Drop sets is a training technique used to induce ‘total failure’ to the muscles thereby stimulating increased muscle growth.
When you lift a given weight for a number of repetitions and then get exhausted, usually all this means is that you can longer continue to lift that particular weight for more repetitions in the current set. You can certainly do more repetitions with a slightly lighter weight. This is the principle behind drop sets.
In order to understand why drop sets are effective, first it helps to understand how muscle growth actually occurs. When you engage in intense training you cause what is known as “micro-tears” in your muscle tissue.
It is the healing of these micro-tears during the rest period after you leave the gym that leads to what we recognize as muscle growth. Thick fleshy calluses form over the micro tears and the muscles increase in size. It is a process very similar in nature to how calluses form on the skin when you get cut.
The more intense the training the better for the muscle growth process. If you end a set immediately, exhaustion sets in and you are essentially “leaving some muscle growth on the table” by not training to failure. Using drop sets is an attempt to maximize your potential muscle growth by training to failure.
The effect is equivalent to that of using a spotter to assist you with the weight on the last one or two repetitions of a set. The spotter’s assistance serves to ‘remove’ the excess weight that you would not be able to do alone on those last repetitions in your current state of exhaustion. Drop sets work in exactly the same way.
The key to using drop sets, though, is speed. If you take too long to drop the weight and do the next repetition nearly all of the benefit is lost. That is why most people prefer to use machines for drop sets because you can set the pin to a lighter weight much faster than you can physically remove a weight from a free weight bar.
It is still possible to use drop sets with free weights but you need to have an experienced spotter who can quickly remover or replace weights.
Bench Press Example
Say you can lift double plates on each side (2 x 45lb + 2 x 45lb + 45lb bar = 225lb) for a total of 4 repetitions with proper form. To do a drop set you’d do the following:
- After the fourth repetition (after which you are too exhausted to continue bench pressing the 225lb for an additional repetition) have your spotter (workout partner) quickly replace each of the 45lb plates on either side of the bar with 35lb plates. The total weight is now 205lbs.
- Perform one or two more repetitions at 205lbs then again have your partner quickly replace each of the 35lb plates with 25lb plates.
- Do one or two more repetitions at 185lbs.
- Stop. Going beyond two drops will result in overtraining.
If you are serious about building muscle you will want to use drop sets from time to time. Just don’t do them for every set or on every day that you train or you will drive yourself crazy and give up altogether. Treat them like a spice to be used sparingly on the days when you are really motivated and on the body parts that seem to be lagging in growth.