Drop Sets, also termed ‘descending sets’, are a workout intensifying technique in which an exercise is completed for as many reps as possible until muscle failure occurs, at which point the resistance (weight) is immediately decreased and as many reps as possible are performed once again to muscle failure.
How To Perform
To perform a Drop Set simply choose an exercise and a weight and perform reps until muscle failure. Once muscle failure is achieved, immediately reduce the weight and, without rest, continue performing reps until subsequent muscle failure occurs using the reduced weight. The Drop Set training protocol can be performed more than once within a single set, using two or three consecutive decreases in weight. Theses are commonly referred to as Double or Triple Drop Sets, or Running The Rack.
There are a number of ways the reduction in weight can be implemented during a Drop Set to create a specialized training effect, including the following:
Percentage Based Drop Sets
Varying the reduction in weight as a percentage will directly influence the rep ranges used and change the type of muscle fibre activation experienced across the Drop Set. Tight Drop Sets involve using small decreases in weight (for example 10%-20% per drop) and predominantly target low to medium rep ranges on subsequent sets. For example, loading 80kg on a Barbell Row for 6 reps then dropping to 72kg (Drop Set) and then 64kg (Double Drop Set) for an additional 2-4 reps per drop will primarily target strength based, fast twitch muscle fibres. Conversely a Half Drop Set (50%) or Wide Drop Set (for example a reduction in weight of 40%-60% per drop) will target a higher and broader rep range at each drop. For example, loading 100kg on a Bench Press for 6 reps then immediately stripping 50% of the weight to 50kg and getting 10-12 reps will primarily target hypertrophy, while stimulating fast, medium and slow twitch muscle fibres.
Descending Drop Sets use small decreases in weight and therefore force a reduction in reps (15-10-6) at each drop. For example, performing 15kg Dumbbell Curls for 15 reps, then dropping the weight to to 12kg for 8-10 reps, and finally dropping again to 9kg for 6-8 reps. In comparison, Ascending Drop Sets use larger decreases in weight and therefore invite an increase in reps (8-15-20) at each drop. For example, performing 100kg Incline Machine Press for 8 reps, then dropping the weight to 50kg for 15 reps, and finally dropping again to 25kg for 20 reps.
Run The Rack/Strip Sets
Run The Rack Sets are Tight Drop Sets that use dumbbells from the dumbbell rack in decreasing sequential order; hence the name “Run The Rack”. They begin with a heavy set of dumbbells for a chosen rep range and progressively decrease in weight down the rack until the lightest dumbbells available are used. They will often involve 10 or more drops, depending on how the heavy the initial dumbbells used are, how many lighter dumbbells are available, and the weight increments between each set of dumbbells. Strip Sets are Drop Sets that utilise barbells or plate loaded machines where the weight is literally ‘stripped’ at each drop. For Strip Sets that involve multiple drops it is important to load barbells and machines with smaller weight increments and use a spotter to keep rest to a minimum.
Constant Tension Drop Sets are Drop Sets where the muscles being worked are not relaxed while the reduction in weight occurs. For example, during a Leg Press Drop Set, the weight would not be racked while the plates are being removed to reduce the weight on the Leg Press; instead the athlete would statically hold the Leg Press platform in place while the spotter reduces the weight. Constant Tension Drop Sets should only be performed when training with a training partner, and only on plate loaded machines where weight can be evenly removed from the machine, so as to not overload one side of the body while the drop is occuring.
Drop Sets are best performed using dumbbells, fixed bars, and pin loaded machines for those who train alone, or with barbells and plate loaded machines in ‘Strip Set’ fashion for those with training partners.
Drop Sets are a very effective workout intensifying technique and as such it is important to utilize them in a structured manner to manage fatigue and recovery. During a workout it is advisable to utilize Drop Sets only on the last 1-2 sets of an exercise following straight sets. The accumulated training workload (volume) of each drop during each Drop Set will heavily dictate its frequency of use across a single workout. The rules of hypertrophy training still apply to Drop Sets and as such they are best performed in the 6-12 rep range; occasionally higher reps of 15-25 on Drop Sets can be used to target the ‘pump’ and greater sarcoplasmic (muscle fluid) growth.
Within an overall training program it is recommended to use Drop Sets for a maximum of 4 weeks and only use them for 1-2 muscle groups during a 4 week block (mesocycle). Furthermore, the number (volume) of Drop Sets performed for a muscle group can fluctuate on a weekly (microcycle) basis to manage recovery. As an example, over a 4 week mesocycle, weeks 1 & 3 may use a higher volume of 10 total Drop Sets per muscle group, whereas weeks 2 & 4 may use a lower volume of only 4 total Drop Sets per muscle group.
Drop Sets allow a lot of work (training volume) to be completed in a short period of time so are a great workout intensifying technique for those short on time who still want increases in muscular hypertrophy via higher volume training.
From a hypertrophy perspective, Drop Sets increase the acute volume of training within a single working set, increasing the total time under tension whilst also enhancing the buildup of lactate and metabolic stress which have been shown to be valuable in increasing sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
The short rest periods used in Drop Sets are associated with greater metabolic buildup than conventional straight sets which has the potential to spike anabolic hormonal concentrations following exercise to support increased muscle growth.
Example Workout (Biceps)
Sets 1-5: Choose a weight to fail at 8-10 reps (Straight Sets)
Machine Preacher Curl:
Set 1: Choose a weight to fail at 12 reps
Set 2: Increase the weight to fail at 12 reps, drop 30% of weight and continue until failure (Drop Set).
Set 3: Increase the weight to fail at 10 reps, drop 30% of weight and continue until failure, drop another 30% and continue until failure (Double Drop Set).
Alternate Dumbbell Curl (‘Run The Rack’)
Set 1-2: Choose a weight to fail at 12 reps (Straight Sets)
Set 3: Choose a weight to fail at 12 reps, reduce weight by 2-3kg and perform reps until failure, reduce weight again by 2-3kg and perform reps until failure. Continue to ‘Run The Rack’ decreasing in 2-3kg increments and performing reps until failure until complete muscle failure has been achieved.