As I said in my rest pause article, of all the extended set techniques that are out there, drop sets have to be my favorite. Actually, when I use intensity techniques, I like to combine several of them, such as drops with static holds and burns but if I had to pick just one, it would be drops.
Even though drop sets are claimed as part of the Weider System (what isn’t?), they were originally called the multi poundage system by their creator, Henry Atkins, editor of Body Culture magazine, in 1947. Since then, they have become known as strip sets, the stripping method, descending sets and down the rack or running the rack and have become a staple of advanced training. Now, my recent article on the rest pause technique can be considered an advanced training article. This article will continue that idea.
Drop sets can be done with barbells, dumbbells or machines. You set up 3 progressively lighter bars/dumbbells or use the machine's weight stack pin, take your first working set after warm-ups to a point of positive failure, grab the next lightest bar, dumbbells or change the pin to a lower weight and again go to failure, do it one more time after that and that equals one set (you can continue with more drops but 3 are typically the average, this is also where the term “triple drops” comes from).
Pins on machine weight stacks make this an easy to use technique as do pre-set up dumbbells. Bars are harder because usually, you need two spotters to pull plates. You can set up several progressively lighter bars but this becomes a little unpractical if you’re doing bench presses or squats. So unlike other techniques, you may have to limit drops to certain exercises.
As is the case with all intensity techniques, drops allow you to continue a set beyond normal limits. Recently I’ve seen something of a controversy over whether or not techniques like this are actually worthwhile – are you really stimulating the muscle or are you merely promoting faster fatigue? I feel you are stimulating a muscle with the use of any intensity technique.
If you perform a typical set to failure and simply stop there, you have reached positive failure. However, that does not mean the muscle can’t do more work, it only means it can’t do more work with that weight. So, let’s get more out of it by pushing beyond failure to a point where anything meaningful in terms of reps would be impossible. There are lots of techniques for this and they can be combined but drops can certainly be a primary technique to use.
But wait, isn’t there a problem here? My routine calls for 8 sets per muscle group and when I train this way I can only do 4 sets, does that mean I’m shortchanging my routine and myself? No, why would it? If you can completely stimulate a muscle with less sets then what’s wrong with that? In some philosophies, you hear about training heavy for optimum overload. But heavy is a relative term and a muscle that has just done 6 reps with a heavy weight will “think” a weight reduction is just as heavy.
Any set will produce fatigue – the muscles tire as you train. Efficiency would indicate getting the most out of a set and workout before you deplete your glycogen stores. A fatigued muscle will still receive maximum overload because the reduced weight is proportionally as heavy as the weight you used when you were fresh, at the beginning of the set.
So, this is just one viewpoint and let me say I don’t advocate this type of training all the time. There is no one best way to train – period. The body will always adapt and when that happens gains will always slow. So variety is one key to progress. Now, that doesn’t mean some approaches aren’t more effective than others but also remember no one approach works the same for everyone. This is why you have to try different muscle building routines and theories and determine which ones work best for you. All part of the learning process!
When it comes to the use of intensity techniques and training past failure, there is a pain threshold you have to break through. Not everyone responds well to this. For that reason, this type of training is not for everyone. However, just to know your own limits, I feel everyone should train to at least a little past failure even once – now you have a reference point in regards to your limits when you train – you know if you are quitting because you can’t do any more as opposed to quitting for some other less productive reason.
Along with variety, progression is a major key to progress. This can mean adding weight to the bar, adding a rep or two to your set, it can mean performing more work in the same allotted time or the same work in less time. While I do believe there should always be a core group of compound exercises in your routine that you are adding weight to, at some point you will reach your strength limits and adding more weight will be impossible.
For this reason, you have to consider other methods of progression, such as the use of drop sets which allows more work in the same time and the same work done in less time when done correctly.
Let’s look at some drop set variations:
- Wide drop – This means you use a 30% weight reduction per drop.
- Tight drop – This means you use a 10-25% weight reduction per drop.
- Ascending drops – Oor, reverse drops as you are adding weight, not decreasing weight. This is a rare technique I first heard about in the late 80’s. After you hit failure with your first working set, you add a few pounds, knock out what you can and do it again for one set.
- Low rep or power drops - Low reps and heavy weight, a favorite of the first Mr. O, Larry Scott. This to my mind puts it a little closer to rest pause, which often involves heavy weight and low reps.
- The 6-20 method - Heavy weight for 6 reps, cut the weight in half and do 20 reps, this is more a manipulation of rep ranges and is based on the idea that different rep ranges work different aspects of the muscle.
- Pre-determined ascending or descending rep ranges – This is really somewhat removed from real drop sets as it again manipulates rep ranges – you are using predetermined reps in either a descending series of drops or an ascending series of reverse drops.
- Drops combined with rest pause and other intensity techniques, such as drop set super/triple sets - A weight reduction over 2-3 sets but using two or three different exercises that are similar in how they affect the muscle. If I use similar exercises, this approach allows me to get around the drawback of needing two spotters when using bar based exercises – this is usually how I would use them, utilizing several techniques in one set.
Using drops in a routine:
Drop Set Workout #1
This is a standard 3 day push/pull/legs split routine:
Day #1 - Back, biceps, abs.
- Deadlifts: 3 warm up sets: 10-12 reps per set, about 40% of your 1RM. Don’t add weight on these sets. Working sets: 3 sets of 6-8 reps. I would not use drops here but instead focus on heavy weight, you should fail within the 6-8 rep range.
- Lat Pull Downs: 3 sets done as drop sets ( also called triple drops), load with a weight you can get 6 reps with, fail, lower the weight by 20% ( example: if you start with 100 pounds, fail and drop 20 pounds, this is 20%), rep out to failure, drop 20% again and rep out one more time, this is one set. It’s important to realize you will not get that many reps after you drop, maybe 3-4 per drop.
- Seated Cable Rows: done the same as pull downs.
- Incline Dumbbell Curls: done as a triple drop by setting up 3 progressively lighter pairs of bells, 3 sets starting with a weight you can get 6 reps with. Keep your bells within 10 pounds of each other.
- Drop set tri-set. EZ bar curls to EZ cable curls to standing dumbbell curls: this is an example of how I do drops as a tri-set by using 3 very similar exercises, each one progressively lighter. Set up the EZ bar as a heavy set of 6 reps, go right into a lighter set of EZ bar cable curls, followed by a pair of dumbbell curls. The dumbbell curls could be replaced by a second lighter set of either EZ bar curls or EZ cable curls but I prefer the slight difference of a new exercise.
- Incline Oblique Twists: use 20 lbs. and bring your left side over to your right and vice versa, in a mild twisting type motion, do this slight twisting quickly.
- Decline Bench Sit Up: use 20 lbs, rep out.
Day #2 - Chest, delts, triceps.
- Bench Press: 3 warm sets of 10 reps, as with deads, use a light weight and don’t add weight. Working sets: 3 working sets of 6-8 reps, these are heavy sets so fail within this range. I don’t use drops for chest because I find the triceps seem to take the biggest hit and fatigue way before the chest, so I would use rest pause here.
- Incline Dumbbell Flys into presses: 3 sets of 6-8 reps. Here, you are combining two exercises into one by starting with flys and as you fail you switch a compound movement: presses.
- Seated Arnold Presses done as a triple drop: set up 3 progressively lighter pairs of bells with your first set designed to fail at about 6 reps.
- Drop set super set: Side laterals into rear laterals done as a triple drop: start each exercise with a weight you can get 8 reps with, have 3 pairs of progressively lighter bells set up, and do the exercises as a superset over three drop sets, this is all one set. Keep your weight reductions within 5 pounds since this is not a heavy exercise and to big of a weight drop will ruin the effectiveness. This is one set and is the only set of these exercises.
- Dumbbell Two Arm Extensions done as a triple drop: set up 3 progressively lighter pairs of bells with the first pair set with a weight you can get 6 reps with. Keep each bell within 10 pounds.
Day # 3 - Legs.
- Squats superset with Leg Extensions: same warm up protocol as deads and bench presses, do a light warm up on each exercise. Working sets: Squats: this is a heavy set, fail at 6-8 reps, and go right into leg extensions. Set up extensions to be able to decrease the weight by 10 pounds and drop weight at least 5 times! Yes, that’s right, at least 5 drops, more if you can. This is one set and should be all you can do.
- Leg Curls: 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Standing Calf Raises: do this as a triple drop with your first set at 25 reps.
- Crunch with 20 lbs. 3 sets of as many reps as you can do.
Performance Notes: I generally advocate lifting the weight explosively and lowering slowly and under control to take advantage of the negative portion of the rep. You may have to experiment with the poundage drops; you want to maintain the use of heavy weights, too much of a drop can negate the effects completely.
Drop Set Workout #2
Here’s an example of a routine I use when I’m pressed for time. This is a very quick routine – as in you can be done in under 15 minutes and is an example of combining several different intensity techniques. This one is a 4 day split:
Day 1: Back/Traps
I start with Deadlifts set up in a pyramid fashion with reps as follows: 12, 10, 8, 6, 4-6. However, on the first 3 sets I use a unique twist: I go from Deadlifts to Bent Over Barbell Rows to Shrugs, all one set, all done with no rest. The last 2 sets are too heavy to do this. On the last set I'll use rest pause (5 count) and static holds (the last rep only). Also, I rest no more than 10-15 seconds between sets. From here, I do pull downs but I have another unique twist: I have a standard wide grip handle hooked up, along with a V-grip handle.
When I fail with the wide grip, I switch to the V grip and continue for another 2-3 reps. Again, I use rest pause on the last set, with a slow negative emphasis. I do 4-5 sets, 6-8 reps with no more than 10 seconds rest. Sometimes, I don't rest at all.
- Deadlifts: 4 sets of 12, 10, 8, 6 reps.
- Bent Over Barbell Rows: 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps.
- Shrugs: 3 sets of 12, 10, 8 reps.
Notes: On the last set, pause in between reps for 5 seconds. There is a 15 second rest before moving to the next set.
- Wide-Grip Lat Pull Downs: 4-5 sets to failure in 6-8 reps.
- V-Bar Pull down: 4-5 sets of 2-3 reps.
This is a 10 minute routine. The key is to move quickly and make the most of your movements. As you can see, by using exercise combining and extended set techniques, I can do just that.
Day 2: Chest/Delts
After 1 warm up set of Incline Dumbbell Flys into Incline Dumbbell Presses, I use a tri-set, a pre exhaust superset and a drop set of two progressively lighter pairs of dumbbells. So, I do the heavier superset of Flys/Presses first (pre-exhaust), then the lighter flys which I superset with the lighter presses. From there, I go right into a drop-set of Arnold Presses for delts using both pairs of bells. I do this cycle 3-4 times and that's it.
- Incline Dumbbell Flys: 1 set of 15 reps.
- Incline Dumbbell Flys (heavy): 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Incline Dumbbell Press (heavy): 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Incline Dumbbell Flys (light): 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Incline Dumbbell Press (light): 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Arnold Press (Heavy): 3 sets of 6 reps.
- Arnold Press (light): 3 sets of 10 reps.
The problem here is I'm not using as heavy a weight on presses as I should but I'm trying something different for chest. Here's another chest example: 8 sets of 8-12 reps of Dips done with no more than 10 seconds rest in between sets.
- Dips: 8 sets of 8-12 reps
That's the workout!
Day 3: Legs
I love Squats, I always have. Yet for several years, I have not gone real deep. I now go as low as I can using slow, controlled but explosive up, reps. No pauses or stops unless I'm using rest pause.
So for squats, I use a similar pyramid scheme as for deadlifts: 12, 10, 8, 6, 4. On the last set, I use rest pause for another 3-4 reps (5 count). I also take no more rest than it takes to add weight. From here, I do 1 set of Calf Raises for 50-60 reps. That's it! Squats, especially full, deep squats work the complete leg: hamstrings as well as quads.
- Squats (increasing weight each set): 5 sets of 12, 10, 8, 6, 4 reps.
- Standing Calf Raise: 1 sets of 50-60 reps.
Day 4: Arms
After one warm up set, I'm doing Incline Curls into Seated Dumbbell Curls into Standing Dumbbell Curls. I do inclines without supination but the seated and standing one arm at a time with supination. I add weight and do 3 very quick sets (reps look like this: 8, 4, 4 - this is one set) and then, taking the same bells I just used, I do Seated Dumbbell Triceps Extensions.
Now, I have two pair of pre-weighted bells set up, so I do a drop set plus I add a set of Close Grip Bench Dips at the end, making it a tri-set. I go for 6-8 reps per exercise. I do this 2-3 times and that's it.
- Incline Curl: 3 sets of 8 reps.
- Seated Dumbbell Alternating Curl: 3 sets of 4 reps.
- Standing Alternating Dumbbell Curl: 3 sets of 4 reps.
- Seated Dumbbell Triceps Extension (heavy): 3 sets of 6-8 reps.
- Seated Dumbbell Triceps Extension (light): 3 sets of 6-8 reps.
- Bench Dips: 3 sets of 6-8 reps.
This is a rather extreme routine that is very intense but great if you just don’t have time, as I often find to be the case.
Remember to keep your protein intake high – at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, taking in a protein meal every 3 hours. Keep carbs under control, even though they are the bodies preferred fuel source any excess can be stored as body fat. Unless you are on a lean bulking cycle, I advocate cycling carbs with several low days cycling to 1-2 high carbs days with more carbs on training days than off days and any simple carb intake only at breakfast and in the hours surrounding the workout. Fats should be kept to healthy fats only. Supplements can include protein, creatine, nitric oxide and a good pre-workout powder. Don’t forget the post-workout shake!
So drop sets can be a great addition to your workout. This article has given you two distinct uses: drops alone and combined with other techniques, try them both and see how they affect your results!