The Drop Set
A drop set is a training strategy that takes the muscles to failure by continuously “dropping” (reducing) the weight until the client can’t complete any more reps (1). For example, a client will do as many squat reps as they can at a high weight. Once they reach failure at that weight, they will quickly reduce the weight and continue until failure. When they reach failure again, they will reduce the weight and continue to squat until failure.
Clients can repeat the above pattern for multiple sets; however, it is unknown if there is any benefit after a third set (2). An important component of the drop set is little to no rest while reducing the weight. So, the client or the spotter should move quickly to adjust the weight so the client can continue.
When it comes to increasing muscle size (hypertrophy), drop sets have shown to be an effective technique. However, it’s important to know that more research is still required to determine whether or not drop sets are more effective than some other weightlifting strategies (progressive overload, high training volume, etc.) that have shown to increase hypertrophy (1)(2).
Using Drop Sets for Muscle Hypertrophy
There are a few different ways to use a drop set in your clients’ routines for muscle growth. As with every client, each program should be individualized to their needs and goals. And, some clients may respond better to different strategies. We’ve addressed some of the key questions associated with incorporating this strategy into your clients’ workouts, which should provide you with a basic framework to help integrate a drop set strategy into their goals for building muscle.
1. Why Does the Drop Set Strategy Work?
The belief is that the increase in muscular fatigue (from high training volume) and time under tension are the reasons why drop sets are effective for muscle growth. Drops sets may force clients to recruit more and different types of muscle fibers as they continue the repetitions. (2)(3)
2. How Often Should You Incorporate Drop Sets?
A common strategy is to use the drop set in the last set of an exercise. It is possible, however, to use drop sets for more than one set of an exercise. But, you wouldn’t want to do drop sets for every set of every exercise during a workout.
You, also, would not want to have clients doing drop sets every day of the week. Drop sets are exhausting and can cause a lot of stress that requires periods of recovery. It may be possible to use drop sets more than once a week but do so cautiously. Drop sets are intense, so, if you overuse them in a workout or within a training program, you may find yourself with a client who is burned out, has muscle damage, or experiences other negative side effects. (2)
Although there are a variety of ways to implement drops sets, a study from Schoenfeld and Grgic in 2017 provided some potential recommendations on training variables for a drop set strategy:
Load reduction: 20-25% each drop
Rest intervals: minimal
Volume: 1-3 drops in the load
Tempo: 1-3 seconds for both concentric and eccentric contractions (can be > 4 seconds but this will decrease total volume) (2)
Is your client not ready for drop sets? Try including bodyweight exercises or other strength training exercises to help them with their muscle gain.
3. How Much Weight Should My Client Start With?
The starting weight depends on your client’s goals and abilities, the exercise, and the drop set method you intend to use. A good starting point for core lifts is typically around 75-80% of their 1RM, but this can be higher. Clients should be starting with a heavy weight (likely a weight where they struggle to complete 6-8 reps). (3)
4. Are There Other Options for Weight Reductions?
If the load reduction recommendations from Schoenfeld and Grgic don’t work for your client, you may want to explore other strategies. How much the weight is reduced is dependent on the client, the type of exercise, client goals, and the type of equipment used (dumbbell, kettlebell, weight machine, barbell, etc.). The following list includes a few additional drop set methods that can help you determine the best fit for your client.
Wide drops sets: larger reduction in weight (often 30+% reduction) and commonly used for larger muscle groups.
Tight drop sets: smaller reduction in weights (often 5-25% reduction) and commonly used for smaller muscle groups.
6-20 method: complete 6 reps at a heavy weight. Cut the weight in half and complete 20 reps at the “half” weight.
Rest pause: A heavier weight is lifted until failure (typically around 6-8 reps) and then a short break is taken (typically around 20-25 sec.) and then the client attempts the same weight again (for 3-4 sets) until failure. It is also possible for the weight to be reduced, and the pattern repeated after 2-3 attempts to failure.
The muscles will burn as they fatigue, so the ability of the client to control the weight may become more difficult. Because of this, safe spotting techniques are essential.
Regardless of how you do it, it’s important to remember that proper form, like always, is imperative. The drop set strategy can be dangerous for both the lifter and the spotter because of the level of muscle fatigue. But, if muscle growth is what your clients are looking for, drop sets are something you should consider.
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Roberts, B. and Tzur, A. “The Drop Set – Scientific Review and Practical Advice.” The Science of Fitness. 2018.
Schoenfeld, B. and Grgic, J. “Can Drop Set Training Enhance Muscle Growth?” Strength and Conditioning Journal. Dec. 2017.
Howe, L. and Waldron, M. “Advanced Resistance Training strategies for increasing muscle hypertrophy and maximal strength. Part 1: Accumulation Methods.” Professional Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2017.