Drop sets are a highly effective way to build muscle in less time than traditional training. In some studies, subjects gained just as much muscle as they did with straight sets, but with workouts that were 50% shorter.
Here’s the lowdown on drop sets — sometimes referred to as descending sets, stripping or running the rack — and how to use them for best results.
The Reps That Make Your Muscle Grow
The standard approach to lifting weights looks something like this:
Let’s say you want to train your biceps. You pick up a dumbbell and start curling. The first 3-4 reps are relatively straightforward. But as the set continues, the reps get progressively more difficult, and those last 2-3 reps are the hardest to complete.
After cranking out rep twelve, you put the weight down, and rest for a couple of minutes. Then, you repeat the process twice more.
In total, you’ve done three sets. Each set took around 40 seconds to complete. And you took two minutes of rest between set one and two, and another two minutes between set two and three.
In other words, it’s taken you six minutes to do three sets. And it was the final few reps of each set that made the largest contribution to muscle growth. Norwegian trainer Borge Fagerli calls those last few reps “effective reps,” as you get an effective training stimulus from each one.
With drop sets, those growth-promoting reps are squeezed into a shorter period of time. The muscle-building stimulus is the same, but the workouts are shorter.
What Is a Drop Set?
Drop sets involve doing multiple sets of an exercise to muscular failure, using successively lighter weights, while taking as little rest as possible between each set.
Henry Atkins, editor of Vigour and Body Culture magazines, is the guy who came up with the back in the 1940s. He called it the “multi-poundage system.”
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To do a drop set, perform as many reps as you can in your first set. Then, drop the weight by around 20%, and keep going. As soon as you hit the point where you can’t do another rep, reduce the weight again by around 20%, and continue the set until fatigue forces you to stop.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was a big fan of drop sets, which he called Running the Rack. Here’s what he had to say on the subject in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding:
“This is one of my favorite ways of using dumbbells to shock the body. It involves doing an exercise with a set of dumbbells, putting them down, picking up the next lighter weight, and doing another set without stopping.
“For example, I would do Dumbbell Presses starting with 100-pound weights and going to failure, then immediately setting them down and continuing with 90-pound dumbbells. My muscles were too tired at this point to press 100 pounds, but the remaining unused fibers could still lift the slightly lighter weight.
“Again, when the 90-pound weights got too heavy, I would go down to the 80s, then the 70s, and so on. Each time I went down the rack I reached a little deeper into the available muscle tissue to shock and innervate the muscle more thoroughly.”
How Effective Are Drop Sets?
While bodybuilders have been using drop sets for decades to make their muscles grow, it’s only recently that researchers have put the training method to the test. As it turns out, using drop sets to extend a set past the point where you’d normally stop can deliver the same muscle-building stimulus in less time than regular training.
Lifters in the first group did three sets of conventional resistance training. They performed as many reps as they could in each set, resting for around 90 seconds between each one.
The drop set group, on the other hand, performed a single set, reaching failure at around 12 reps. Then, without resting, they dropped the weight by 20% and kept going until they couldn’t do any more. The weight was dropped by 20% again, and the lifters continued until they couldn’t complete any more reps.
Both groups gained muscle, with no statistically significant differences between the two. However, it was the drop set group who made the biggest gains, posting a 10% increase in triceps size, compared to a 5% increase in the group doing the traditional training.
What’s more, the drop set group finished their workout in less than half the time of the traditional training group.
Another study, carried in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, also shows no difference in muscle growth with three months of drop sets versus pyramid sets and straight sets . That is, subjects who did 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps gained roughly the same amount of muscle as those who did drop sets.
Once again, the drop set group were able to finish their workouts more quickly. They gained the same amount of muscle with less training time than the traditional group.
A team of Japanese scientists also report similar results . They rounded up a group of untrained men, and got them to train their biceps 2-3 days a week using one of three different set and rep protocols.
Protocol one involved heavy weights and low reps with a 3-minute rest interval between each set. The second protocol involved lighter weights, higher reps and 90 seconds of rest between sets.
Protocol three involved a single set with a heavy weight – 80% of one-rep max, which allowed for around 6 reps. This was followed by four drop sets, at 65%, 50%, 40% and 30% of one-rep max. In all three programs, each set was taken to concentric muscular failure.
After eight weeks, magnetic resonance imaging scans show that biceps size increased to a similar extent in all three groups.
However, the drop set group made their gains in less than half the time of the other groups. In fact, it took the drop set group just two minutes, on average, to complete each workout, compared to seven minute workouts in the heavy group, and almost 12 minutes in the light group.
When Should You Do Drop Sets?
The way you incorporate drop sets in your workouts will depend a lot on your specific goals and circumstances. It’s a training technique that demands a lot from your body, and you don’t want to use it on every set of every exercise, all year round.
You might build a short routine based around drop sets, which can be your go-to workout whenever you’re short on time and can’t fit in a regular training session. You could also save them for some of the exercises performed later in your workout, once the heavier compound lifts like the squat and deadlift are out of the way.
While you can use drop sets for any muscle group, some exercises are going to be a much better fit than others.
For instance, if you want to do drop sets for the chest, an exercise like the bench press isn’t a good candidate. The key to making drop sets work is to rest for as little as possible between sets.
But if you try to do drop sets on the bench press, you’d have to rack the weight, get up, strip a plate from each side of the barbell, get back down on the bench and resume the set. The time spent stripping plates off the barbell will extend your rest period, making the technique less effective.
If you’re training on your own, drop sets can only be used on exercises where you’re able to change the weight quickly. This usually means using cables and weight machines, such as the leg extension, lat pulldown or triceps pressdown.
If you train in a gym with a dumbbell rack, exercises like the lateral raise or biceps curl are also an option, as you can switch instantly from a heavier dumbbell to a lighter one.
The other advantage with weight machines is that your form is less likely to go down the pan.
On a selectorized leg press machine (or a plate loaded one if you’ve got a couple of training partners handy), you can just focus on pushing each set to failure without having to worry too much about technique. But with an exercise like the squat or deadlift, fatigue can end up compromising your form and increase your risk of injury.
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