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Drop Sets for Gains: Why This Lifting Format Works

Kinsey Mahaffey
Kinsey Mahaffey
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Strength training research points to the importance of training to muscle failure to maximize exercise-induced muscle hypertrophy (Willardson 2007). Many gym-goers use a standard horizontal load system, also known as a straight-set, to reach this goal.This system works, but it can be time-consuming. If you're looking for a way to train your muscles to failure (to see those #gainz) without extending the amount of time you spend at the gym, then drop sets might be worth a try.

What Are Drop Sets?

A drop set is a resistance training technique that is popular among bodybuilders and strength athletes due to its ability to help the lifter reach muscular fatigue in a more time-efficient manner than horizontal loading.

In a drop set, the lifter will perform as many reps as they can with good form until their muscles fatigue, or they can no longer maintain proper form. At that point, they immediately lighten the load and perform the same exercise to fatigue again, without resting between load changes.

The lifter can drop the weight 2-3 times within the same set to further fatigue the muscles (beyond what they would have been able to by staying at the first weight).

General Rep Ranges and Weight for Drop Sets

There aren't any strict guidelines in programming a drop set, so there is flexibility in how you choose to apply drop sets to your workout depending on your goals and phase of training. As a general guideline, you can choose a weight appropriate for 6-12 RM to start, and then perform as many reps as you can until you start to fatigue and/or lose form.

You will immediately decrease the load anywhere from 5-25% for each drop. It's worth noting that the more you decrease the load (say, 20-25%), the more reps you'll be able to do before reaching fatigue. A smaller decrease in load (5-10%) will probably only allow you to complete 2-4 additional repetitions.

You'll want to keep this in mind if you're trying to match the overall volume of the rest of your workout. You can perform 2 to 3 drops within a single set. Research doesn't show any additional benefits beyond 3 drops.

Why Do Drop Sets Work? (What The Research Says)

We've already established that reaching muscular fatigue is necessary for optimizing muscular development. Muscular fatigue is defined as "the point during a resistance exercise set when the muscles can no longer produce sufficient force to control a given load" (Willardson 2007).

In standard horizontal loading, the lifter will perform a designated number of reps of an exercise, aiming to reach muscle failure, and then rest for up to 60 seconds before performing the next set. Schoenfeld and Grgic (2018) posit that muscles are not completely fatigued once they reach concentric failure because they can still perform more reps at a lighter load. This is where drop sets shine! Some researchers suggest that drop sets more fully fatigue the muscles, which can enhance muscular adaptations (Schoenfeld 2011).

An additional benefit to performing drop sets has to do with the amount of time spent training. Lifters can perform the same training volume (total number of repetitions) in a shorter amount of time using drop sets than with straight sets since drop sets don't require rest. Because of the high-intensity nature of a drop set, and the high neuromuscular demand, most researchers suggest limiting the use of drop sets to 1-2 per workout to avoid over-training.

How to Do Drop Sets

There are many variations in performing a drop set, but here's a simple example of how to perform one. Choose an exercise (multi-joint, or single-joint) and select a weight that allows you to perform 8-12 repetitions before you reach muscle failure (i.e., you're unable to complete the lift with good form).

Drop the weight 20% and perform as many repetitions as you can before you reach failure (probably another 8-10 reps). Do the second drop of 20% and perform as many repetitions as you can before you reach failure. Your muscles are likely pretty fatigued at this point, but you can do a third drop if you're up for it!

*Note: Be smart in your exercise selection. If you don't have a spotter, it's ideal to choose an exercise that allows for safe failure (like a machine, or single-joint exercises).

Drop Set Workout Example: Reps, Sets, and Weight

A drop set can be applied to the last set of an exercise (as part of a straight set), or it can completely replace a straight set for a certain muscle group. Here's an example of both:

Drop set as part of the straight set:

On the third set of the machine chest press and the seated lat pull down, use the drop set technique to fatigue the muscle group. Use horizontal loading on the other exercises: Perform the exercise, rest, and then repeat for the designated number of sets.

Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest Intensity
Barbell Bench Press 3 10 Medium 30 Seconds  
Incline Dumbbell Chest Press 3 10 Medium 30 Seconds  
Machine Chest Press 3 10+ Medium 30 Sec sets 1&2 *No rest between drops 5% decrease in weight for drops
Pull-Ups 3 10 Medium 30 Seconds  

Seated Cable Row

 

3 10 Medium 30 Seconds  
Seated Lat Pull-Down 3 10+ Medium 30 Sec sets 1&2 *No rest between drops 5% decrease in weight for drops

 

Exercises with a (*) perform the third set of this exercise as a drop set. On the third set, do 10 reps and then drop the weight by 5% for each drop (2-3 drops total).

Drop set replacing a straight set:

The machine leg press and machine leg curl exercises will only be performed once as a drop set. Use horizontal loading on the other exercises: Perform the exercise, rest, and then repeat for the designated number of sets.

Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest Intensity
Barbell Squat 3 10 Medium 30 Seconds  
Lunges 3 10 Medium 30 Seconds  
Machine Leg Press 1 10+ Medium *No rest between drops 20% Decrease in weight for drops
Trap Bar Deadlift 3 10 Medium 30 Seconds  
Romanian Deadlift 3 10 Medium 30 Seconds  
Machine Leg Curl 1 10+ Medium *No rest between drops 20% decrease in weight for drops

 

Exercises with a (*) perform as one drop set. Do 10 reps and then drop the weight by 20% for each drop (2-3 drops total).

Drop Sets During Which Phase of the OPT Model?

Drop sets are most appropriate for Phase 2, Muscular Endurance, and Phase 3, Muscular Development Training since they promote increases in both muscular endurance and muscular hypertrophy.

It’s important to note that drop sets are an advanced lifting technique, best suited for experienced lifters.

Do Drop Sets Target Both Muscle Fiber Types?

Yes, they do! Weightlifting requires the use of type II fibers since these fibers are larger and produce more force than type I. In a drop set, type II fibers will be the dominant fiber firing initially, but because they fatigue quickly, type I fibers will help the lifter complete a high-volume drop set. Therefore, it is true that both types of muscle fibers are working within a single drop set.

There are two muscle fiber types: type I and type II (categorized by type IIA and IIX). Type I muscle fibers, or "slow-twitch" fibers, facilitate long-duration contractile activities (like distance running), while type II, "fast-twitch" fibers, facilitate short-duration anaerobic activities (like weightlifting or sprinting) (Wilson et. al. 2012).

Whether you use this technique just to finish off a tough workout or to intentionally get some gains, drop sets are worth a try for anyone with strength or muscle development goals.

References:

Schoenfeld B. The use of specialized training techniques to maximize muscle hypertrophy. Strength Cond J 2011;33:60–65.

Schoenfeld, B, Grgic, Jozo. Can drop set training enhance muscle growth? Strength and Conditioning Journal: 2018;40(6):95-98. DOI: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000366

Willardson JM. The application of training to failure in periodized multiple-set resistance exercise programs. J Strength Cond Res 2007;21:628–631.

Wilson JM, Loenneke JP, Jo E, Wilson GJ, Zourdos MC, Kim JS. The effects of endurance, strength, and power training on muscle fiber type shifting. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(6):1724-1729. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318234eb6f

The Author

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey

Kinsey Mahaffey, MPH, is a Houston-based fitness educator, personal trainer and health coach who developed her commitment to lifelong fitness while playing Division I volleyball. She’s passionate about helping others cultivate a healthy lifestyle and enjoys educating other fitness professionals who share this vision. She’s a Master Instructor and Master Trainer for NASM.