Are you looking to take your strength training and muscle growth to the next level? Maybe you’ve hit a fitness rut or want a new tool to give you speedier results. If you don’t mind a little pain for your gains, then it’s time to learn about drop sets.
This advanced training technique requires grit and motivation, but it pays off in the form of bigger, stronger muscles. This new training tool could be exactly what you need to shake up your bodybuilding routine and get over any training humps.
What Is a Drop Set?
The idea behind drop sets is to work your muscles to failure… and then to do it again… and then possibly again. Yes, it’s difficult, but muscles don’t come easy. To complete a drop set workout, you’ll perform an exercise at a heavy weight for as many reps as possible until failure. With limited rest, you’ll lower the weight and perform another set of maximum reps until failure. Rinse and repeat for another set. The “drop set” meaning comes from the act of lowering the weight between sets.
How Do Drop Sets Work?
What exactly makes drop sets so effective compared to typical resistance training techniques? It all comes down to intensity. Performing drop sets is a fantastic way to fatigue all the fibers of a particular muscle, including the smaller fibers that might not receive as much loading during typical sets. As you exhaust your larger muscle fibers, you’ll naturally recruit your smaller muscle fibers toward the end of each set as you reach failure.
The intensity of reaching failure multiple times will cause both mechanical and metabolic fatigue in the muscles. Mechanical fatigue means the physical overload will actually cause micro-tears in your muscle fibers. Don’t worry. That’s what you want to happen. Assuming you give your body adequate rest and nutrition after your workout, your muscles will repair themselves and come back bigger and stronger. By metabolically fatiguing your muscles, your muscles will learn to store more glycogen (fuel) to be ready for next time. This, in turn, increases the size of your muscles.
How to Do a Drop Set
What does a drop set look like in action? Taking a step back, drop sets can be applied to virtually any type of weighted movement. You can use them with:
- Resistance machines
You can perform drop sets of:
- Bicep curls
- Back squats
- Bench press
- Quad press
- Triceps extension
- Weighted pullups
- Ab crunches on a machine
- And more
Begin with a heavy weight at which you can perform about 6 to 8 reps. If you know your one rep max (ORM) for the movement, go with about 80% of your ORM. Perform reps with good form and full range of motion until you reach failure. Immediately lower the weight by 10 to 30% and then perform a second set to failure. Ideally, you’ll be able to complete 8 to 12 reps at the lower weight.
If you’re still hungry for more, you can perform a double drop set by cutting the weight by another 10 to 30% and pumping out a third set of reps until failure.
Are you a beast who doesn’t know the meaning of “quit”? A triple drop set adds a fourth and final drop to the equation. Your muscles will be weeping in the moment, but you may be able to speed up your results even more. After each weight cut, you should be able to increase the number of reps completed before failure.
Here’s What a Drop Set Could Look Like
Need a drop set example you can follow in the gym? Let’s say your max front squat is 200 lbs. Here’s what a double drop set could look like:
Set One: 6 reps at 160 pounds
10 seconds of rest (Use this period of rest to adjust your weights for the next set.)
Set Two: 9 reps at 120 pounds
10 seconds of rest
Set Three: 12 reps at 100 pounds
If you wanted to complete a triple drop set, add a final set.
10 seconds of rest
Set Four: 15 reps at 80 pounds
6 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Drop Set Workout
If you’re going to put in the sweat equity to perform a drop set workout, here are a few tips to stay safe and optimize your results.
Tip #1: Always Start with a Warmup
Going into drop sets cold is asking for an injury. Even if you’re in a time crunch, do yourself a favor and warm up your muscles, tendons, and joints. Perform at least 5 to 10 minutes of light cardio followed by a few dynamic warm-up stretches. Then, slowly build up to the weight you want to use for your first drop set.
Tip #2: Know Your Numbers
You’ll see the best results when you follow the general principles of the drop set process. That means starting your first set at a weight that is challenging for you and then dropping that weight by 10 to 30% for each progressive set. The last thing you want to do is just guess at weights and then end up with too much or too little weight on your last set. Know your starting weight and then calculate the weights for your next sets.
Tip #3: Set Out Your Weights
Short rest periods are part of what makes drop sets so effective. You want to try and start on your next set within 10 to 20 seconds of your previous one. Don’t waste time running across the gym to grab the next set of dumbbells or trying to calculate which weight plates to put on your barbell. Set out all the weights you need for each set. That might mean setting out a row of dumbbells or laying out weight plates so you can quickly pull off your heavier weights and replace them with lighter weights. Just be sure you aren’t taking up too much space or monopolizing the weights during busy times at the gym. Good gym etiquette always comes first.
Tip #4: Form, Form, Form
Any time you aim to reach failure during a movement, you must prioritize good form. As soon as your form begins to break down, you’ve reached failure. Stop the movement. Even if you may be able to do one or two more reps with improper form, it’s not worth the risk of injury.
This is so important that it’s worth repeating. Failure isn’t the very last rep you can possibly complete. It’s when you can no longer perform a movement safely and with proper form!
Tip #5: Don’t Go Overboard
Drop sets are very demanding on the body. This isn’t something you want to do every time you hit the gym. A good rule of thumb is to perform no more than one series of drop sets per muscle per week. More advanced bodybuilders can get away with two drop set workouts per week.
Tip #6: Bring a Buddy
Drop sets are difficult, both physically and mentally. A workout buddy can help you stay motivated through those gritty last reps. They can also spot you in order to lower the risk of injury or accident. Even if you don’t have a workout buddy with you, ask for a spot during more technical movements, especially during a bench press. Never, ever perform bench press drop sets without a spotter.
What Are the Benefits of Drop Sets?
As you might have guessed, it’s all about the gains. In a 2018 study, researchers recruited a handful of young men and divided them into two groups. For six weeks, one group performed conventional resistance training sets while the second group performed drop sets. At the end of six weeks, both groups showed increases in both muscle size and strength. However, according to the authors of the study, “Superior muscle gains might be achieved with a single set of DS [drop sets] compared to 3 sets of conventional RT [resistance training], probably due to higher stress experienced in the DS protocol.”
Another study found that drop sets increased muscular strength as well as muscular endurance (the amount of time a muscle can work under load) over a group performing more conventional resistance training even when the drop set group spent less time exercising.
That study highlights another big benefit of drop sets. They can save you time compared to performing traditional weight training sets. Drop set workouts are designed to be intense but short. The lack of rest between sets means you can finish your workout much more quickly than conventional resistance workouts where you might rest two or three minutes between sets.
If you want to get in a serious workout but are in a time crunch, drop sets could be a good option.
Are Drop Set Workouts Right for You?
Resistance training is hugely beneficial for almost everyone, but that doesn’t mean drop set workouts are always appropriate. Drop sets are an advanced movement. Before performing drop sets, you should already have a foundation of strength and be comfortable doing resistance exercises. You also need to make sure your form is on point. Any flaw in your form will be exacerbated when you get to those final reps during a drop set.
Also, make sure your goals align with the benefits of drop sets. If you simply want to maintain your current strength or are looking for muscle tone over mass, you may want to try other forms of resistance training instead of drop sets. A drop set workout is best for individuals who want to achieve muscular hypertrophy (muscle growth) and who may need help getting out of a strength training rut. If you want bigger muscles and a bodybuilder physique, bring on the drop sets. If not, a different workout modality is probably best for you.