Written by Jack Boardman
Drop sets are a body building tool that all serious lifters ought to work into their routine. If you have not tried them before or aren’t sure how they work, we’ve put together an overview of drop sets and how you can put them to use.
Drop sets are a high-intensity training method, which many pro-builders consider to be the most effective. There is not a lot of technicality or ingenuity involved in drop sets, the basic premise of them is to carry out a set of a resistance training exercise until you achieve muscle failure (or thereabouts) and then drop the amount of weight you’re lifting for the next set, repeating this and reducing the amount for each set until you’re cooked.
They apparently originated in 1947, ‘invented’ by Henry Atkins, the editor of Body Culture magazine, who then called it the ‘multi-poundage system’. You may also have heard of them as breakdowns, drops, double and triple drops, downing the rack, stripping sets and descending sets.
Drop sets are your go-to move for muscular hypertrophy, which means breaking down and building your muscles in order to grow them. This is why they are favoured by bodybuilders above athletes as they primarily suit aesthetic mass building rather than performance. In terms of performance, drop sets are not ideal for strength, working on your speed or power, so sprinters and sports players, these probably aren’t for you if it’s strength without the mass that you’re working for. Aspiring bodybuilders working on mass muscle building, drop sets are for you!
So how do they work? The point is to activate as many muscle fibres as possible in a muscle group and achieve muscle failure. You already know from being an experienced lifter that volume and growth are achieved by applying great repeated strain to muscle fibres in order to ‘injure’ and regrow them. This can be achieved by lifting complete reps of heavier weights that are somewhere in the high percentage of your one rep maximum.
This approach means fewer reps and more sets because muscle failure will occur quickly beneath so much weight. A cherry on top of this workout is to perform high reps with a light to moderate weight in order to achieve muscle failure. Well, drop sets combine the two, in theory.
Drop sets work more muscle fibres in their exhaustive approach, as a usual lower rep set would not activate as many. This is because you only call on the number of fibres that you require to perform your standard set and then allow them to rest before exhaustion takes place. By moving past the point of failure (which is when you physically have to set the bar back on the rack because you can’t push anymore) you will then activate these ‘reserve’ muscle fibres.
By working towards muscle failure, compound lifts are your best approach to mass building. This is because compound lifts use several muscle groups and more than one joint at a time, meaning that you will be able to draw on more supporting muscles, working them all before exhaustion strikes – a good reason to place them at the end of your session, ensuring the targeted muscles get a solid rest before you need them for other exercises.