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Drop Sets: What They Are and How to Use Them in Your Workout

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In case you haven’t noticed, there are a million different ways to make your training sessions more productive. OK, we’re exaggerating, but a plethora of techniques exist to amp up the intensity of your workouts. One proven method is the drop set.

When properly executed, drop sets are particularly effective at building muscular strength and endurance—plus, they will challenge your body in a new way.

Definition
The drop set is a technique in which you perform an exercise until failure, then immediately reduce the weight load for an additional set—or sets. Drop sets can be used with any exercise or drill and in a variety of ways. The idea is to increase the number of reps you perform while working near maximum capacity—close to failure. As long as you minimize the time between sets each time you lower the weight, you will realize benefits.

Benefits
Drop sets increase muscle size and endurance. By continuing an exercise at a lower weight, you force your muscles to work as hard as they possibly can, like you do in competition. Although your arms and legs might feel like cooked noodles after drop sets, you’ll be stronger and last longer on the field or court.

Strategies
Drop sets can be incorporated into your workouts in a variety of ways. One is to lift until failure before dropping to a lower weight. Another is to complete a specific number of reps before continuing with lower weight—e.g., ten reps of Bicep Curls at 40 pounds, ten more at 30 pounds and another ten at 25 pounds.

Another variation is to change the amount of weight you drop. As a rule of thumb, drop the weight for each set by about 20 percent, as in the Bicep Curl example above. Plan the weight increments you will drop in advance, so you can minimize time between sets.

Caution
With drop sets, it’s easy to overtrain. Pay attention to your body! We cannot stress that enough. Do not perform drop sets with every set of every exercise in every session. Limit drop sets to one set per muscle group, especially when you are getting started. Drop sets will shock your muscles, so you need to be careful in order to avoid injury. The first time you use drop sets, use lighter weights than you normally do, because you’ll be doing more reps. If you usually Bench three sets of 10 reps at 180 pounds, start off around 140 pounds, or even lower. You know the expression—it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

If you’re looking to shake up your workout routine, there are three techniques you should consider adding to your repertoire: drop sets, supersets and giant sets.

These advanced techniques are used to boost the intensity of a workout, improve muscular endurance and shock your body to prevent a plateau. This kind of training also can enhance fat loss, and because they incorporate very little rest, you also get some cardiovascular benefits. In addition, these techniques all force more blood into your muscles, which helps deliver nutrients and amino acids to the tissues and accelerates the repair process. These techniques can be intense, so use them sparingly — overuse can lead to overtraining. We’ll dive into each one and share their individual benefits, examples and training tips to keep in mind.

What Is a Drop Set?

A drop set is basically an extended set of a move, usually performed as the last set of that exercise as a burnout. For example, for a seated dumbbell shoulder press, you’d do two sets of 10 to 12 reps using a certain weight. For your third set, you’d begin with the same weight and do as many reps as you can, then “drop” or reduce the weight and go to failure, and then drop the weight once more and rep out until you can’t lift the weight anymore.

What Are the Benefits of a Drop Set?

“Drop sets are effective for increasing volume of training while still maintaining good technique for the purpose of muscle growth and fat loss,” says Alex Harrison, Ph.D., CSCS, a sports performance consultant for Renaissance Periodization, who has a Ph.D. in sports physiology and performance. “For example, there are certain exercises that are just better than others. Squats vs. leg extensions, for instance. It’s probably better to just add drop sets of squats than to add leg extensions but not do all the squats you can handle. Same thing for bench press vs. bench flye.”

Can You Do Drop Sets at Every Workout?

The short answer is yes — but you probably don’t need to. If you’re only training a few times a week with weights, then Harrison says you can do drop sets every time you train since maximizing volume of the important movements is critical in low-frequency training.

However, if you lift most days of the week, you’ll want to avoid drop sets on your lighter days. “It’s better to focus on recovery and reserve loads of drop sets for more challenging training days,” Harrison says. “If you’re going to do drop sets on light days, they should probably be done as a replacement for a working set to reduce volume and training stimulus further rather than to add to the overall volume.”

How to Do a Drop Set

You can do anywhere from one drop set to as many drop sets as you did working sets — it just depends on how much volume of training you’re trying to push with that one exercise. “For a big compound movement of high value in training — such as squats, deadlifts, bench, lat pulls, or pull-ups — it might be worth doing more than one drop set, if you deem that lift to be a primary focus for the day,” Harrison explains.

If your goal is to maximize muscle growth and fat-loss stimulus, then decrease weight by 8 to 15 percent and continue to match reps from the previous heavier sets or even increase reps by a modest amount per set.

If you’re a newer lifter and your goal is to increase muscular power or provide more opportunity for learning a newer movement at a less challenging weight, then Harrison advises a bigger decrease in weight from the working weight. “Decreasing weight by 20 to 40 percent is great,” he says. “Complete the same number of reps but probably not more than what was being completed in the working sets at the higher weight.”

What Is a Superset?

A superset is a combination of two or three moves that either work the same bodypart or opposing muscle groups — the key is that the exercises are done back-to-back with no rest in between. Examples of typical supersets include a seated row with a push-up for back and chest and an overhead press with a seated lateral raise for shoulders. Between supersets, you rest only long enough to recover and catch your breath, then hit it again. This helps you save time, burn fat and spike your metabolism.

What Are Supersets Good For?

Supersets serve two primary purposes. “First, they’re often used to drag a smaller muscle group into more fatigue and muscle damage under the assistance of a larger muscle group,” Harrison says. “It’s a great way to stimulate hypertrophy of muscles that reach failure quickly in isolation movements and to work them over a broad range of motion and varying angles.”

Second, they’re great for anyone who is crunched for time, because while local fatigue is present in one muscle group, another muscle group (usually the opposing group, such as biceps and triceps) can get some work in. So think of supersets as a way to cut total rest time in the gym in half.

On the flip side, if maximizing strength is your goal, longer rest periods and more recovery for local muscle groups may be the better approach.

How to Do a Superset

If you’re looking to drag smaller muscle groups to fatigue, then Harrison says 10 to 15 is a great target for each exercise within a superset. “If you’re doing it because you’re short on time, this technique could be used for any set-times-rep scheme in the gym — from sets of three up to 15 reps per set,” he says. “Going much higher than 15 per set might put too much of a load on cardiovascular demand for it to truly be timesaving overall.”

A good example of a superset is skullcrushers: Try 10 reps (or to roughly two to three reps from failure), and then without taking any break, transition into a close-grip bench press with the same weight until two to three reps from failure.

What Is a Giant Set?

A giant set is a circuit of three or more moves for one bodypart performed one after another with little to no rest in between. For example, you might do an overhead press, a lateral raise, a rear-delt raise and an upright row for shoulders — then rest a few minutes to catch your breath and repeat.

What Are the Benefits of a Giant Set?

Giant sets increase the intensity of a workout by overloading a muscle group and pushing it to its limit to burn fat and boost the cardiorespiratory response. That being said, Harrison doesn’t think they’re for everyone.

“Giant sets are only minimally more effective than supersets,” he explains, adding they are probably better reserved for the most demanding sessions for more advanced trainees who are seeking absolute maximization of hypertrophy stimulus. “Giant sets offer the same benefits as supersets if done correctly, but there are more ways to get giant sets wrong and compromise the effectiveness of training — essentially, just turning training into cardio and circuit training rather than either more effective hypertrophy training or more time-efficient strength and hypertrophy training.”

Harrison doesn’t recommend giant sets during any phase of strength training because they are really only good for hypertrophy training (since the loading intensity can’t be high enough for the third exercise to provide any strength benefit to anyone but the most novice of exercisers). “And novice exercisers don’t need to be doing giant sets because they’ll benefit from honing the techniques of movements under less fatigued states, and they respond beautifully to simpler, more conventional models of training,” he argues.

How to Do a Giant Set

A giant set is typically three or more exercises in a sequence. “But I would recommend against doing more than three,” he says. “First because the timesaving benefit of doing so is limited — due to setup and tear-down inefficiency — but more importantly because it doesn’t add much benefit to one’s training, other than cardio fitness, to do more than three in a row.”

For example, for someone looking for glute growth, chest-elevated glute bridges, followed by barbell walking or reverse lunges, followed by conventional or stiff-legged deadlifts would hammer the glutes first with an isolation movement as a pre-fatigue exercise and then continue to use them with the assistance of quads, hamstrings and lower back, which would be less fatigued overall.

Harrison says sets of 10-plus reps for each exercise would be ideal. “Cardio demand here is going to be big, so don’t expect to do more than three of these giant sets in a single session,” he concludes.

How To Add Drop Set Training To Your Workout

Most of the gym going population doesn’t want to deadlift 600 lbs: they want to feel better, look good nekkid, get a deadly set of “guns.” I get it.

Like any strength coach, I believe that unless you are a professional bodybuilder, you first need a solid base of functional strength and mobility before stepping into the realm of aesthetics.

For those of you who have overall goals of health, wellness, and building muscle, smart programming with the addition of some well-placed bodybuilding tricks like drop sets will go a long way. If that’s the place you’re in right now, adding drop sets to your workout might be just what you’re looking for.

What is A Drop Set?

A drop set, also known as a strip set or “running the rack,” is a clever bodybuilding technique that allows the lifter to continue an exercise set past fatigue by using lower weight, less reps, or a similar exercise. The sole goal of this type of method is muscular hypertrophy a.k.a. “getting swole” or obtaining a serious “pump”.

You can perform drop sets with almost any piece of equipment but done typically with barbells, dumbbells, or plate loaded machines (where it is easy to lower the pin). Ugh, yes I said machines but let me explain! Drop sets can be performed at different tempos ( i.e. you are adjusting the amount of rest periods) but to keep the muscle fatigued, it’s best to strip the weight at a fast pace. This is why using a machine for drop sets may be a viable option although, in my opinion, they are not the most efficient or healthiest exercise selection.

A small amount of controversy surrounds the efficacy of this technique as some state that they are no better than conventional sets. I did come across a few studies such as1 this one in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning that claim the use of specialized training techniques do in fact increase muscle hypertrophy. More studies need to be done, but for now utilizing this training can’t hurt!

Types of Drop Sets

Because no strict guideline to performing drop sets exists, many variations have been created. You’ll find below a number of common variations you can experiment with to keep your training from getting stale:

  • Conventional Drop Set – this is the traditional way of starting with an exercise set and stripping or dropping the weight and continuing to “rep out” on the exercise.
  • Strict Drop Set – these are done by following your initial set by stripping the weight and performing each of the following sets with a determined amount of reps.
  • Post Fatigue Partials – instead of stripping the weight, you start with a generally lighter weight for a full set and once you start to feel fatigued, finish with partial or half reps. (remember: no bouncing!)
  • Rest-Pause – this is done by completing your set, taking a short rest and continuing with the same weight. This works great with heavy weight and low reps for strength training. Also known as “clusters”.
  • Mechanical Drop Set (a.k.a. Super Drop Set) – these are also done by continuing the set after fatigue but instead of stripping weight you just switch the exercise variation. E.G. bicep curls, reverse curls, hammer curls, etc.
  • The 6-20 Method – this is done using a heavier weight for six reps then cutting the weight in half and performing 20 more reps.
    I’m sure that many of these definitions can be debated but I hope you get the general idea. Feel free to experiment try some variation of your own!

    When and How To Use A Drop Set

    No matter how cool it would be to run around like a maniac and use drop sets for every exercise, I recommend saving them for your accessory exercises or smaller muscle groups at the end of a workout. It is very important to train using the challenging exercises first while you are fresh.

    After all, working out should be fun! Adding a little excitement and intensity to your workout is a fun way to keep you motivated!

    An example would be to start an upper body workout with the bigger compound movements such as a bench press or overhead press for your normal sets and reps followed by smaller accessory exercises such as dumbbell rows, such as below:

    Sample Upper Body Workout:

    A) Bench Press 5×5
    B1) Pullups 3×6-8
    B2) Pushups 3×12
    C) Dumbbell Row Drop Set 3×8 + drop
    -drop 5lbs after each set and perform 6-8 reps with little to no rest
    D1) External Rotation or other prehab work
    D2) Plank or other core exercise

    Other Drop Set Considerations

    As I mentioned before, this type of training is aimed solely at muscular hypertrophy making it perfect for aesthetic training such as bodybuilding. However if you are an endurance athlete or regularly participate in other sports, additional hypertrophy can hinder performance.

    Also, drop sets will definitely jack up the intensity of a workout, making it a surefire way to overtrain and/or cause an injury while training. I can’t stress enough how important it is to listen to your body, especially when using more intense exercise techniques.

    Now go ahead and add a drop set or two to your routine and make sure to start with a lower weight to see how your body reacts. Let me know what you think and make sure to post questions and comments below!

    Show 1 References

    1. Schoenfeld, B. The Use of Specialized Training Techniques to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy . Strength & Conditioning Journal:
      August 2011 – Volume 33 – Issue 4 – pp 60-65. ↩

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  • The Drop Set Workout That Builds Strength and Size

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    Athletes need strength. And aesthetically, who doesn’t want big arms?

    Hyper Strength is a combo set in which the first set is performed in the strength range followed immediately by a hypertrophy set to combine the best of these two styles of training.

    RELATED: Drop Sets: What They Are and How to Use Them in Your Workout

    Hyper Strength: Star Wars Analogy

    Simplified, there are two types of muscle fibers, slow twitch (type I), and fast twitch (type II). Muscles are like stormtroopers—not very smart and are controlled by a higher source like Darth Vader (the brain). When we decide to move, the brain sends a signal to our muscles to move.

    Imagine 100 stormtroopers on a basketball court. Vader is in front orchestrating everything. The stormtroopers are lined up in a perfect 10×10 box and have been given numbers from 1-100. When Vader calls out a number, the designated stormtrooper and all the troopers below him must raise their hand. This is how the body operates with respect to movement and resistance training. Think of type I muscle fibers as stormtroopers 0-60, and type II fibers as 61-100.

    RELATED: Build Muscle Faster With This Simple Weight Room Trick

    To paint a better picture, stormtroopers 0-60 are light red in color, not very big or strong, but they have great endurance. Stormtroopers 61-100 are white, strong, grow larger, and are very powerful, but they fatigue quickly. When we lift light weights 20-plus times, stormtroopers 0-40 are engaged. For 15-19 reps, troopers 0-50 engage; and when we lift a weight we can only do 10-14 times, troopers 0-60 engage. Stormtroopers 61-100 are significantly larger than their smaller counterparts; real size increases are seen here. Lifting weights between 6-10 reps will engage 0-75 troopers, and 1-5 reps will engage every single stormtrooper in the room.

    This analogy describes the Size Principle. The greater the intensity (lower reps), the higher the threshold for motor unit recruitment (more muscle fibers are used). A motor unit is a single neuron cell and all the muscle fibers associated with it. In this analogy, Vader uses the Force to communicate with each stormtrooper, but in the body, the brain uses motor units to communicate with each muscle fiber. A lot of lifters take a black-and-white approach to lifting: 3×10, 5×5 or 4×15. But this broscience approach may limit your potential #GAINZ!

    Hyper Strength will help bridge the gap to maximize strength and size.

    RELATED: 2 Dumbbell Bicep/Triceps Dropset Circuit

    How to Implement Hyper Strength

    Hyper strength puts the Size Principle to maximal use by engaging the most stormtroopers possible. The more engagement you have, the better results you’ll get. You’ll implement strength training intensity at 85 percent—which corresponds to 5-7 reps—then immediately drop the weight to the hypertrophy range of 60-75 percent, between 8-12 reps. We don’t want you to go to maximal fatigue, because this will compromise your remainder sets. The rest period will be between 2-4 minutes, depending on fatigue. If you were to perform the 60 percent by itself, you’d be able to do a lot more than 12 reps, but because of the maximal motor unit recruitment in the previous strength set, you’d be a little fatigued.

    Constantly training in the strength range is very neurologically taxing. What happens to cars at the Daytona 500? They continually need pit stops to change their tires, add fuel and make sure everything is functioning properly.

    Training with Hyper Strength is equivalent to a long car race. You’re pushing the body to the limit. You can avoid meltdown by saving 1 or 2 reps in the tank, eating properly and listening to your body. I suggest one session per week, per body part. If you notice a decrease in strength, regress the sets or take out the drop sets.

    Squat Drop Set Workout

    • Set 1 – 135 x 8
    • Set 2 – 185 x 5
    • Set 3 – 225 x 2

    Working Sets of 5

    Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

    This is Your Quick Training Tip, a chance to learn how to work smarter in just a few moments so you can get right to your workout.

    No one goes to the gym in hope of achieving average results—but that’s exactly what will happen if you only do “straight sets.”

    You know the drill: Do one set of an exercise, rest, and repeat. It’s the formula nearly every guy follows when they’re just starting out in the weight room, and it’s quite literally “lifting to failure.” If you’re trying to maximize muscle growth, focusing exclusively on straight sets will always cause you to come up short.

    Straight sets are only so effective because they target only one type of muscle fiber. If you do the typical 6 to 10 reps per set, you’re targeting your larger, more powerful type II muscle fibers. If you do 12 or more reps per set, you’re focusing on your more endurance-oriented type I fibers, which are smaller than type IIs, but which can still grow and add to overall muscle size. What you’re not doing with straight sets is targeting both.

    That’s where drop sets come in. Also known as descending sets, strip sets, or simply “running the rack,” drop sets are a technique in which you perform multiple sets of an exercise to technical failure with successively lighter loads and little to no rest. In so doing, you’ll not only fatigue both types of muscle fibers, but also increase your training volume and the target muscle’s time under tension and metabolic stress—all of which can crank up muscle growth.

    Your move: Due to the high-intensity nature of drop sets, only perform them for one or two exercises targeting one or two muscle groups per workout (any more than that can increase your risk of overtraining). It’s also a good idea to do them towards the end of a training session. Select a weight that you can only lift 8 to 10 times with perfect form (i.e., to technical failure). Complete the set, and then quickly reduce the weight by 20 to 25 percent and lift to technical failure again, performing as many reps as you can. Repeat a total of three or four times.

    The key is to rest as little as possible between sets—only long enough to reduce the weight. That’s why dumbbells and cable machines tend to work best for drop sets; you’ll waste precious seconds stripping plates off of a barbell, and every second you waste extends your rest, reduces your time under tension and metabolic stress, and ultimately limits your potential gains.

    Trevor Thieme C.S.C.S. Trevor Thieme is a Los Angeles-based writer and strength coach, and a former fitness editor at Men’s Health.

    We’ll let you in on a little secret about training for muscle growth: Most of the old-school techniques you’ve seen bros doing in the gym your whole life have little to no science behind them. They were made up on the fly by lifting enthusiasts—not trained experts—and passed from generation to generation until they were universally accepted as unwritten rules.

    The truth is, more often than not, methods like heavy negatives, forced reps, and cheating could potentially lead to injury without the benefit of any muscle growth, which depends on consistent basic movements and perfect form.

    But there’s one time-honored technique that isn’t outdated: dropsets, which have earned our seal of approval. Not only do the best trainerse in the world consider them a workout mainstay, but new research has now confirmed their effectiveness.

    Get ready to reap big gains with this oft-embraced, muscle-building exercise.

    THE DROPSET, EXPLAINED

    “There are two types of dropsets—conventional and mechanical advantage,” says Jim Smith, CPPS, the co-creator of Strength: Barbell Training Essentials.

    In the conventional dropset, you do a heavy set to one or two reps shy of failure, then immediately reduce the load (grab lighter dumbbells, move the pin in the weight stack, or slide a few plates off the bar) by 10% or more and do as many reps as possible.

    In the mechanical advantage model, says Smith, “you change the angle, exercise, implement, or tempo” to make the work easier. For instance, switch from an incline bench press to a flat press; swap dumbbell presses for pushups; change out a barbell for dumbbells; or modify a full-range-of-motion rep to a static hold.

    The goal: to find a way to continue training the target muscles past the point where they’d normally give out, which heightens the stimulus they get.

    “Dropsets are used to create massive muscular and metabolic stress,” says Smith. In short, they make you bust your ass—but they build muscle.

    You should do one “drop” if your new to the technique, and build up to multiple sets with drops on each one over time.

    Be careful, though: Because dropsets push you to the brink, they’re more draining. The more you do, the more challenging they make it to maintain proper form, and the harder they are to recover form.

    REAL-WORLD RESULTS

    Lest you think that dropsets—like so many other bodybuilding techniques—are only a good idea on paper, consider a report published this past May in the Biology of Sport—the research that compared conventional dropsets with standard weight training.

    In the study, one group of students performed an exercise circuit one time through, dropsetting each lift twice—that is, they did a set, reduced the weight to get a few more reps, then reduced again for more reps. The other group did the same circuit three times without the dropsets.

    After 10 weeks, the dropsetters increased their strength on calf raises, curls, and leg curls, though strength gains across the board were the same for the majority of the other exercises for both groups.

    Bear in mind that because dropsets are brief extensions of regular sets, they make for faster workouts. That means you’re actually achieving better gains in less time by adding dropsets to the end of each lift rather than simply repeating the overall workout.

    SAMPLE DROPSETS

    Note: Because dropsets require quick weight changes and different equipment, it’s best to perform them with a partner or plan them out beforehand.

    Conventional Dropset: Bench Press

    Sets: 5
    Reps: 5

    On your last set, perform 5 reps, then reduce the weight 10% and immediately continue doing as many reps as possible.

    Be aware that the amount of weight you need to drop on conventional dropsets will vary. If your main sets are heavy (5-8 reps), your first drop may be about 10%. But if you’re doing 10 reps, you may need to drop by 25% or more. Aim for at least 3-8 reps on each dropset.

    Mechanical Advantage Dropset: Squat

    Sets: 3
    Reps: 5-8

    On each set, perform 5-8 reps with a heavier weight, then go to goblet squats with moderate weight for as many reps as possible, but saving one “in the tank.” Do as many bodyweight lunges as possible.

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    Creative Drop Setting – A Dozen Ways To Use Them!

    I started bodybuilding nearly twenty years ago, and during that time, I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with literally dozens, if not hundreds of high intensity training methods. These include supersets, giant sets, pre-exhaustion, negatives, partials, static holds, continuous tension, peak contraction, 5 sets of 5, 8 sets of 8 and 21’s just to name a few.

    If I were only allowed to pick one high intensity technique for building muscle, that technique would be drop sets. That’s right – I personally believe that drop sets are the best high intensity bodybuilding technique of all time. Read on to find out why and to learn twelve ways to use drop sets for some of the most amazing muscle growth you’ve ever experienced.

    What Are Drops Sets And Who Invented Them?

    A drop set is the simple technique where you perform a set of any exercise to failure or just short of failure, then drop some weight and continue for more repetitions with the reduced poundage.

    According to Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, the drop set method was originally “discovered” in 1947 by Henry Atkins, editor of Body Culture magazine. Atkins called it the “multi-poundage system.” Since then, this muscle blasting technique has gone by many different names including breakdowns, descending sets, triple-drops, down the rack, strip sets or the stripping technique.

    Why Do Bodybuilders Love Drop Sets?

    Bodybuilders are unique among athletes because they’re concerned purely with cosmetic improvements and not athletic performance. That’s why bodybuilders prefer drop sets – because they’re decidedly geared towards increasing muscle size (hypertrophy). By contrast, you don’t see a lot of football players, sprinters or other athletes using drop sets, because drop sets are not conducive to strength, power or speed gains. In fact, most athletes want strength and power without bulk, so drop sets are usually nixed. However, if pure mass is what you’re after, then drop sets are ideal!

    How Drop Sets Work: Breaking Down Muscle Fibers… Deep Down!

    Let’s suppose you’re doing bicep curls with 125 pounds for a set of 8-12 reps. The 10th rep is difficult. The 11th rep is extremely hard, even with a little cheating. The 12th rep takes an all out supreme effort. Gun to the head – you still couldn’t do a 13th rep. You’ve hit honest failure. But if you strip some weight off the bar – about fifteen to twenty percent or so, you can keep going.

    Even though you may reach a point of momentary muscular failure after 8-12 reps in a conventional straight set, you haven’t reached absolute failure; you’ve only reached failure with that poundage. You see, in a single straight set performed to failure, you don’t activate every fiber in a muscle group. You only recruit the number of fibers necessary to lift a particular weight for the desired number of repetitions. By stripping off weight and continuing the set, you cumulatively recruit more and more “reserve” muscle fibers.

    Drop sets hit the “stubborn” muscle fibers “deep down,” causing growth that normally couldn’t be achieved by stopping after a single set of six to twelve.

    Creative Drop Set Methods

    Drop sets were a favorite of none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thanks to Arnold popularizing the method, it’s a common sight in any gym today to see even recreational lifters doing barbell curl “stripping sets” as Arnold liked to call them. But this method only scratches the surface of the many ways drop sets can be used. I’ve discovered literally dozens of creative ways to use drop sets and I’d like to share a twelve of the best with you here.

    1. Drop Sets With Barbells (strip sets)

    This was Arnold’s favorite method for bicep training, but it can easily be used on any barbell exercise. All you have to do is put small plates on each side of the bar and strip them off when you reach failure. For example, if you set up an Olympic barbell with four ten pound plates on each side, that’s 125 lbs to start, then by pulling a ten off each side (about fifteen percent), you now have 105 lbs. After eight more reps, you pull another ten off each side and continue with 85 pounds.

    2. Drop Sets With Selectorized Machines (up the stack)

    Stripping plates off barbells and plate-loaded machines can be messy, cumbersome and time consuming (unless you have a partner or two). Drop sets are easier with machines. All you have to do is pull the pin out of the weight stack and move it up to a lighter weight. On a leg extension machine, for example, you don’t even have to leave your seat to change the weight. This allows for a quick weight change, which intensifies the set.

    3. Drop Sets With Dumbbells (“down the rack” or

    “running the rack”)

    Going down the rack is a fantastic technique for dumbbell exercises, especially curls, lateral raises and shoulder presses. For example, if you’re doing dumbbell lateral raises, you could start with the 40’s, do eight reps, then put the 40’s down and grab the 30’s, then put the 30’s down and grab the 20’s and rep out some more. Try this technique on your next deltoid or bicep day and your arms and shoulders will pump up like balloons.

    4. Tight Drop Sets (small drop in weight)

    A tight drop set refers to a small weight decrease between drops. Tight drops are more difficult, and “tightening” up your drop sets can even be used as a method of overload. The average weight reduction for a drop set is approximately fifteen percent. That would be like loading up 225 lbs on an Olympic bar for bench presses, then dropping to 190 lbs, then dropping to 160 lbs. If you did your next drop set workout at a twelve percent reduction (225 lbs, 200 lbs and 170 pounds), that would be an overload above and beyond the previous workout.

    A tight drop set would include any weight reduction between five and twenty percent. Tight drop sets are more often performed on small muscle groups and isolation exercises. For example, if you’re going down the rack on dumbbell curls, you might start with 50 pounders and drop to the 45’s, then the 40’s – a ten percent decrease per drop.

    5. Wide Drop Sets

    A wide drop set refers to a larger weight decrease between reps. Wide drops sets are easier than tight drop sets and they allow you do higher repetitions. Because of cardiovascular fatigue, wide drops are often used on large muscle group exercises like squats, bent over rows and leg presses. For example, in the squat you might begin with 315 lbs on the bar, then strip an entire 45 pound plate from each side and go on to 225 lbs, nearly a 30% drop in poundage. Then you might strip another 45 pound plate off each side and go with 135 pounds (a 40% drop). Believe me, 135 pounds never felt so heavy!

    6. 50% Drop Set (the “halving” or 6-20 method)

    The “halving method” is a wide drop set that allows you to use two totally opposite rep ranges, each of which will attack a different aspect of the muscle cell. This allows excellent muscle growth plus an incredible pump!

    After warming up, begin by choosing the heaviest weight you can handle for six reps with strict form. Perform six reps, then without resting, reduce the weight by exactly fifty percent and continue for twenty repetitions with the lighter weight. Let’s use one arm dumbbell rows as an example. If your six rep max is 110 pounds, start with six reps with the 110’s, then immediately grab the 55’s and bang out twenty good reps. You’ll be winded and you’ll feel something in your lats you’ve never felt before!

    7. Power Drop Sets (low rep drop sets)

    This was a favorite method of Larry Scott, the first Mr. Olympia. Scott used this technique to develop monstrous deltoids and arms, even on a less than genetically optimal frame. Larry believed that heavy weight and low reps (six reps) were the best way to develop size and strength concurrently.

    This rep range allows you to use heavier weights, which can help maintain your strength levels and thicken up those muscle fibers without much of a pumping effect. Begin with a six rep max, then drop the weight by about ten to fifteen percent with each drop. Repeat with the lighter weight for six more reps for the desired number of drops.

    8. Ascending (6-12-20) or Descending (12-8-4-2) Drop Sets

    An ascending rep drop set means that you decrease the weight substantially enough so you can increase the number of reps you perform with each weight reduction. For example, if you’re doing tricep pushdowns and 100 pounds is your six rep max, you would start with 100 pounds, then pull the pin and go to 75 pounds (twenty five percent reduction), which is a wide enough drop so you can hit ten to twelve reps on the next round. Then you’d finish by pulling the pin and going to 50 (thirty three percent reduction), which is very light, allowing you to “rep out” and perform fifteen to twenty reps on the final drop.

    Descending drop sets are when you perform a very tight drop set, so your reps actually decrease with each weight reduction. For example, if you’re doing bench presses with 225 pounds for twelve reps, you’d strip off a small amount of weight (five to ten percent), then continue for six to eight more reps. Then you’d pull off a little more weight and shoot for four to six reps. You’d then finish by dropping a small amount of weight again and doing two final reps.

    9. Drop Sets With Grip or Stance Change

    This is one of my favorite methods because it can hit a multi-faceted muscle from every conceivable angle. For example, the leg press machine can be used to place emphasis on the medialis (“low quad/teardrop”), lateralis (“outer quad”), adductors (inner thigh) or the hamstrings and glutes… all depending on where you place your feet on the platform.

    For a leg workout you’ll never forget, load up the sled with 45 lb plates, (the ladies might use 25’s), then perform 6-12 reps with your feet in the middle of the platform, shoulder width… strip a 45 off each side, then do 6-12 more reps with your feet high on the platform… strip another 45 from each side, then do 6-12 more reps with your feet together and low on the platform. Strip off another 45 and finish with your feet very wide and toes pointed out at forty five degree angle for the last 6-12. Three weight drops, four poundages, four foot positions, and a workout that will make your thighs grow from top to bottom, inside to outside!

    10. Zero Rest Drop Sets

    Zero rest drop sets are incredibly difficult and most people either deliberately or unconsciously avoid them because they’re so hard. A zero-rest drop set is where you literally cut the rest between weight changes to zero. To perform an “honest” zero rest drop set, you usually need a training partner (or two). For example, If you’re doing drop sets on the leg press by yourself, you have to get up, walk to one side, strip off a plate, walk to the other side, strip off another plate, then sit back down and resume the drop set. This process takes at least ten seconds. Within that time, your muscles have already begun dissipating lactic acid and regenerating their energy supplies.

    If you have two training partners, you can do a true zero rest drop set by having each of your partners strip a plate off each side without you even racking the weight. The difference between zero rest and 10 seconds is like night and day. Combined with continuous tension, where you don’t lock out between reps, this can be one of the most challenging workouts of your life! (good luck!)

    11. Rest-Pause Drop Sets

    Rest pause drops sets are the opposite of zero rest drop sets. On a rest pause drop set, you deliberately rest 5, 10 even 15 seconds between weight changes to allow yourself to briefly recover so you can use heavier weight. This gives you the best of both worlds; the deep fiber-attacking effect of a drop set, along with the heavier weights that enhance strength. Use this technique when muscle size and strength are both priorities.

    12. Drop-Superset

    If drop sets are the number one high intensity bodybuilding technique, then what’s the number two technique? In my opinion, it’s supersets. And what could possibly be better than combining the two most effective bodybuilding techniques in one; a “drop-superset.”

    Here’s how it works: First select the two exercises for your superset. If it’s shoulder day, it might be dumbbell lateral raises and dumbbell presses – a pre-exhaust superset. Start with lateral raises using you regular 8-12 rep max, let’s say 35 lbs for this example. Then go right into dumbbell presses with as little rest as possible and a little less weight than your usual 8-12 rep max – 65 lbs or so should do the trick. Now, continue with no rest to a lighter set of dumbbells (25 lbs) for another set of side laterals. Then pick up the 55 lbs dumbbells and go into another set of shoulder presses. Finally, drop down to the 15 lbs dumbbells for the last set of lateral raises, then go straight into presses with 45 pounders. That’s ONE drop-superset. This is an extremely intense technique, so use these sparingly.

    How To Maximize Drop Set Efficiency

    Here are some effective tips for maximizing the efficiency of your drop sets:

    • Keep Rest Intervals To A Minimum Usually, the time between weight drops ranges from zero to ten seconds. Even if you’re doing heavy power drop sets, the rest between sets should still be relatively brief. In general, the briefer the time between the weight change, the more intense and effective your drop set will be.

    • Set Up Equipment In Advance To move quickly from one exercise to the next, you should have all your equipment set up and ready before starting the first exercise. Instead of putting big plates on a barbell or machine, load it up with 5’s, 10’s or 25’s, ready to be stripped. If you’re doing triple drops with dumbbells, line up all three pairs beforehand.

    • Train When The Gym Isn’t Crowded So You Have A Dumbbell Rack To Yourself Drop setting isn’t practical in a crowded gym, nor is it proper gym etiquette to hog three or four sets of dumbbells all to yourself for 15 minutes. If you’re planning to use down the rack drop sets, try to schedule your workout for a time when the gym isn’t crowded and be courteous to others.

    • Use Two Weight Drops (three different poundages) Most Of The Time You can really go “crazy” with drop sets and reduce the weight as many times as you want. However, there seems to be a point of diminishing returns after two or three weight reductions. The most common drop set method is a triple drop, where you use three weights and two weight reductions.

    • Stay In The Six To Twelve Rep Range Most Of The Time Six to twelve is the most productive rep range for bodybuilding purposes and this rule should generally not change in a drop set. If you want to work on maintaining or even building strength, go with four to six reps. If you want pure hypertrophy, keep your reps around eight to twelve. For a skin-splitting pump, occasionally go up to 15-20 reps, especially on your last drop.

    • Begin With A Six To Twelve Rep Max It’s not enough to keep the reps in the six to twelve range. It’s got to be a six to twelve rep MAX, not just six to twelve reps. If you start with a weight that’s too light, you’ll achieve little more than muscle pumping and flushing with the drop set technique. A true six rep max means that you can’t do a seventh rep. You should reach failure or close to it with each weight before stripping off weight.

    • Use Drop Sets Sparingly As A High Intensity Method Drop sets are intense and they require caution and common sense. If you used them all the time, you would quickly burn out and overtrain. One great way to use drop sets is the 3:1 method: you perform three straight sets of an exercise, followed by one drop set.

    Conclusion

    Although there are dozens of high intensity training methods you can and should use in your routines, if you only used drop sets and nothing else, this technique alone would be enough to cause some serious muscle growth in a very short period of time. Don’t just use the old Arnold standby of stripping plates off on barbell curls; try some of these new and different methods outlined in this article, like tight, wide, 6-20 and grip change drop sets. I guarantee the results will amaze and delight you!

    Drop Sets | The Secret of Muscle Growth

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    Using A Drop Set Method To Build Muscle

    A drop set is a technique that you can apply into your workouts in order to achieve increased muscle mass. As noted in Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, drop sets were originally invented by the editor of Body Culture magazine in 1947, Henry Atkins. Also called breakdowns, down the rack, and even the “multi poundage system” by Atkins himself, it’s no surprise that this bodybuilding method is exceptionally favored by people looking to build muscle. If performed correctly, a steady flow of drop sets over time can definitely leave you with bulging masses for muscles.

    What Is A Drop Set?

    As we went over, a drop set is a type of muscle building technique, but other than a technique, what exactly is it and how do you use it? You would use this method by incorporating it into your workout to obtain hypertrophy, or muscle mass. Drop sets can be performed when using exercise machines, dumbbells, KB Duo, KB PowerBands, or barbells. The method begins first by setting your weight right beneath failure. Once you’ve achieved your ideal amount of reps – with extreme struggle on the last two or three reps – you then shave off some of the weight, and begin another set. Again, by the end of this second set, you are struggling and reach failure. At a third set, you perform the same act with yet more reduced weight. Think of it as you are progressively lowering your weight while continually reaching failure throughout all your sets of repetitions.

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    Who Uses Drop Sets?

    Anyone who is looking to build muscle can apply drop sets to their favorite workouts. But, typically bodybuilding enthusiasts are the main partakers in this method. That’s because the primary goal behind a drop set is to build muscle. Certain athletes seeking physical traits other than mass – like power or endurance – will not typically use drop sets. But if you’re trying to find a promising technique to help whip those flabby muscles up into large bulging guns, then drop sets are probably the way to go for you.

    How Does A Drop Set Method Work To Build Muscle?

    Not many methods come close to the intensity and effectiveness of the drop set technique when it comes to gaining bulky muscles. Basically, a drop set works to build muscle by activating more and more muscle fibers with each new set of reps and each additional load of decreased weight. A single set of reps on the other hand, doesn’t offer the same advantages, in that one straight set will not recruit nearly as many muscle fibers. This is important as using as many muscle fibers as possible is a must for bodybuilding. While the popular one set workouts do not actually initiate all your muscle fibers, using drop sets throughout your exercises will certainly activate a larger amount of fibers, including “reserve” fibers – stubborn fibers that may be deep down in the muscle and that are nearly impossible to reach while engaging solely in one set workouts.

    Utilizing Drop Sets When Bodybuilding

    First you’ll want to decide which workout you’re going for (i.e. bench press, dumbbell, etc.), and then you can apply the drop set method. When using drop sets to build muscle, a good rule of thumb is to perform about 3 or 4 sets. You’ll also want to make sure that each rep is at a maximum range of between 67% to 85% and that you reach failure ideally between 6 to 12 reps. Depending on your physical goals, and what you can and cannot lift, you can decide which types of drop sets you’ll be using. Yes, is more than one, but the two most common forms of drops sets are tight drops and wide drops.

    • Wide Drops: With this method, your weight reduction will be about 30% per set. Although wide drops are typically easier to perform than tight drops and they allow more repetitions, they do not have nearly as much intensity as tight drops. That being said, wide drops are advised for workouts that are geared toward larger muscle groups, like squats or leg presses.
    • Tight Drops: This type of drop set requires a 15% to 20% decreased weight at each set. They are generally harder than wide drops and are typically used on smaller muscle groups.

    You can use both or either of these drop set varieties, depending on which muscles you want to workout and what your body is capable of performing.

    Drop Set Examples

    So you’re dying to trade those spaghetti arms for guns? Well, depending on your ideal personal goals, go ahead and try out one of your favorite exercises with the drop set method incorporated into the workout. Remember, you can use dumbbells, exercise machines or barbells when performing drop sets. If you’re indecisive, you can choose one or more of the following examples to try:

    • Bench Press: Excellent for your chest and triceps, start by using a bench press at 225 pounds, and try a set of 8 reps. Decrease the amount of weight to about 185 pounds and keep going for 8 reps. The last set will also have the same amount of repetitions, but at 135 pounds.
    • Barbells: To workout your biceps, you can use 125 pounds in the beginning while performing 10 reps, and then take off 10 pounds. With 105 pounds left, do another set of 8 reps, then decrease the weight by about 15 pounds to get 105. Try 8 or so reps and reach failure on the third set.
    • Dumbbells: Curls, shoulder presses and lateral raises can all be performed via the dumbbell while using drop sets. If for example, you’re engaging in a fiery rage of lateral raises, you can start off with 40 pounds and 8 reps, then decrease the weight to 30 and try another 8 reps. From there move down to 20 pounds or so with a third set of 8 reps.

    Aside from these examples, there are always other ways when it comes to using a drop set technique while working out. Another fantastic alternative when toning your muscles is to try the Kb-Duo. The Kb-Duo is potent for suspension training and shaping muscles such as your biceps, your core, and your triceps. Even better, is that applying drop sets while using the Kb-Duo to build muscle is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

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    Using Drops Sets With The Kb-Duo: Tricep Extensions

    1. To work out your triceps, take the plastic clip of the upper strap, and secure it to the other side of the door. Firmly close the door and face away from it.
    2. Extend your arms over your head and bend at the elbows to workout your triceps.
    3. In the beginning, you’ll want to keep it challenging so plant your feet closer to the door, use all your strength, and for go about 8 to 10 reps until failure. Then to make this challenge slightly easier, move your feet out away from the door, and repeat your reps until you reach failure again. For the most effective workout, you should do about 3 to 4 drop sets throughout the whole exercise.

    Tip: Keep in mind that in order to make it easier or more challenging, you can alter where you place your feet; closer to the door and you’ve got more of a challenge, while staying at more of an upright angle is going to make the workout easier. Shifting the angle of your body is an excellent way of using the drop set method with the Kb-Duo.

    Bodybuilding and Drop Sets

    Building muscle is definitely an art that takes time to perfect. And it most certainly doesn’t happen over night, but with patience and a consistent workout plan, you’ll be on your way to earning beefy, solid brawn for muscle. Needless to say, applying drop sets to that your exercises is most certainly an additional and effective aid in achieving your bodybuilding goals.

    Do Drop Sets Build Muscle?

    Drop sets are one of the oldest training techniques known to man. They are something of a training rite of passage. If you haven’t experienced the horror of your gym crush walking past, just as you finish a killer drop set lifting the pink dumbbells, you can’t really claim to be a fully-fledged member of the lifting community. One of the reasons drop sets have been around so long is because they are effective. They can help you to rapidly pack on muscle. The question is, what makes them so effective? If we know this then it is possible to devise the best strategy for implementing them in a training program. Fortunately, Brad Schoenfeld and Jozo Grgic recently conducted a meta-analysis on the research of drop sets to give us understanding of their use.

    The Theory Behind Drop Sets

    Hypothetically, training to failure engages the full spectrum of high threshold motor units. These fibers have been shown to be the ones with the greatest growth potential. Reaching failure at a given weight does not mean the muscle is completely fatigued. It is capable of performing additional reps at a lighter weight. It is for this reason that drop sets have been promoted as a strategy to fully fatigue muscle fibers, and cause optimal growth. Drop sets also extend the time under tension (TUT) during sets. This increases the metabolic stress of a set. Combined with increased motor unit fatigue, this represents a potentially powerful anabolic signal to the body.

    Nice theory. So, what does the research say?

    When analyzing drop sets, researchers found that they increase post training levels of anabolic hormones, such as, growth hormone (GH). So far so good. Unfortunately, more recent research on the effects of acute spikes in hormones after working out, indicate that these spikes have little impact on long-term muscle gain.

    On a more positive note, several studies have shown drop sets deliver superior gains in muscle mass when compared to traditional straight sets. However, this finding might be confounded by the fact that the drop set groups performed more overall volume. Training volume has a dose-response relationship with hypertrophy. As such, it is impossible to determine if it was the drop sets or added volume which caused the increased hypertrophy.

    In an attempt to determine if it was drop sets specifically, or greater training volumes which explained the higher levels of hypertrophy, more recent studies have looked at overall volume. For example, a recent study compared performing drop sets using a 12RM and then 3 subsequent drops of 20% versus 3x12RM with a 90 second rest. They found that the muscle’s cross-sectional area (CSA) increased by nearly twice as much in the drop set group.

    Sadly, the study did not reach statistical significance. This is not an uncommon situation in training studies. Such studies often have little statistical power due to the small number of participants who complete a study. Just because a finding doesn’t reach the significance threshold does not mean it is not valid. The confidence threshold of 95% required by sports science journals does not mean these results should be ignored. In fact, this study showed an effect size which favored the drop sets for hypertrophy. It isn’t possible to make any concrete claims that drop sets are better for hypertrophy on the back of this data, but it does provide a tentative indicator that they may be a superior strategy for hypertrophy.

    While fast twitch fibers have the most growth potential, slow twitch fibers should not be ignored when training for size. They can hypertrophy, but training in the traditional 6-12 rep range doesn’t supply much of a growth stimulus to these fibers. Schoenfeld and Grgic pointed out that drop sets might be an effective training protocol to maximize hypertrophy in the type I (slow twitch) fibers. Greater TUT is required to hypertrophy these fibers and drop sets are one way to achieve an extended TUT. If maximal size is your goal, then hypertrophy of all fibers should be your focus. Drop sets are one way to achieve this.

    Practical Implications of Drop Sets

    Drop sets allow you to fatigue and stimulate a wide spectrum of muscle fibers. This maximizes your potential for growth. As such, if you only ever train in the 6-12 rep range you are missing out on gains. Implementing drop sets into a properly periodized training plan will increase your chances of reaching your muscular potential.

    One major advantage of drop sets is the time efficient training stimulus they can provide. Numerous training studies have indicated that participants performing drop sets were able to complete their workouts in under half the time of those doing more traditional set and rep schemes. Given the research to date indicates at least equal and potentially better results from drop sets when compared to standard training, it seems sensible to make use of drop sets. Especially, when time is at a premium. Schoenfeld and Grgic stated that, “robust gains in muscle mass can be achieved with limited training time by incorporating drop set training.”

    Increasing Volume Over a Mesocycle

    While drop sets are useful when time is limited, they can also be beneficial when used as part of your usual training schedule. It’s established that drop sets enable you to get more work done in less time. This means it is possible for you to do considerably more work in your usual training time. Given overall training volume is so closely correlated to hypertrophy, this is an important consideration for your workout design.

    Once you hit a plateau it might be the lack of total volume that is holding you back. You need to progressively overload yourself through increased training volume. Time constraints might restrict your ability to add sets, reps, and the requisite rest periods to your training sessions. Instead, the use of drop sets could allow you to get much more work in the same time. Assuming you don’t spill over into the territory of overtraining, this added volume equates to one thing, more muscle.

    Here is an example of how I implement drop sets in practice:

    • Week 1 – Normal training (around 60 minutes per session)
    • Week 2 – As above, but aim to increase load and/or perform more reps
    • Week 3 – Add one set per body part, per session
    • Week 4 – As above, but aim to increase load and/or perform more reps
    • Week 5 – Add one set per body part, per session

    At this point you might have reached the maximum duration per training session you can cram into your busy diary. You still need to increase volume to keep progressively overloading the body to force it to grow. The chances of you making considerable jumps in volume through adding reps or load are now getting slimmer. Any increases you do make will be very small. Incorporating drop sets at this point can solve this issue and provide you with a powerful hypertrophy stimulus.

    My favorite way to utilize drop sets in week 6 is to add a drop set to the last set of the last exercise for each muscle group, every time that muscle is trained. Then in week 7, this becomes a double drop set. Most people need a deload at this point, but if you are made of stronger stuff you could add a triple drop in week 8 to finish off the muscle. If you’ve reached week 8 then congratulations, you will have made excellent gains and deserve a well-earned deload.

    Periodizing Drop Set Only Macrocycles

    The periodization of your training is important to elicit maximal adaptations. Training volume is a key driver of hypertrophy and it is recommended that you structure your training in a manner which increases training volume over time. One such strategy is a reverse linear model. Within a reverse linear framework, repetitions increase as intensity (as % of 1RM) reduces. For example, phase one might focus on sets in the 6-10 range, phase two centers on 10-15 reps, and phase three on 15+ reps. This final phase could be described as a muscular endurance/metabolic stress focused phase.

    Rather than just doing sets of 15+, drop sets could offer some variety and a more time efficient way to achieve high training volumes in a muscular endurance phase. Doing so also provides a nice change from the monotony of hitting straight sets. The added motivation from having a new training stimulus might spark growth through two pathways. Firstly, the physiological benefits of drop set and their contribution to achieving high TUTs, overall volumes and metabolic stress. Secondly, the psychological benefit. Namely that you might work harder with a new, exciting training protocol to sink your teeth into. Effort is often underestimated by keyboard warriors who suffer from paralysis by analysis when trying to build the “perfect” program. Sometimes, what is needed is a sensible training plan executed violently rather than an intricate one left unused.

    Drop Sets Are On Your Side

    The research on drop sets is very positive—they closely match a theoretical model of how to rapidly gain muscle. They appear to deliver as good as, if not better than, results as compared to traditional straight sets. Drop sets may allow you to get more work done in less time. As with any training strategy, your body will adapt to drop sets. So, it is sensible to implement them tactically into a periodized training plan to elicit continued increases in training volume and, therefore, growth. Given their time-efficient nature, drop sets are also an extremely effective training protocol when life throws you a curve ball and you need to get your training done ASAP. Armed with this knowledge you can now make sure you optimize your use of drop sets to laser focus on delivering maximal results.

    Hey, I hope you are enjoying this article and find value in utilizing these concepts to build lean muscle. Writing about this stuff is a hobby for me. What I do all day, every day is coaching people. Both in-person and online. Evaluating, researching, and refining my craft to provide more value to my clients. If you’d like to work with me then, please get in touch here to find out about my coaching services.

    Ask the Experts: How Do I Perform a Drop Set?

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    Q: How do I perform a drop set?

    A: The concept of a drop set is simple—you perform a few sets with little or no rest but reduce the weight for each set. However, performing a drop set correctly will maximize your gains and reduce your chance of overdoing it.

    Step 1: Prepare Your Weight

    Choose a weight you can perform for five to 10 reps. Select a second weight that is 20-30 percent lighter and a third that’s 20-30 percent lighter than the second. If you’re performing an exercise with a barbell, it’s important to strip the same amount of weight off each set. Say you’re benching 195 pounds. Normally you’d load the bar (which weighs 45 pounds) with a 45-, 25- and five-pound plate on each side. For a drop set, load the bar with three 25-pound plates on each side.

    Dumbbells are easier to use for drop sets. All you need are three sets of dumbbells (i.e., 50, 40 and 30 pounds) arranged so you can quickly move from one to the next.

    Etiquette Tip: Don’t be the guy who hoards three sets of dumbbells when your gym is crowded.

    Changing weight on machine exercises is straightforward and needs no explanation. But remember that lowering the weight by only one plate in the stack may not always fall in the desired 20- to 30-percent range.

    Step 2: Do Your First Set

    You should have a general idea of how many reps you can perform with the weight you choose. If you can exceed that number, great. Just make sure you complete between five and 10 reps.

    Step 3: Reduce the Weight and Rest

    After you finish your first set, rest for 15 to 20 seconds. This should equal the amount of time it takes you to reduce the weight.

    Barbell exercises take the most time to set up for the next set, so it’s a good idea to have a partner or spotter remove the weight from one side while you do the other to speed up the process.

    Step 4: Do Your Second Set

    Start your second set. You’ll notice your muscles start to fatigue quickly, but fight through it. Your goal should be to match or exceed the number of reps you did in your first set, while making sure your total reps still fall within the recommended range.

    Step 5: Reduce the Weight and Rest

    Same process as Step 3.

    Step 6: Do Your Final Set

    Your muscles will be screaming at you. Focus on moving the lighter weight quickly and maintain perfect form.

    Step 7: You’re Done!

    Put your weights back on the racks.

    In this video, you can watch a demonstration of how to perform a drop set with instruction from Todd Durkin.

    Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

    We used to think of weightlifting as the kind of exercise only beefy dudes liked to do, but we now know that strength training is an essential part of a smart fitness program that will help you get lean and strong. I’m a gym rat who loves to lift weights multiple times a week, whether it’s a classic weightlifting session (squats, deadlifts, etc.) or a kettlebell flow program. Strength training of all kinds helped me shed excess fat, build lean muscle, and feel better than ever, and I now pass along this kind of training to my clients.

    There’s one weightlifting tip that I wish I had known earlier in my fitness career: how to use the drop set. A drop set in weightlifting is when you perform a set of any exercise with a heavy-enough weight that you can’t make it through all the reps without failing. Then you reduce the weight and finish out the set.

    For example, when I was working on my triceps extensions on the cable machine, I would start with 9 kilos and work toward 12 reps per set. But I could only make it to about eight or nine reps without failing, so rather than just leaving it at that, I would drop the weight to 15 pounds and finish out the set.

    This worked great for me when I felt like I was stuck in between two different weights and I didn’t want to do the lower weight for the whole set because it didn’t feel hard enough. Utilising the drop set in this way helped me get stronger faster, which allowed me to build lean muscle and shed faster quicker.

    The drop set is a common technique used in bodybuilding and there are all sorts of ways to use it, but I stuck with this simple variation because it worked wonders for me. I saw amazing lean muscle definition in just a couple weeks. Plus, I never reached a plateau; I could see consistent changes in my physique month after month.

    If you’re looking for a way to up your strength-training routine, give drop sets a try. You can use this technique with just about any classic weightlifting movement, like squats, deadlifts, rows, push presses, etc.

    How to Use Drop Sets to Improve Muscle Definition

    While some clients hire personal trainers to help them lose weight or increase muscle mass, many are focused on developing sculpted, well-defined muscles. While there are a number of different methods that can help promote muscle growth and increases in muscle definition, one of the most effective methods is called drop setting. Bodybuilders have used this technique for years for one reason—it works.

    Drop setting involves performing an exercise with a specific amount of weight to start. The goal is to do as many reps as possible until momentary fatigue (unable to complete another single rep), rest just long enough to remove some weight (dropping the weight) and then continue to work until another moment of fatigue. To execute an effective drop set, it is important to continue dropping the weight and working until the muscle reaches a point of absolute fatigue. This is the complete inability to perform another repetition, which will ensure enough training stimulus to promote muscle growth.

    Here are four reasons why drop sets work, along with a few ways you can use them to help your clients achieve the gains they are seeking.

    1. Using drop sets to work to fatigue creates mechanical and metabolic fatigue, both of which promote muscle growth.

    Metabolic fatigue requires working until a muscle is incapable of performing another rep. When this occurs, the muscle is depleting its stored glycogen leading to acidosis in the blood stream. Acidosis creates damage to individual muscle fibers, which initiates a repair response that results in muscle growth. Furthermore, depleting muscle glycogen increases the muscle’s ability to store more glycogen. One molecule of glycogen can hold 3 to 4 molecules of water, which leads to an increase in muscle volume.

    2. Mechanical fatigue is the structural damage to muscle fibers and is the result of physical work.

    When a muscle fiber is damaged, it signals a repair process that results in the production of new satellite cells to repair damaged muscle proteins. As muscle proteins are repaired, they can experience an increase in diameter. This results in thicker muscle fibers that are capable of generating more force.

    3. Increased nervous system activity can help improve levels of definition.

    Muscle tone or definition is the state of a semi-contraction of a muscle. Using a muscle repeatedly will enhance motor unit activity in that muscle, and causes the fibers to remain semi-contracted after the exercise session is over.

    4. The high volume of work in a drop set can lead to a short-term increase in the amount of blood in a muscle.

    This additional volume results in an enhanced muscle size for a period of hours. If you’re working with a client or teaching a class late in the day on Thursday, Friday or Saturday you can leave your clients or students with a nice little pump for any weekend social outings.

    A proper drop set to complete fatigue can cause discomfort and potentially lead to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Some clients can interpret DOMS as pain, which may provide a reason to stop working with a personal trainer. Physiological change is the result of the body performing more work than it is capable of, and the role of a personal trainer is to help clients become accustomed to being uncomfortable so they can experience results from exercise. If you use drop sets with your clients, prepare them for DOMS and offer them some recovery strategies that can help mitigate post-workout discomfort.

    Drop sets can be performed with dumbbells, barbells, fixed-bar weights or machines:

    • When using dumbbells, start with one pair and perform as many reps as possible. As soon as fatigue occurs, return the dumbbells to the rack and grab the next lightest pair.
    • Barbells and weight plates can also be used, but it takes longer to adjust the amount of resistance. Once fatigue is reached with a barbell, set it down, remove one plate from each side of the bar and continue working. It is recommended to load the bar with smaller weights (such as 25-, 10- or 5-pound plates) to provide more opportunity for continuing to exercise.
    • Fixed-bar weights are usually kept in a triangle-shaped rack, with the heaviest weights on the bottom and the lighter weights toward the top. Fixed-bar weights combine the benefits of using a barbell with the ease of transitioning from one weight to another offered by dumbbells. Simply set the weight in the rack and grab the next (lighter) weight above.
    • Weight machines are the easiest to perform drop sets with because it is easy to quickly move the pin from one place in the stack to another.

    For clients interested in rapid muscle growth, using drop sets can be an effective strategy to create the necessary overload to initiate physiological changes in the size and shape of the muscle. The best time to use drop sets is at the end of the workout. People always remember the last part of an experience. If the last thing in a workout is a drop set that leaves a muscle fatigue and pumped, clients will likely end their sessions with a very favorable impression of their time spent training with you.

    Due to the high-intensity nature of drop sets, make sure to warn clients they may experience soreness and only use drop sets when the next day will be a complete rest day. For best results and to reduce the amount of soreness a client will experience, limit the use of drop sets to only one or two muscles groups (or movement patterns) per workout.

    Body weight drop sets

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