Drop Sets: How Are They Used and Implemented?

By: Nichole Gallagher

There are often a lot of misconceptions in the world of fitness. One of the biggest misconceptions is concerning the ‘best way to train.’ We all have our own biased opinions, yet the process and facts behind drop sets hold scientific evidence. In conventional drop sets, otherwise known as “descending sets,” an exercise is performed at a weight that can be worked to failure or just shy of failure, starting with a higher weight and reducing to a lower weight. Your reps will typically increase as the weight decreases.

  • Select one exercise and start with a repetition range based off preference and your body's capabilities and limits.
  • With little to no rest after your first set, continue with the same exercise, reducing your weight until failure.
  • You can reduce your weight by five to ten pounds or about 15%-20% of the total loaded weight. Since everyone’s preference is different, the number of different weights used and the number of repetitions in each working set will vary (see sample below).

The concept is to work until muscle failure at your heaviest weight, without compromising form. Fatiguing the muscle at each weight allows each muscle fiber to damage and repair stronger. By fatiguing the body under each weight performed, the body will be forced into metabolic stress. Metabolic stress causes cell swelling around the muscle, which helps contribute to muscle growth. This method of strength training is measurable by the science of maxing out specific muscles and going until failure, in order to allow the muscles to grow in a way they are unfamiliar with.

Another way to incorporate drop sets is to complete a specific number of reps, and then complete another set with the same repetitions and a lighter weight. The increased time under load (TUL) associated with drop sets increases metabolic stress and ischemia, which have been implicated as mechanisms that drive the hypertrophic response. Drop sets are beneficial because you are only recruiting a certain amount of muscle fibers in any given set. By stripping the weight down and going lighter, you recruit different muscle fibers which helps the muscles achieve growth that couldn't be achieved by sticking with the same weight. Drop sets hit the stubborn muscle fibers deep down causing growth that is unachievable in a conventional straight set.

Often times we feel like we are able to achieve absolute failure with straight sets, but one has only reached failure with that particular weight. Most people don't go to the gym in hopes of only achieving average results, but that’s exactly what will happen if you only do “straight sets” all the time.
Despite all the benefits of this specific style of training, drop sets can make it easy to overtrain. It is not recommended to incorporate drop sets for every set of every exercise in every session. I also suggest only performing them with one exercise per body part.  As always, be careful to avoid injury.

Below is an example of a typical drop set workout. 

Double Front Squats:
2 reps @ 28kg
4 reps @ 26kg
6 reps @ 24kg
8 reps @ 22kg
Thanks for reading! Please comment below if you have any questions.

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