Whether you’ve performed them or not, you’ve most likely seen your gym’s resident lifters perform drop sets. Compared to more modern training methods — velocity-based training, cluster sets, and the RPE scale — drop sets are barbaric. You lift weights until your muscles are tired, pick up slightly less weight, and then lift until your muscles are tired again.
The idea behind drop sets is that you accumulate more muscle-damaging volume to spark growth. It’s a well-known training technique that is not only widely used but also just as widely abused. Haphazard execution, loose form, and no real rhyme or reason to how they’re applied, drop sets are potentially one of the most misunderstood techniques in the fitness world.
Lucky for you, what follows is a primer on what exactly drop sets are, how to use them properly, and when to program them into your training program to supercharge your muscle-building efforts.
What Are Drop Sets?
A drop set is an intensity technique that has a lifter perform one set for a particular number of reps, drop the weight by 10 to 20 percent, and immediately perform another set. It’s not uncommon to perform three drop sets (your initial set and then two extra sets).
The idea behind drop sets is that you’ll potentially recruit additional muscle fibers and force more blood into the area being trained. More muscle fiber recruitment translates to more muscle damage and more blood flow equates to more nutrient-dense blood to help heal the damaged area. If employed correctly, drop sets are a great technique to eke out more size.
Typically, drop sets are used by physique athletes who are interested in reshaping their bodies and building lean muscle. Beyond muscle growth, drop sets don’t offer a whole lot of benefits to other strength athletes.
So what distinguishes drop sets from standard sets? The rest time and load used. With a standard set, you’d perform your reps, rest for a minute or so, and then perform another set with the same weight. When performing a drop set, you take only as much time as you need to lower the weight you’re lifting for drop sets. After all, less rest means more fatigue.
Here’s an example of a drop set: You may perform barbell curls with 70 pounds for as many reps as possible. After you hit momentary failure, you’ll reduce hen reduce the weight by 10 pounds, then immediately continue the set to failure. Decrease the weight again by 10 more pounds and do more reps until failure.
The Benefits of Drop Sets
So if drop sets sound like a net positive to add to your training program, let’s list a few benefits of this unique training technique.
More Potential Muscle Growth
One of the biggest benefits of drop set training is its effect on muscle hypertrophy (muscle size). Drop sets can potentially increase muscle size by recruiting more muscle fibers by increasing stress on the trained area.
In fact, a 2018 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness put drop sets to the test. One group performed a single drop set for six weeks, while the other group performed traditional straight sets. The drop set group displayed superior gains in muscle versus the other group. (1)
Greater Work Capacity
Work Capacity is defined as your ability to endure more reps and sets in a single workout, and it’s not a trait that a lot of non-athletes think about. Some folks may think of work capacity as muscular endurance, which is a factor in work capacity, but on the whole, it’s your ability to train at an optimal level for a longer period of time. The ability to grind through a heavy 20-rep squat is a perfect example of optimal work capacity — it requires strength, muscular endurance, and a higher cardio threshold.
Drop sets by nature test — and therefore improve — work capacity. You’re essentially forcing your muscle to work harder for longer. Over time, your body will adapt and be able to extend intensity levels. This, in turn, gives you an advantage when it comes to packing on muscle due to the higher levels of stress you’ll be able to endure.
You’ll Save Time
Drop sets are hard, especially if you do them correctly. But one big benefit is that you’ll decrease the amount of time you need to spend in the gym to produce desired results. You’ll rest for a shorter period of time between sets and, due to the intensity of your non-stop rep blitzkrieg, your muscles will exhaust far more quickly compared to if you performed straight sets.
Going too hard for too long can quickly lead to overtraining and slow or even halt muscle growth. Using drop sets strategically and sparingly will reduce the risk of jeopardizing your efforts.
How to Program Drop Sets
Drop sets are traditionally reserved for the last set or two during a workout. Lifters will often utilize them to “burn out” a muscle group and flood the area with as much blood as possible (this effect is also known as the pump). And because drop sets are so difficult, you may even feel a sense of accomplishment by ending your workout on a tough note.
Although they are normally done as a finisher, drop sets can be used anywhere in a workout. A few criteria must be met no matter where you place them.
Drop Set Rules
- Only use drop sets if you have some time in the gym under your belt. It is an advanced training technique that, if overused, can lead to overtraining.
- Make sure you have a plan in place regarding how you’ll reduce the weight and if you’ll require any assistance. (Machines and dumbbells are especially ideal when performing drop sets, as opposed to a barbell, which has you unload each side.)
- Use drop sets sparingly. Avoid using them on every set and only use them once or twice per week, mainly on your more stubborn body parts.
- If you program drop sets early in your training session, be aware that your strength for your following exercises will be compromised.
The Best Exercises for Drop Sets
Certain exercises are a better fit for drop sets than others. For example, performing drop sets on squats will more than likely result in you keeled over out of breath before you can achieve true muscular failure. It’s not a very effective outcome when you’re winded before you finish stimulating all the muscle fibers you set out to hit.
With that said, here is a list of exercises that are ideal for performing drop sets with:
- Chest flye
- Machine chest press
- Lat pulldown
- Straight-arm pulldown
- Machine row
- Machine shoulder press
- Lateral raise
- Face pulls
- Leg press
- Leg extension
- Hamstring curl
- Seated calf raise
- Any curl variation
- Cable pushdown
You may notice a few patterns in the list above. First, there are a lot of machine variations. This is by design. As you fatigue during drop sets, your form can be severely compromised. Machines will help keep your form intact, allowing you to continue to push each set.
Secondly, most of the movements above are isolation exercises. You won’t see squats or deadlifts on the list. Performing drop sets for the big, multi-joint moves can result in exhaustion before muscular fatigue sets in. This can shortchange your efforts and send you into an overtraining state. Plus, you will have most likely performed your big lifts earlier in your program.
Different Types of Drop Sets
Now let’s tackle a few examples of drop sets. Again, these should be reserved for experienced lifters and used sparingly. You’ll quickly find out how intense they can be, but you’ll only reap the rewards if done correctly.
Traditional Drop Set
This is the classic drop set technique mentioned above. Pick an exercise from the list above and perform a normal set. Next, drop the weight by 10 to 20 percent and promptly continue lifting. Drop the weight one last time and finish the set. Use as little rest as possible.
- Barbell Curl: 70 pounds x 12 reps, 60 pounds x 10 reps, 50 pounds x 8 reps
Run the Rack
This type of drop set is best utilized with dumbbells. To “run the rack” means you’ll start with the heaviest weight you can do for your exercise of choice, perform a set until failure, and then move on to the next lightest pair of dumbbells. You’ll keep descending until you’ve run out of weight.
This technique works incredibly well for movements like curls and lateral raises. Choose a pair of dumbbells and perform a set of side laterals. Continue down the rack with each pair of dumbbells.
You can either reduce to the very next pair or jump by 10 pounds. Whichever has you completing your sets with enough reps and proper form.
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 35 pounds x 12 reps, 30 pounds x 10 reps, 25 pounds x 10 reps, 20 pounds x 10 reps, 15 pounds x 8 reps, 10 pounds x 8 reps, 5 pounds x 8 reps
Mechanical Drop Set
This drop set is unique in that you’ll drop the weight you’re using and adjust your grip so that the muscle is being worked at a slightly different angle. Some lifters believe that shifting the angle helps increase the muscle’s ability to resist fatigue.
Give the lat pulldown a try for this drop set, as it allows you to can easily adjust your hand position with this exercise. Start with a standard overhand grip and perform 12 reps. Then sightly drop the weight, take an underhand grip, and do 10 reps. Finally, bring your hands closer together and do eight reps with 20 fewer pounds than what you started the set with.
- Lat Pulldown: 150 pounds x 12 reps (wide grip), 140 pounds x 10 reps (underhand grip), 130 pounds x 8 reps (close grip)
The Final Word
Used the right way, drop sets are a highly effective way to increase your intensity for muscle growth, build more work capacity, and save time. Plan accordingly, execute the flawless form, and recruit more muscle fibers for more growth. Drop sets might be what you need to jump-start your gains once again.
- Fink J, Schoenfeld BJ, Kikuchi N, Nakazato K. Effects of drop set resistance training on acute stress indicators and long-term muscle hypertrophy and strength. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 May;58(5):597-605. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.17.06838-4. Epub 2017 Apr 26. PMID: 28474868.
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