For the gym rats amongst you that just can’t get enough of the gym, you’ll know that making gains is far from a simple process. In fact, at times, making those all-important gains can seem like an impossible task. We all go through plateaus when training, whether they’re plateaus while training, or mental plateaus when you simply can’t get your head in the game. Overcoming these plateaus however, is what is going to take your physique to the next level and it is this that sets the elite apart from everybody else. In order to stay on the ‘Gain Train’ you need to find new and exciting ways of keeping your training in the gym fresh. The last thing you want is to find yourself going through the same, boring, monotonous training routine week in and week out, as this will leave you lacking energy and motivation. To keep things exciting you need to change things up and try new things, which is one of the reasons why drop sets make up such a staple part of many a bodybuilder’s training regimes. You see, drop sets are not only a great way of making your training new and exciting, they’re also a fantastic way of piling pounds upon pounds of solid muscle onto your physique. But what exactly are drop sets, how can they performed, and what is it that makes them so great? Well, grab yourself a protein shake, get comfortable, and all will become clear as we will now be providing you with the ultimate gym rat’s guide to drop sets during training.
What the heck are drop sets?
If you’re not familiar with what drop sets are then don’t worry, you’re certainly not alone. Drop sets are basically a type of unique training technique where you carry out any form of exercise you would typically do in the gym, as you would normally. However, once you complete this exercise, rather than sitting back, reaching for your phone, and checking Instagram before your next set or next exercise, you perform another set. But wait, this isn’t just any set, this is a drop set. With a drop set, after the primary exercise is complete, you simply reduce the weight used and will bang out several more reps, before dropping the weight again, and so on. It sounds fairly simple, but it has been adapted numerous times over the years, and as you will find out shortly, it is actually a fairly complex form of training protocol. It is widely thought that drop sets were discovered by a man named Henry Atkins, who happened to be the editor of a magazine known as the Body Culture Magazine. Back then however, it wasn’t known as a drop set, instead, Henry referred to it as the ‘multi-poundage system’. As you might have expected, numerous individuals have tried adapting it over the years, and have even tried re-naming it, so if you haven’t heard of drop sets, or the multi poundage system, you may have heard this training technique being referred to as: breakdowns, down the racks, running the rack, descending sets, triple drops, or the stripping technique. With one training protocol going by so many different names, its easy to see why people are often so confused about what a drop set actually is.
What makes drop sets so useful for muscle hypertrophy?
In bodybuilding, as the name of the activity suggests, the idea is for one to build up their body, by adding as much lean muscle mass to their frames as they can. Drop sets have been proven to be highly conducive when it comes to bodybuilding, for a wide variety of reasons. In athletics, football, powerlifting, and other sporting disciplines, the primary objective is not to build muscle like it is with bodybuilding. Sure, muscle helps and building muscle is often one of many components with some sporting disciplines, but with bodybuilding, it is the first and only real objective. Drop sets promote muscle hypertrophy by recruiting maximum muscle fibres with each set, allowing individuals to train with a greater intensity and volume than what they would normally be accustomed to. The reason why athletes tend not to include drop sets in their training is because they are not trying to train purely for size, they also need to train for functional reasons.
Different types of drop set
Before we really look at some of the different forms of drop set out there, and trust us, there are a lot, it’s first important that we point out that there are two forms of drop set out there. They are: wide drop sets, and, tight drop sets.
Tight drop sets
Tight drop sets are generally more common amongst your strength athletes and individuals looking to bulk up, as they emphasize muscle mass. The simple premise behind tight drop sets is that you reduce the weight after each set by a marginal amount, usually anything from 10% – 20%. So, as an example, if you were performing barbell curls with 90 pounds on the bar in the form of 2 x45 pound plates, you would finish your set, then instantly strip off the 45s and throw on a 33 pound plate a side, perform a few more curls, throw a slightly lighter plate on, and so on. By training in this way, you can use slightly heavier weights but for fewer reps, making it a great type of drop set for strength gains and mass.
Wide drop sets
Wide drop sets are a lot more common amongst your average gym-goers, because they’re easier to do. With wide drop sets, the amount of weight you reduce each set by is much greater than a tight drop set, typically 40% – 45% less. So, if you were performing lat pulldowns, after finishing your set, you would then take select close to half your initial weight, and again perform as many reps as you can until failure, before dropping the weight again, and so on. This method of training is better for hypertrophy as you are recruiting more muscle fibres when you perform the exercise.
How do drop sets help build muscle?
Obviously drop sets would have to be beneficial for individuals looking to build muscle, otherwise there wouldn’t be much point in doing them. But how do drop sets promote such impressive muscle gains? The answer is actually fairly scientific, so prepare to have your minds blown, or at the very least, prepare to be marginally surprised. Now, here we’re going to do a little imaginative exercise with you, as we need you to close your eyes and go to your happy place. You’re a gym rat, so your happy place is of course the gym, but if not, then humour us and pretend that it is. Now, say you’re in the gym and you’re shoulder pressing 2 x 45 pound dumbbells for 8 – 12 reps. Once you hit 9 or 10 reps then as long as you’re using the correct weight then you will probably struggle. Despite this you push on like the beast that you are, and you manage to squeeze out another 1 or 2 reps. By now your shoulders are on fire and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get that elusive 13th rep up. To most people that’s a very good working set, but you’re not most people and you want more. So, what do you do? Well, you put the 45s back and instead grab the 38s and continue shoulder pressing, banging out another several reps. The fact that you are able to perform more reps with a lighter weight proves that you didn’t reach absolute muscle failure. In a normal working set, it is physically impossible for you to activate and target every single muscle fibre in the muscle group that you are training. It’s physically impossible. The only muscle fibres you recruit are those needed to lift that specific weight for a set amount of reps. When you go with a lighter weight however, you can activate brand new muscle fibres that previously had not been touched. Those muscle fibres were hiding away all sneakily, thinking they’d gotten away with it and that they wouldn’t have to do any work. There are however, no slackers on your watch, so by using a lighter weight you are forcing these lazy muscle fibres to do the work to assist you with the lift because the previously worked muscle fibres are so exhausted. After repeating this process another couple of times, now you can relax as you now know that you have truly reached absolute muscle failure. More muscle fibres being activated means greater levels of muscle hypertrophy, which basically means that by drop setting you are able to build more muscle.
So, come on, what are some of the most effective methods of drop setting?
Now we’ve gotten to good stuff, because here you will learn a few popular methods of drop setting that you can implement as part of your training routines pretty much right away. If you’re thinking of performing a few drop sets the next time you train, consider the following options:
Running the rack
If you’ve ever heard or read about bodybuilders ‘running the rack’ when training, they are basically referring to a form of drop setting that is very easy to do, and is very effective. You can’t do this with all exercises obviously, but for some basic dumbbell exercises like shoulder presses, bicep curls, and lateral raises, running the rack is awesome. The basic idea behind running the rack, is that you start with a fairly heavy weight, like you would normally, and perform a working set to failure, but not absolute failure, as you now know. So, if you’re dumbbell curling the 45s, you’ll finish your set when you can’t perform another rep unassisted with that weight. Rather than sitting down to catch your breath however, you will instead go straight for the 42.5s, curl them to failure, put them back, grab the 40s, curl them to failure, and work your way down the rack until you reach the lightest dumbbells there. If that amount of volume sounds too intimidating, try going down in 5 pound increments instead, or even 10 pounds perhaps? One certainty in life however, is that the hot girl or guy that you’ve had your eye on in the gym, will always walk through the door when you’re red in the face, screaming with pain, curling the lightest dumbbells on the rack after a brutal drop set, so just prepare yourself. Alternatively, you can very loudly and very vocally emphasize the point that you have just finished a brutal drop set, but you know, that may make you look kinda’ like a petty jerk.
Strip sets aren’t as exciting as they sound, because they don’t actually involve stripping off any items of clothing at all, so if you were thinking of strip poker-like rules, think again. No, with strip sets, the idea is a lot more brutal. Typically these types of drop sets are performed with free weights like barbells, or with plate-loaded machines instead of machines with a weight stack. Barbell strip sets were actually Arnie’s favourite form of training biceps, and as you probably know, Arnie had, and still does have in fact, an amazing set of biceps. Though we’ll use barbell bicep curls as an example here, in reality you can apply this type of drop set to any exercise involving a barbell. When training biceps, rather than simply throwing a heavy plate on there, instead, use smaller and lighter plates to achieve the desired weight. Once you’re happy with the weight, get those biceps working and get curling that barbell to failure! Once you reach failure, quickly remove the collar, strip a plate off of each side, replace the collar, and again curl to failure. Once you finish, remove a plate, and so on. Repeat this process until you absolutely, physically, cannot perform a single barbell bicep curl. As mentioned, you can do this with pretty much any barbell exercise, and as you can pretty much work every major muscle group with a barbell, that shows how versatile this form of training really is.
Down the stack
So far, we’ve mainly focussed on free weights, so what about those poor machines in the gym that are feeling left out? Well, don’t worry, because this next drop set is for them. One of the main issues with strip sets, is the fact that removing plates quickly is tiring, it is messy, and it can be stressful. What’s more, having to replace several plates when you can barely move your arms after training is not a pleasant experience. Because of this, many gym rats will instead use machines when performing drop sets, which they call ‘down the stack’. As you know, many machines in the gym have weight stacks, which you can alter by simply placing a pin into your desired weight. This is much quicker and easier than having to mess around adding and removing heavy plates. If for example, you are performing lat pulldowns with 90kg selected on the stack, you will train to failure, then simply remove the pin, stick it in say, 70kgs, train to failure again, drop down another 20kgs to 50kgs, and so on. This is much quicker and more convenient than messing around with plates, but it doesn’t make it any less brutal. In fact, because you can change the weight in a second or two, it boosts your intensity because you don’t have chance to catch your breath. So, as an added bonus, you’ll also burn off a few extra calories, which is always nice, right?
The Halving Method
This next drop set example is sometimes known as the 6 – 20 method, or, the 50% drop set. It is basically a form of wide drop set, (remember how we spoke about wide drop sets before?) that enables individuals to train in two entirely different rep ranges, meaning different parts of the muscle can be targeted pretty much simultaneously. This is ideal because not only does it yield very impressive rates of muscle hypertrophy, it also provides you with one of the craziest pumps you could ever wish for. So, how do you perform this elusive drop set? Well, it’s actually quite simple. You begin by going through your usual warm up routine (ALWAYS warm up!) before choosing your desired exercise and picking the heaviest weight you can handle for 6 good, honest repetitions. We’re talking proper reps here, not half reps, so if you can’t get six reps, drop the weight slightly until you can. Now, perform six of the finest, strictest, most beautiful reps you ever did see. Once you finish your sixth rep, set the weight down but don’t you dare rest. No, instead, you will reduce the amount of weight you use by exactly 50%. So, if you previously were barbell bench pressing 225 pounds for six, you should now be using 112.5 pounds. You don’t do 6 reps this time, oh no. Now, you perform 20 reps with strict form once again. To start with, for the first few, the weight should feel easy, but once you hit 10 reps you’ll start to feel it, and by the time you reach 20 your muscles should be on fire and pumped like crazy!
If you perform an ascending set, this basically means that, when training, you will drop the amount of weight you are using substantially enough so as to bump up the total amount of reps you are performing with each working set. So, as an example if you were shoulder pressing the dumbbells, you could start with 50 pounds for 6 reps until you hit failure. You would then switch to a lighter set of dumbbells, say 35 pounds, and would perform 12 reps. After that, you’d drop to 20 pounds, and go for 20 reps. With a descending set, the idea is that with each weight reduction, the number of reps you perform will decrease as you go lighter. So, say you start with 38 pounds for 12 reps, your next weight could be 35 pounds for 8 reps, then 30 pounds for 4 reps, then 25 pounds for 2 reps.
Power drop sets
Power drop sets are almost forgotten in this day and age, yet they were a firm favourite of Larry Scott, who was the very first man to ever win the Mr Olympia title. This form of drop set was based more around strength, power, and thickness and is considered a great way of packing quality meaty muscle mass onto your frame. To perform a power drop set you will choose a heavy weight that allows you to get a maximum of 6 reps. You will then reduce the amount of weight by roughly 10%, and will once again go for 6 reps, before dropping 10% for 6 reps once again. Continue doing this until you cannot physically go again. If you’re training for size and thickness, rather than just chasing a pump, a power drop set is perfect.
Zero rest drop sets
Guess how long you rest between sets with this type of drop set? Yep, two minutes, wait, what? No, only kidding, as the name implies, you have virtually NO rest between sets with this particular drop set. When we say zero, we mean zero, or as close to zero rest as you can get. That is why you’ll struggle to perform a zero rest drop set alone, because adjusting the weight will eat away at valuable seconds you do not have. A training partner or two however, will change the weight or strip the plates away for you, as quick as possible, allowing you to continue working almost instantly. Say you’re performing deadlifts for example, you would perform your desired number of reps, set the bar down, and your partners would strip a plate off each side ASAP, allowing you to go again, before repeating the process over and over. This is a brutal form of training because you have no chance to get any oxygen into your body, and you cannot stop, even for one second.