Drop sets explained

Drop sets are by far one of my favourite methods of training to increase the workload, (and the nastiness) of a session for myself and my clients for some awesome results with fat loss and gains in lean mass. But what are they?

Drop sets have been around for decades and are not an easy addition to a workout. Basically you do a set of a specific exercise and once you reach your desired rep range you ‘drop’ some of the weight and carry straight on.

For example if you were doing a set of leg press you would squeeze out your 15 reps, remove some of the plates (or take the pin out of the stack and move it up) and immediately continue the set (usually to failure) with the lighter weight.

What are the benefits?

When you lift a load you will recruit the amount of muscle fibres needed to lift that weight. As you reach muscular failure those muscle fibres fatigue and switch off, which is why the weight feels heavier, (imagine 100 people carrying an object, 50 of them get tired and stop so only the other 50 are left carrying the object). When you reduce the weight and continue the same exercise you will be forced to recruit more muscle fibres to take up the work load (a new set of people join in to carry the object). This allows you to stimulate more muscle fibres leading to more growth, (if you are in a calorie surplus and consuming enough protein). Drop sets also force you to increase lactic acid production leading to greater fat loss after you walk out the gym.

There has been hardly any research done on drop sets, so it’s still unclear if there is a single best way to do them. You’ll probably notice that you get the greatest results from using a variety of drop set techniques like these:

Up the stack

Drop sets are really easy to do with machines.  All you have to do is take the pin out of the weight stack and move it up to a lighter weight. On a leg extension you don’t even need to leave your seat to change the weight. This allows for a quick weight change, which makes the set even harder.

Strip sets

These can be performed on any barbell or plate loaded machine exercise. Put small plates on each side of the bar and strip one off each side when you reach failure. For example, if you set up an Olympic barbell for bicep curls with four 2.5kg plates on each side so that’s 40kg at the start, including the bar. You can then take 2.5kg off each side when you reach failure, do 6-8 more reps with 35kg take another two plates off and keep going.

Running the rack

A personal favourite of mine. Going down the rack is a fantastic technique for dumbbell exercises, especially curls, lateral raises and shoulder presses. For example if you’re doing dumbbell laterals, you could start with 20s do 8 reps, grab the 15s and bang out 6-8 more. Finish with the 10s and rep out to exhaustion. Try this technique on your next shoulder day and I bet you won’t be able to lift your arms up to drink afterwards.

Body weight drop sets

Body weight exercises like pull ups and dips which you can add additional weight to give you a great opportunity to do drop sets. With a weighted dip or chin-up strap the additional weight round your waist and perform one set for your desired number of reps. Quickly detach the weight belt and continue to rep out with your body weight. Press ups are also a good one for this. You can do as many press ups on your hands and toes then when you reach failure drop your knees to the floor and keep going.

Grip or stance change

By changing your grip or foot stance you can move from harder to easier biomechanical positions. With the example of pull ups. Start with a wide grip (the hardest variation) and when you fatigue, switch to shoulder width. When you’ve done all the reps you can there, switch to a close grip chin up and do a few more. You can apply the same logic on a leg press machine by changing the width of your foot position. Your strongest position is likely to be the one your feet normally migrate to when you initially put them on the plate (usually shoulders width).

Isometric hold drop sets

For this you will need at least one training partner. When you reach the desired number of reps on an exercise you can have a plate stripped off each side while you hold the weight in the contracted position. This allows literally zero rest and forces your muscles to continue working during the weight change. Plate loaded machine like smith or hammer strength allow you to safely do this on exercises such as chest or shoulder press.

Matt Knight is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.co.uk.