Looking for some serious gains? Drop and do — drop sets.
It’s a strength training technique where you perform as many reps as possible until the muscles are fatigued. From there, you drop the weight, take a short break, and repeat the exercise until totally fatigued again. If you were to increase the weight each time, this is called a reverse drop set.
Keep reading to learn more about mixing up your workout with this strength training technique.
A full-body workout can be achieved with drop sets — so long as you have the right equipment. This means having access to:
- fixed-bar weights
You can focus on one muscle group at a time per workout, such as legs, for example. When you’re performing the exercise, the muscle should be fully engaged with each repetition.
Drop sets use both mechanical and metabolic fatigue to help with muscular hypertrophy (making the muscle grow). Studies on how it compares to other resistance training techniques are mixed, but it’s at least as effective as conventional sets used in weight training to build muscle and strength.
With mechanical fatigue
Mechanical fatigue is when the muscle fiber gets damaged from physical overload. When cells go to repair the damaged muscle protein, something unique happens — the fiber ends up growing back stronger and thicker.
This results in increased muscle size, a common fitness goal of those looking to bulk up.
With metabolic fatigue
Metabolic fatigue, on the other hand, is what happens when a muscle is exerted to the point of no return. In other words, it’s unable to perform another rep.
Like mechanical fatigue, this also causes the muscle to increase in size. This happens because of lactic acid damaging muscle fibers and because of the muscle storing more
Good for building muscle mass
While there’s still an overall lack of evidence regarding the efficiency of hypertrophy-oriented resistance training (RT), one very small review of studies concluded that for experienced lifters who are training, drop sets could be one part of a time-saving method to build muscle.
But there isn’t enough research to suggest specifics for duration, reps, and frequency.
No. While you don’t have to be a powerlifter to give drop sets a try, you should have weightlifting experience.
It’s very easy to overtrain with this technique, and for a beginner, that means a bigger risk for injury.
To help avoid injury or shock to your muscles, it’s advised that you get used to regular sets or straight sets first. You can also do these with lighter weights so you can focus on proper form.
Once you’re ready to try drop sets, start small. Try one set per muscle group for the first few times, for example.
Both drop sets and conventional sets come with their own set of pros and cons.
With conventional or straight sets, you’re completing a set number of reps before repeating the exercise or moving on to something else.
With drop sets, the goal is to max out the number of reps. Additionally, you’re usually only focusing on 1–2 exercises at a time.
Both methods can improve strength and build muscle.
A very small 2017 study involving 32 volunteers looked at the muscle gains in three different types of strength training. This included:
- crescent pyramid (CP)
- drop-set (DS) systems
- traditional resistance training (TRAD)
After participants completed set leg exercises for a period of weeks, results found that all three methods had similar muscle gains.
But researchers concluded that more muscle growth can be gained with fewer drop sets than with conventional, likely due to the level of stress put on muscles.
The concept of drop sets can be applied to a whole range of workouts.
To get the technique down, you can start with this example drop set workout that focuses on training the biceps.
Q: What’s an example of drop sets for bicep curls?
A: Start with a weight you can curl with good form but will fail to lift after 6–8 reps. Without resting between sets, reduce the weight you’re curling by 10% to 20% and curl again this time until failure. Repeat this for a total of 3–5 sets.
Don’t want to try to figure out what a 10% to 20% drop would be? Try to “run the rack,” meaning you start with the same weight you can lift for 6–8 reps and drop to the next set of dumbbells on the rack, typically a 5-pound decrease, lifting to failure with each set.
— Jake Tipane, CPT
These eight tips provide you with the best ways to utilize this technique safely and with great results.
- Never skip the warmup. Doing so could lead to injury. Aim for at least 5 minutes of aerobic activity instead before moving on to strength training.
- Make last sets your drop sets. Save the drop sets for the last 1–2 sets of your workout. This is so you can really empty the tank and so that your muscles are sure to be warmed up. If you do it at the beginning of your workout, you risk your muscles becoming too fatigued.
- Lift with a partner. Even if you’re an experienced lifter, you should have a training partner nearby to spot you and change out the weight quickly so that you can be as time efficient as possible.
- Don’t lift the weights too fast. When you do this, you’re not letting your muscles get as good of a workout since they’re relying on momentum to propel them. Use slow and controlled movements instead, including when dropping back down to the starting position.
- Don’t drop-set every day. You shouldn’t do a drop set every day. Aim for 1–2 times per week (once, if you’re just starting out).
Need help choosing a weight?
Follow this method: Choose a weight that you’ll be able to lift at least 8–10 times with proper form. If you can’t lift it properly, it’s too heavy.
They both can help you build endurance, lose weight, and bust through plateaus, but drop sets and supersets couldn’t be more different.
A superset is when you pair exercises together, back-to-back, with little to no rest in between. They can be muscles from either the same or opposing muscle groups. An example of this would be working the chest and back.
Unlike a drop set, there is hardly any rest in between. You complete the movements, catch your breath, and then start again. Doing so helps you:
- burn more calories
- intensify your workout
- cut your workout time
Drop sets are more about doing as many reps as you can do, while supersets are more about the type of muscle(s) you’re working.
Drop sets can be a great way to shake up your “regular” workout routine.
They help build muscle and improve strength endurance.
However, when compared to regular sets, there’s not enough evidence to prove that drop sets are better at achieving those benefits. These are simply two different ways to strength train. And the same goes with supersets.
There are several safety precautions to take when starting out with drop sets. This includes having proper form and avoiding lifting weight that’s too heavy. When in doubt, change the weight out.