Building muscle is a laborious, time-consuming process. You need to train hard and consistently, eat right, get plenty of rest and sleep, and take the right supplements. And even if you do everything right, you may still only make very slow progress.
To make their workouts more intense, and therefore more effective, a lot of bodybuilders use methods called training systems. Training systems are designed to allow you to exercise beyond failure, and one of the most popular of these methods is drop sets.
So, what is a drop set?
In this article, we’re going to explain how to use this effective method, how they work, and when you should use them. But, be warned, like all training systems, drop sets make your workout much MUCH harder, so you can expect some additional muscle soreness after using this method.
Drop sets involve quickly reducing the weight you are lifting at the end of your set so you can pump out a few more rep than usual. This increases your time under tension, which is the length of time your set takes. A longer set exposes your muscles to more metabolic and mechanical stress, and they are two of the triggers for muscle growth. In simple terms, harder workouts are more productive workouts, and drop sets allow you to train a whole lot harder than usual.
But how do drop sets work?
Let’s say you are doing biceps curls with 75lbs./35kg. You do eight reps, but you can’t do nine. Why? Because you can no longer generate 75 lbs. of force. But, your muscles are not completely exhausted. They still have more to give.
So, instead of hitting it and quitting it, you reduce (or drop) the weight by 10-15%, and pump out a few more reps. Again, you reach the point where you are no longer able to generate enough force to lift the weight. You reduce the load again and crank out a few more reps.
In most cases, 2-3 drops are sufficient. But if you have small enough increments available, and don’t mind being seen lifting the tiniest of weights, you can continue until you are using just a few pounds.
Because the drops need to happen quickly, in a matter of seconds so you don’t start to recover, drop sets are best done using dumbbells, machines, or fixed-weight barbells. You don’t have time to remove and add weight plates to a regular barbell.
Here’s a numerical example of drop sets in action. In most cases, you should try and reduce the weight by 10-15%, but, in reality, just go with the most convenient weight increment.
If you are using a machine, this could be anywhere from 10-30 lbs. With dumbbells, it could be 5-10 lbs. Avoid really big and really small jumps; ideally, you should be able to pump out an additional 4-8 reps after each drop.
- 100 lbs. 11 reps, couldn’t do 12
Reduce the weight (1st drop)
- 85 lbs. 6 reps, couldn’t do 7
Reduce the weight (2nd drop)
- 70 lbs. 5 reps, couldn’t do 6
Reduce weight (3rd drop)
- 50 lbs. 4 reps, couldn’t do five
This constitutes a triple drop set. In most instances, 2-3 drops are plenty, and there is no real benefit to doing more.
How can drop sets help build muscle?
Drop sets help you build muscle in several ways:
They allow you to train beyond failure – by reducing the weight, you can do a few more reps more than usual. Longer, harder sets expose your muscles to more metabolic and mechanical stress, and those stresses are triggers for muscle growth.
It’s only by training hard that your muscles are forced to grow. Easy workouts won’t do it. And, after a while, even hard workouts become less productive. Drop sets make your workouts ultra-intense, which should help you continue building muscle when more conservative training methods have become less effective.
Increased pump – when you lift weights, blood is preferentially driven into the working muscles. Bodybuilders call this “the pump.” Drop sets trigger an even greater pumping effect. The pump is thought to be essential for muscle growth because it stretches the muscle from within, and also feeds it with the blood and nutrients it needs to grow. A bigger pump could lead to faster muscle building.
A good way to fully exhaust the target muscle – your body would rather be weak and small. The only way to convince it to grow is to challenge it with workouts that are so demanding that it has to get stronger to make your next workout is less stressful. Of course, next time, you train a little harder, but your body doesn’t know that!
Drop sets provide a safe and effective way to totally exhaust the target muscle, causing maximum stress. This means your body has no choice but to grow and get stronger. This is a sort of self-preservation mechanism that results in increased muscle mass.
Benefits and Advantages of drop sets
With lots of different training systems to choose from, like forced reps, supersets, matrix sets, and pyramids, what makes drop sets so good?
Here are the main benefits and advantages of this popular training method.
- Safety – despite being very intense, drop sets are relatively safe. After all, you are lowering the weight, and that takes stress off the target muscles, as well as your joints. Drop sets overload your muscles not with more weight, but with accumulating fatigue instead.
- You can do them on your own – some training systems require a partner to do them properly. You can do drop sets all on your own. This makes them ideal for solo exercisers.
- Simple to do – drop sets require only a little practice, and you should have no problem using them in your next workout. Simply do your set as usual and then start lowering the weight. No mess, and no fuss!
- They really work! – drop sets have been around a long time, and that’s because they work. Bodybuilders have been using them for well over a century, and if they weren’t effective, they’d have been long forgotten.
When should I use drop sets?
One of the main advantages of drop sets is that you can use them anytime you want. You might not even have thought about them before but, because they are so easy to implement, you can almost use them on a whim.
That said, you’ll get more from drop sets if you use them constructively. Good times to use drop sets include:
- The last set of each exercise in your workout
- The last exercise in your workout
- For the final week before taking a break from training
- On a “good day” when you feel you have more energy than normal
- When you want to bring up a lagging body part
- If you feel you’d benefit from an extra pump
As good as drop sets are, you should use and not abuse them. Because they take you beyond failure, it can take longer to recover from a workout that involves drop sets. Because of this, you should not use them for every workout. Using them too often could lead to overtraining and even injury, negating their benefits.
If you want to build muscle, you need to train hard. Easy workouts won’t do it. You need to force your muscles to grow, and that means a combination of heavy weights, regular workouts, and training to failure.
But, your body is amazingly adaptive, and even hard workouts can stop being productive. When your progress stalls, it’s time to break out the big guns – the training systems. These tried and tested methods will make your workout harder, and get you back on the muscle-building track.
Drop sets are arguably the best training system for most exercisers. They’re safe, easy to use, and you can do them with little or no advanced planning. Plus, you can do them on your own.
If your progress has stalled, give drop sets a try. Yes, you’ll feel sore afterward, but that’s the price you have to pay for muscle growth. Visit the Fitness Equipment Reviews homepage for more expert guides & reviews.