What's the Deal with Drop Sets?
When it comes to common gym and training terms, there are plenty of phrases/concepts that get tossed around, without people really understanding their meaning, or what they do. In this article, we will break down everything you need to know about drop-sets, and the role they play in training, progression, and growth.
What’s a Drop-Set?
A drop set, by definition, is a technique where you perform an exercise with a weight at the higher end of your lifting range, for as many reps as it takes for you to feel fatigued at that weight (or a set number of reps), and then drop or reduce the weight and continue for more reps until you feel fatigue at the lower weight. You repeat the process until you either get to the lowest weight available, or until you reach ultimate failure. Drop sets can also be referred to as “running the rack”, “breakdowns”, or “strip-sets” .
What Role do Drop-Sets Play in Muscle Growth?
Drop sets ultimately allow you to lift past fatigue, increasing muscular hypertrophy, endurance, and muscular “pump” a la blood flow. Drop sets activate more muscle fibers than traditional sets, since your primary muscle fibers are being recruited to lift the initial weight, and your reserve muscle fibers are being utilized to lift the lower weights. Your muscles are essentially shocked, which increases the rate of muscular growth, and translates to larger muscles (again, hypertrophy).
We have already tackled the whole hypertrophy vs strength debate, but for the purposes of this article I will reiterate that the drop set method is obviously incredibly beneficial to the bodybuilder, since its goal is to increase muscle size, and a bodybuilder’s primary concern is aesthetics.
When Should You Use Drop-Sets?
Since drop sets really burn a muscle out, they are best performed at the end of your workout, with only 1 drop set per muscle group, per workout. For example, if you are working on back and bis, perform a drop set of each muscle group (back and bis, in this instance) as the last set of that muscle group.
Drop-Sets, Some Common Examples:
As with any technique, there are quite a few different variations to the drop set. Here are some basic variations, and how to execute them.
Traditional Drop Set - “Running the Rack” - Running the rack is great for any exercises that use dumbbells, like bicep curls, shoulder presses, or rows. Start with a weight that feels comfortable for 8-12 reps. Once you are done with your 8-12 reps, drop the weight by about 15%, and crank out another 8-12 reps. Continue the process until you hit failure, or the lowest weight available. Basically, you are working until you can’t work anymore, and you find that the muscle pump hurts.
Halving Drop Sets - “6-20 Sets” - This involves performing 6 reps of an exercise at your max weight, and then immediately performing 20 reps at a weight exactly half of your starting weight. For example, if you are shoulder pressing 70’s, you will crank out 6 reps with 60 lb dumbbells, and 20 reps immediately after at 30 lbs. This method is great because it works with short and long rep ranges, challenging different muscle fibers for maximum growth.
Alternate Grip/Stance Drop Sets - This technique is great because it challenges your muscles at multiple weights, angles, and reps. One easy way to perform this is with the leg press machine. Start with 8 reps at 270 lbs (3-45 lb plates on each side), with your toes straight, shoulder-width apart, and feet on the middle of the platform. Drop the weight by 90 lbs and perform 8 reps with your feet high on the platform, narrow-stanced. Drop the weight by another 90 lbs and now perform 8 reps with your feet wide and low. If you’re up for it, drop the weight down to 90 lbs, and crank out your last 8 reps with your feet high and with your toes pointed out at 45 degree angles. Unless you are bionic, I can guarantee you won’t be able to walk the next day.
Zero Rest Drop Sets - For advanced lifters only, zero rest drop sets are the ultimate exercise in endurance. These are performed in the same manner as a standard drop set, but involve taking absolutely no rest between sets. For that reason, these are best performed with a partner or two, who can change the weights for you, instantly. A true zero rest drop set keeps your muscle under continuous tension, and doesn’t allow the lactic acid buildup in your muscles to dissipate. Trust me, this will BURN.
Whichever variation you choose, when it comes to training, stop and drop your sets for some serious gains.