Drop Sets: How to Use Drop Sets For Strength & Hypertrophy

John Rusin
Written By: John Rusin
May 25th, 2017
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
31.2K Reads
Drop Sets: How to Use Drop Sets For Strength & Hypertrophy
Increase your workout intensity by incorporating these three incredibly challenging drop set formats: change in angulation, lift speed and base of support.

Mechanical drop sets have become a forgotten practice in many strength and hypertrophy programs in recent times.

The simple idea of using less and less weight to complete a set of a specific movement has been widely popularized, and has even made its way through the big box gyms.

With every bro-scientist out there doing the same basic drop on bench press, something's gotta evolve!

I have never been a believer in using submaximal loads under 50% of 1RM for muscle and strength gains, and never will be. That's exactly what a traditional drop set program involves.

Ever think about using the same external load, but moving it differently? Probably not.

This article is going to help you change it up.

The Goal of a Drop Set

Mechanical drop sets can be utilized in strength, hypertrophy and power training alike. They can yield optimal gains through intelligent programming and training.

The primary goal of a drop set is to have the trainee continue performing repetitions of an exercise beyond their failure point. This typically involves decreasing external loads when they reach failure on their heaviest load.

Related: Best Pre-Exhaust Exercises for Every Muscle Group

Drop sets can be a decent way to shock the muscle tissue into growth, but is far from optimal due to the sub-maximal loads being used and type of muscle fibers being recruited.

Instead, let's use a more effective method of drop sets that keeps loads as high as possible throughout a set. This will help to produce a maximal training effect. That's where mechanical drop sets fit right in. Keep training past failure and shock your muscles into growth with maximal loads.

Different Types of Drop Sets

Mechanical drop sets can be separated into three major categories:

  1. Change in angulation
  2. Change in base of support or contact points
  3. Change in rhythm (speed of contraction)

Dymatize Female Athlete Performing Drop Sets

Change in Angulation

The first example we will look at for mechanical drop sets that utilize a change in angulation is the standard dumbbell bench press. The 3 variations of this exercise that we will use during the drop set will be:

  1. Overhead (military) press
  2. Incline bench press
  3. Flat bench press

Anyone who has pressed a weight overhead has experienced an increase in difficulty when compared to an incline or flat bench press position. Due to the muscular recruitment requisites, and primary muscular movers for each angulation, the more vertical the pressing orientation, the more challenging the exercise variation will be.

The external load chosen for the mechanical drop set will be based on the repetition maximum of the hardest variation of the exercise, in this case the overhead press. From there, you will complete all the prescribed repetitions at the hardest variation.

You will move down to gain mechanical leverage in the next angle when failure was hit in the previous variation; in this example moving from the overhead press to the incline bench press.

At the incline, you will again complete as many reps as prescribed (or to absolute failure) until you again change your setup to gain a more powerful angulation, in this case switching to the flat bench press. Complete as many repetitions as you can at the flat bench position. The set will conclude when you hit failure during the 3rd position.

Any number of variable angles can be used during mechanical drop sets. Obviously, the more angles that are utilized, the more total repetitions that will be completed, and the more volume you will program per set. It all depends on exercise, and program goals and demands.

Let's now take a look at how to utilize changes in contact points and bases to complete mechanical drop sets.

Dymatize Athlete Performing Rows

Change in Base of Support (Contact Points)

Changes in a base of support for a closed chain activity, or in extremity positioning for open chain activities, can be utilized in programming to change the difficulty and load complexity of a chosen movement. Again, the same concepts apply as the example used above with angle variation.

As the repetitions increase we will move from the least advantageous force and power production position of an exercise to the most powerful. For this example we will use the pull up and focus on a variance of hand positioning.

The 3 hand positioning (contact points) variations that will be used in this example are:

  1. Traditional wide based pull up
  2. Neutral grip pull up
  3. Chin up with narrow base

Our form of resistance in this exercise will be body weight. If you are more advanced, an external load in form of a weight at the feet or from a dipping belt can be used. The most difficult variation of a vertical pull up will be used used first, and that is a wide base and pronated grip.

The muscular recruitment from this variation will put the greatest emphasis on the isolation of the latissimus dorsi, with minimal accessory force coming from the biceps brachii and forearms.

When failure is met at this position, hand position will switch to a neutral grip (palms facing each other) pull up with a decrease in the width between the hands. Failure, again, will be completed at this position.

The last position will be a chin up (supinated) grip with another decrease in distance between hands. This position will conclude the mechanical drop set. As the exercise gets simplified, more and more accessory muscles will have the ability to be utilized, aiding in performance of the exercise.

Change in Tempo

The last variation that we will focus on are changes in rhythm, or speed of contractions being completed using a specific movement or exercise. As the speed of a contraction decreases, the time under tension increases. This increases the overall difficulty of movement execution.

In this example, we will use the back squat.

The squat, using the same foot placement, bar position, and core positioning, will be manipulated during this type of drop set by changing the rhythm of the movement. An external load will be placed on the movement to start with based on a dynamic execution of the lift.

The 3 tempos that will be used in this example are:

  1. Dynamic (high speed)
  2. Standard movement speed
  3. Slow movement speed

Related: How to Use Micro-Progressions For Non-Stop Growth!

The first variation of the squat will be performed using dynamic high speeds, during both the eccentric and concentric phases of the movement. Failure will be met when the initial prescribed rhythm can no longer be executed with technical form.

The step down will be into a standard speed of movement. This speed of both eccentric and concentric phases should be the speed that you normally use in the movement.

When failure is met at the second rhythm, a slow concentric and eccentric contraction will be used to complete the set. This will allow maximal load to be moved through the compound exercise, while still keeping good form and technique.

Putting It All Together

The days of pushing through failure and just ripping weight off the end of the bar are over. Advancements in programming, but more importantly functional capacity, have been made. This allows for more optimal training effects.

Maximizing each and every set from your program will aid you in attaining your high performance goals. Give these mechanical drop sets a shot. See what works best for you and your foundational exercise selections.

Compound, multi-joint movements are just as effective as isolation work using this programming strategy, so take them all for a test-drive.