Adaptive clinical trial design has been proposed as a promising new approach that may improve the drug discovery process. Proponents of adaptive sample size re-estimation promote its ability to avoid ‘up-front’ commitment of resources, better address the complicated decisions faced by data monitoring committees, and minimize accrual to studies having delayed ascertainment of outcomes. We investigate aspects of adaptation rules, such as timing of the adaptation analysis and magnitude of sample size adjustment, that lead to greater or lesser statistical efficiency. Owing in part to the recent Food and Drug Administration guidance that promotes the use of pre-specified sampling plans, we evaluate alternative approaches in the context of well-defined, pre-specified adaptation. We quantify the relative costs and benefits of fixed sample, group sequential, and pre-specified adaptive designs with respect to standard operating characteristics such as type I error, maximal sample size, power, and expected sample size under a range of alternatives. Our results build on others’ prior research by demonstrating in realistic settings that simple and easily implemented pre-specified adaptive designs provide only very small efficiency gains over group sequential designs with the same number of analyses. In addition, we describe optimal rules for modifying the sample size, providing efficient adaptation boundaries on a variety of scales for the interim test statistic for adaptation analyses occurring at several different stages of the trial. We thus provide insight into what are good and bad choices of adaptive sampling plans when the added flexibility of adaptive designs is desired. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.