you for joining me today for a type of episode that I have recorded now and then in the past, and that I want to record more frequently going forward, maybe once a month. I think that’s how we. Figured it out in the rotation of things, and that is a research review or a research roundup where I am going to discuss three studies with you that I found interesting and practical that may help you reach your fitness goals faster by giving you an idea of how you can improve something that you are currently doing or just warning you off.

Something that you maybe have considered or will consider but should pass on. And so in this episode, I’m going to be talking about three subjects and sharing some research on these subjects. One is drop sets because for decades now, bodybuilders have banked on the drop set technique to gain muscle faster.

But many people want to know. Does it work? And will it work for them? And so that’s, uh, the first research that we’re going to be talking about. Then I’m gonna talk about the sumo versus the conventional deadlift. Is the sumo deadlift easier? Like many people say it is, is sumo style cheating? Like many people say it is.

And which style of deadlifting will ultimately work best for you? And finally, I’m going to share some research on the relationship between mindset and fatigue, because while we’ve all had days where the rigors of existence leave us feeling completely drained of energy and drained of willpower, is that an inevitable consequence of physical and psychological strain, or is it also affected by our attitude toward physical and psychological?

Strain. Well, I’m going to answer those questions in today’s episode. Okay, let’s start out with some research on drop sets. And if you missed my intro to the drop set research is this, for decades now, bodybuilders have banked on the drop set technique to gain muscle faster. But what does science say? Does it work and will it work for you?

Should you be doing drop sets? Well, first, let’s define our term here. A drop set involves taking a set of an exercise, usually an I. Insulation exercise, sometimes a compound exercise. Basically never a big heavy compound lift. You wouldn’t do this on a big squat, deadlift, bench press. Overhead press, and so what you do is you take the set, a single set to muscular failure, or right up to the brink, maybe zero good reps left, followed by another set of the same exercise also to failure or right.

Up to one rep, shy of failure with 10 to 20% less weight, followed by yet another lighter set, so you reduce the weight again by 10 to 20%. Take that set to failure, followed by still another reduction in weight set to failure, usually, until you have done a total number of sets and. That whole routine would be one drop set.

Now with the drop set your muscles experience more time under tension, which is what it sounds like, time producing tension or time tensing. You could think of it that way when you are training your muscles, tension levels are rising in the muscles, and that can be a powerful mechanical stimulus for muscle growth.

And the total amount of time that your muscles are tensing would be time under tension when you’re training. And so with the drop set, obviously you have more time under tension in one drop set than you would in one traditional set. You also will get a bigger pump from drop set training than with traditional training.

And it’s primarily those two factors that people claim can produce a stronger muscle building stimulus than a traditional. Set. However, there are many experts in the evidence-based fitness space and elsewhere who disagree, and they usually disagree for three reasons. The first one is that while time inter tension does contribute to muscle growth, research shows that using sufficiently heavy weights in your training is more important.

And specifically, studies show that you want to use at least 60% of one rep max, and you want to take each set close to muscular failure, not two muscular failure, but within probably two or three reps of muscular. Failure and practically speaking, probably closer to about 80% of one rep max or heavier is ideal.

It is really not fun to train with 60% of one rep max and to take your sets close to muscular failure because that will involve 15 to 20 reps per set. And so just. Start there. Think about doing your squats with 60% of one rep max, 15 to 20 reps per set, and you have to push those sets close to muscular failure.

You can’t just pick enough weight that allows you to get 15 to 20 reps fairly easily. Maybe the. 18th, 19th, 20th reps. Those are difficult and you’re feeling it a bit, and there’s a little bit of lactic acid buildup in your quads, and you’re getting a bit of a pump, and then the set ends, no, no. You need to use enough weight so your legs are on fire at the end of those sets.

So you feel like. You are taking a bath in oil of vitriol or something, and that’s just your squat exercise. Now, think about your other lower body exercises that you will be doing now. Think about your hip hinge, your deadlift of any variation that you will be doing, and your bench press or your horizontal press.

If you’re not bench pressing, maybe you’re dumbbell pressing, even machine pressing and overhead pressing, and so on and so on. Again, it’s a very painful, uh, not enjoyable way to train. And you have to spend quite a bit more time in the gym because those sets take quite a bit longer than doing say, five to eight reps or maybe 10 reps per set.

And so anyway, coming back to this first counterpoint to drop set boosters, and that is that using sufficiently heavy weights and training close to muscular failure is more important than just racking up time under tension. Another common counterargument against. Drop sets is that they involve progressive reductions in load that then become a fraction of your normal training weights, and that is suboptimal for muscle building because again, research shows that you need to use enough load to generate inadequate.

To generate an effective training stimulus. And finally, people who are not a fan of drop sets will often say that muscle pumps are great, but for all their glory, they really are not a meaningful contributor to muscle growth. They are just mostly a pleasing byproduct of resistance training. And so many evidence-based weightlifters dismiss the drop set as a distraction or even a detriment.

Are they right though, or are the bodybuilders right or is the truth somewhere in between? Well, according to research conducted by scientists at CUNY Layman College that involve the analysis of five studies on the matter, drop sets appear to produce about the same amount of muscle and strength gain as traditional sets.

Okay, so then it sounds like I’m notching one for the bodybuilders then. Well, not quite, because the results did not find any unique benefits to drop sets, as advocates will often claim only that drop sets are a comparable replacement for traditional sets. What’s more, because there were only five studies to analyze, and that’s a rather small body of research.

And four of the five studies included fewer than 30 participants. And so those are small experiments and because participants in the studies reviewed, trained with loads, no heavier than 80% of one rep max, the scientists were not able to investigate how important factors such as training, experience, volume, and intensity might affect.

The results. Therefore, while this study that I just shared with you is evidence that suggests that drop sets are equally effective as traditional sets for gaining muscle and strength, at least in certain muscle groups that were looked at in the studies that were reviewed that may not. Always be the case.

It is possible that for some people, traditional sets are superior if they are performed with sufficient weight and intensity. That said, there are two reasons to consider including drop sets in your routine. The first one is you simply like them. Too many people discount this. They discount their personal preferences in the quest for optimal programming.

Usually scientifically optimal programming and they turn their training into something akin to doing their taxes. It’s it’s essential drudgery that they just have to force themselves to do. And that’s a mistake because compliance suffers enjoyment, suffers performance can suffer because you are not having fun in your workouts.

You are just going through the motions. And so if a method, a training method, a training technique, a training principle, so long as it meets an acceptable threshold of efficacy, given your circumstances and goals because it’s fun, is just as good of a reason to use that workout split or that exercise or that training technique and so on as any other.

And so if you just get off on drop sets, even though you understand that there’s nothing special about them, then you should do. Drop sets. The second reason to consider including drop sets in your routine is when you are short on time, and then you have to either skip much of your workout or you have to compress, let’s say 30 minutes of training into 10 minutes.

And when you are incorporating drop sets into your training, use them with isolation exercises rather than compound ones, and that’s mostly for safety. And use them for the final set or two of exercises rather than the first set or two, unless you only have time for drop sets. Additionally, my rec.

Recommended protocol for executing a drop set is this. So you take your first set to one rep shy of muscular failure, so you have zero good reps left. You are right there at muscular failure, and then you immediately reduce the weight by 10 to 20%, and then you do another set to within one rep of muscular failure, and then you immediately reduce.

The weight again by 10 to 20%, and you do one more set to the brink of failure, and that triple set counts as one drop set. Then you would rest two, three minutes before doing another set of any kind for that muscle group. So before moving on to another drop set, or maybe it’s a traditional set of another exercise.

Have you ever wondered what strength training split you should follow, what rep ranges you should work in, how many sets you should do per workout or per week? Well, I created a free 62nd training quiz that will answer those questions for you and others, including how frequently. You should train each major muscle group, which exercises you should do, what supplements you should consider, uh, which ones are at least worth taking and more.

To take this quiz and to get your free personalized training plan, go to Muscle for muscle f o r quiz, answer the questions and learn exactly what to do in the gym to gain more muscle and strength. Okay, let’s now move on to sumo versus conventional deadlift. Is the sumo deadlift easier than the conventional deadlift?

Is the sumo deadlift cheating? Many people say yes, it is easier. Yes, it is cheating. Are they right? Well, I’m going to talk about that. And help you understand which style of deadlifting is going to work best for you. Okay, so many people say that the sumo deadlift simply doesn’t count like the traditional deadlift because the range of motion is smaller, and they are right about the range of motion.

It is smaller. Specifically, research shows that with a conventional setup, you have to lift the bar 20 to 25% further than with the sumo. Stance, and that’s a fair amount. And as more range of motion on an exercise usually means more difficulty. It does seem reasonable to assume that the sumo deadlift is indeed easier, but if that were true, why aren’t most competitive strength athletes pulling Sumo and especially the strongest ones?

Well, it turns out that both of these exercises are comparable and difficulty because the additional range of motion in the conventional deadlift is at the end of the rep when you are completing the lockout, when you are fully straightening your back, and that’s the easy part of the exercise. If there’s any easy part of the.

Ted lift, it is the last little bit where you’re locking out rather than at the beginning of the rep when you are breaking the bar off the floor and you are lifting it past your mid shin, that is the hardest part, the absolute hardest part. That’s where 80% of your effort is, well, maybe not 80, but the majority of your effort on the deadlift is getting the bar off of the floor and then getting it.

It’s up to your knee or a little bit above your knee, and from there it feels relatively easy to finish your rep. And this is why one study conducted by scientists at Coastal Carolina University found that in people with no deadlifting experience, which was intentional because then there was no confounding effect of having extensive experience with one style of pulling, but not the other.

The researchers found there were no. Significant differences in one rep max strength between the sumo and conventional deadlift, and that there was no connection between height, limb length. They looked at arm length, they looked at hand size, they looked at thigh length, they looked at lower leg length or joint size, looking at the size of the wrists and the size of the ankles and exercise performance.

So no matter how people’s bodies were shaped, they all performed more or less equally well on the conventional deadlift as they did. On the sumo deadlift. Therefore, if you are unsure which style of deadlift will work best for you, there are two things to consider. So one is your training experience. If you are new to deadlifting, I would recommend that you start with conventional pulling for two reasons.

One, it’s less technical than the sumo deadlift. The sumo deadlift is a little bit harder to learn and why make things harder than they need to be. In the beginning and then two, the conventional deadlift requires less hip flexibility than the sumo deadlift, and that makes it more comfortable for people with limited mobility.

And a lot of people who are getting into strength training newly do have limited mobility in their mobility of their hips and of their shoulders and of their ankles and other joints. It’s going to improve with training. But in the beginning it’s often not very good. And there’s also anatomy to consider because there are several anatomical factors, including the structure of your hips and the relationship between the length of your torso and your arms.

That can cause one style of deadlifting to always feel more comfortable than the other. Meaning it’s not just a matter of mobility, no matter what you do, the conventional deadlift is just going to feel better. For you than the sumo deadlift or vice versa. So for example, if it’s your hips, if your hips are simply not suited to one style, and I, I won’t get into the details here because it’s not necessary, because you will know it because you’re gonna feel tightness and pinching and pain when you’re pulling.

And again, no amount of foam rolling or stretching or massage, gunning or prehab is going to change that. And if it’s your torso and your. Arms, here’s how it usually plays out. If you are somebody with a long torso in short arms, you are probably going to find the sumo deadlift more comfortable than the conventional deadlift if you have a long torso in long arms.

So that’s me, for example, you are probably gonna find the conventional deadlift to be more comfortable, and I do. If you have a short torso and short arms, sumo is probably going to feel better. To you. Uh, short torso, long arms, conventional, probably going to feel better for you. Average torso, short arms, sumo, average torso, long arms, conventional short torso, average arms, sumo long torso.

Average arms can go either way. Now, don’t consider any of those pairings, prescriptions. They’re just rules of thumb that are generally true, but don’t. Necessarily apply to everyone always. So if I just said that, well, Sumo will probably be better for you or more comfortable for you, and it’s not more comfortable for you, or you really don’t like doing it, then don’t do it.

You don’t have to. I just wanted to share some general guidelines that work well for most. People, and I know I said I had two factors to consider when choosing a style of deadlifting, but I actually have three, and it is personal preference. Again, whichever one you like the most is the one you should probably stick with, and you are probably going to like the one that feels most comfortable and that you can perform the best at.

And if you’re not sure what that is, and maybe your body type isn’t clearly suited to one or the other, you can just try. Both of them do one style for eight to 10 weeks. So you can learn the technique and you can at least progress for a few weeks. I mean, the first couple of weeks when you’re learning can be kind of awkward, but neither of these exercises are all that difficult.

It’s not like you’re learning to hit a fast ball or, uh, hit a golf ball or something. And so within a couple of weeks you should, uh, reach a baseline level of skill and then you can make a little bit of progress and see what you think. So do eight to 10 weeks of conventional. Pulling and then eight to 10 weeks of sumo pulling and stick with whichever you like the most.

Alright, the third and final topic of research on today’s episode is the relationship between mind and fatigue. And I’m just gonna repeat what I said in the intro of this episode in case you skipped it. And that is that we’ve all had days where the rigors of existence leave us feeling drained of energy and drained of willpower.

But is that an inevitable consequence of physical and psychological strain, or is it also affected by our attitude toward physical and psychological strain? Well, that’s what scientists at Stanford University wanted to investigate when they had 66 people rate their level of agreement with various statements on the relationship between exertion and exhaustion, including after a strenuous mental activity, your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refueled again.

Working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel tired, such that you need a break before accomplishing a new task. Your mental stamina fuels itself. Even after strenuous mental exertion. You can continue doing more of it and sometimes working on a strenuous mental task. It can make you feel energized for further challenging activities.

So those were four examples of statements that the researchers had people rate their level of agreement with. And based on their answers, the scientists separated the participants into two groups. You had those with a limited view of willpower. So those are people who would strongly agree with the first two statements that I shared, and they would disagree with the final two.

And then you had people with a. Non-limited view, and those people would strongly agree with the final two statements, and they would disagree with the first two. And the researchers then asked everyone in the study to complete a simple task of crossing out every letter E on the page of a text, and then had half of the participants repeat that same exercise and the.

Other half do a more challenging task of crossing out specific combinations of letters on a page of text. So some mental exertion is what they were getting at there. And after completing both assignments, all of the participants did a psychological test that measured elements of attention and cognition, and the results showed that the people with a limited view of willpower made more mistakes than those with a non-limited view of willpower.

In other words, the belief that doing something mentally fatiguing appeared to function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. What’s more these effects have been seen in studies on health and fitness habits as well. For instance, a study that was conducted by scientists at the University of Toronto found that those with a non-limited mindset were more likely to exercise and less likely to snack at the end of a challenging day than those with a.

Limited mindset and there is good news for people with a limited view of willpower. So that maybe is you, and that is research shows that by simply understanding how your beliefs can affect your behavior, willpower can automatically improve. So if you have always assumed that effort only innovates and never invigorates, and you now have at least started to rethink your position, you have.

Also started a virtuous cycle. By shifting your psychology toward more self-control, you’ll be more likely to stick to your fitness regimen, and that will then further buttress your frame of mind as well as your strength of will. Well, I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes.

And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people. Who may like it just as much as you. And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have, uh, ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share, shoot me an email, mike muscle for, muscle f o r and let me know what I could do better or just, uh, what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.

I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you soon.

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