Building muscles require taking sets to failure – the point in a set when you can’t perform another rep with proper form. However, you can increase intensity past this point by using techniques that allow you to work beyond failure. One way to do so is with drop sets. And while there’s much debate over whether training to failure boosts strength, it’s absolutely crucial for inducing growth. When executed properly, they are proven to be one of the most effective tools for breaking workout boredom and/or busting through a plateau. So get acquainted with drop sets in this guide and push your hypertrophy to new heights.
1. What are drop sets?
As the name implies, a drop set is a series of mini-sets in which you complete as many reps as you can, reduce the load, immediately work to failure again, and so on until the desired number of “drops” has been completed (usually three). By extending a set past the point of failure, you can enhance your workout, inducing greater muscular damage, and therefore elicit more growth. The basic idea has gone by many different names. Whether you know them as descending sets, triple drops, burnouts, breakdowns, up the stack, down the rack, or the stripping method, drop sets have a proven track record of getting guys bigger and have remained a major muscle-building tool in bodybuilders’ arsenals for decades. With all that said, drop sets can be done somewhat differently depending on your main goal: gain in muscle size or strength. You could start with a heavy resistance that gives you only four to six reps to emphasize strength, or you could start with eight to 12 reps to focus more on pure muscle gain. How many reps you perform after each weight drop depends on how much weight you strip off. It also depends on your muscle-fiber makeup and level of endurance, so no two lifters will have the same experience. There are essentially two types of drop sets.
- A Tight drop set
a tight drop set is a small reduction in weight, around 10%-25%. For example, you start with 50 pounds for dumbbell curls, do your reps, and then grab the 45-pounders. Tight-drop sets allow you to use heavier poundages but fewer repetitions, so they emphasize strength gains.
- A Wide drop set
This is a bigger weight reduction, around 30%-40%. This allows you to perform higher reps which is great for adding pure size. For example, if you were doing squat, you might begin with 315lbs(3 plates on each side), then strip a 45-pound plate from each side, leaving 225 pounds – nearly a 30% drop in poundage. Then you might strip yet another 45-pound plate off each side (a 40% drop) and rep out with 135 pounds.
2. Why are drop sets effective?
- Extend sets and increase workout volume
Even though you may reach muscular failure after your prescribed reps in a conventional straight set, you haven’t necessarily reached absolute failure. You’ve reached only temporary failure with that poundage. By sufficiently dropping the amount of weight by about 20%-30% and immediately resuming the set, you can extend the set, thereby heightening muscle fatigue and work volume – This increases the total amount of weight you lift and the total number of sets and reps you perform.
- Build muscle size
Drop sets also allow you to recruit a maximum number of muscle fibers. Drop sets not only recruit more reserve muscle fibers that weren’t activated during the initial set, they also force more blood into the working muscles. By moving quickly from the original load to the one you drop to with minimal rest, you don’t give your blood much of a chance to leave the muscles you’re training, producing an enormous pump and stimulating muscle growth.
- Boost workout intensity
Drop sets allow you to boost the intensity of your workouts to break workout boredom and/or bust through a plateau, induce greater muscular damage, and therefore elicit more growth. This technique enhances your workout by putting your muscle under constant tension to ignite muscle growth in those stubborn muscles with an overload of continuous sets and reps.
- Go beyond failure
Going to failure and beyond signals the body to produce more critical anabolic hormones and growth factors such as growth hormone and testosterone. The further you can take a set past failure, the higher you can increase levels of these natural muscle-building hormones and the further you can push muscle growth
3. How to perform drop sets?
You can use a number of different techniques to best execute drop sets. The two you see most often include:
If you’re using a barbell, your training partner can quickly pull a plate off each side of the bar when you can no longer do reps with a given weight. Your partner can continue to strip away plates, up to two or three times, until you reach a point very close to total muscular exhaustion.
- Running the rack
When you train with dumbbells and you reach failure, immediately pick up a lighter set of weights off the rack. Do as many reps as you can with those, put them down and continue down the rack 1-3 more times.
4. How to add drop sets to your routine?
The key to performing drop sets properly is choosing the right weights. If the loads you use are too heavy, you won’t have the strength to perform the desired number of reps, and the effect will be ruined. Select a weight with which you can perform your desired reps for your drop sets and reduce the weight accordingly. An average weight reduction for a drop set is usually about 15% to 20%. That would be like loading up 225 pounds on the bar for bench presses and then dropping to 185 pounds. If you were to do another drop, you’d take 15% to 20% from 185, going down to around 155, and so on. There’s no exact limit to the number of times you can reduce the weight, but it’s typical to drop one to three times.
Choose two exercises with which to use drop sets. When performing forced drop sets, do them on no more than two exercises per workout. Drop sets can be performed on multi-joint and single-joint exercises depending on your goal. On multi-joint exercises, you can perform them on your heaviest sets to take full advantage of its muscle-building effects. On single-joint moves, drop sets can be used to pump as much blood into the area as possible.
Because drop sets are exhausting and take your muscles to failure, they should not be applied to every set of every exercise you do, otherwise, it could lead to overtraining. So, add 1-2 drop sets to the last 1-2 sets of your chosen two exercises.
The number of reps you complete on each drop set is important for triggering adequate GH production and mechanical stimulus to incite muscle growth. Too few reps may not boost GH levels high enough, while too many reps may mean the resistance isn’t heavy enough to overload the muscle and produce growth. So be sure to drop the weight by 20%-30% to stay within your rep range and maximize results.
Sample drop set workout
Try this sampling of drop sets for your next biceps routine.