What are drop sets and how do you use them in training?

Want to step up your strength game, but don’t have more time to spend at the gym? Incorporating drop sets into your workout is a time-saving way to add variety and intensity to your workouts. This is what this weightlifting technique is all about.

What are drop sets?

Drop sets are consecutive sets of the same exercise performed back to back with minimal rest. You break only to reduce the weight or resistance (usually by 10% to 20%), and stop once you have completely fatigued the muscle.

“The term ‘drop’ refers to the gradual reduction of resistance as the set progresses,” Michael Julom, certified personal trainer and founder of ThisIsWhyImFit.coman online health and fitness community, tells Runner’s world. “You start your set with a load you can lift for a set number of reps, and if you can’t do another with good form, pick a lighter weight and keep going.”

For example, a set of drop sets for biceps curls might look something like this:

  • Set 1: 15 reps at 25 pounds
  • Set 2: 13 reps at 20 pounds
  • Set 3: 9 reps at 15 pounds
  • Set 4: 17 reps at 10 pounds

    Note that the rep breaks are not particularly neat or even. Unlike traditional resistance training that follows pre-planned repetition schedules, drop sets are determined by your level of strength and endurance. “The point of the drop set isn’t the math; it’s in the overload that the muscles experience,” says Julom.

    That said, drop sets are a bit of a numbers game. “Muscles are made up of thousands of individual muscle fibers. The body is hardwired for efficiency, so as little fiber as possible is recruited for a task,” says Julom. This is good for saving energy, but bad for muscle development, which, Research shows, is stimulated by stress. “The logic [behind drop sets] is that you do reps with a weight until you can’t, then pick up a lighter one you can and repeat the process. As the muscle fibers in a muscle become exhausted, more fibers must be recruited if the work is to be continued.”

    Essentially, drop sets allow you to go beyond the body’s natural predisposition for efficiency, increasing the potential for muscle-building stimuli.

    What are the benefits of drop sets for runners?

    Drop sets are a muscle building tool that can help neutralize injury-inducing imbalances and improve overall running performance. “The extra lean (muscle) tissue can provide the fundamental propulsion needed during hill climbs and for finishing close races when last-minute sprints become necessary,” Julom says.

    And for runners who would rather spend their time pounding the pavement than pumping iron, using drop sets can help cut gym time without compromising results. One study published by the Journal of Sports Science compared the results of participants who performed biceps curls over the course of eight weeks using a traditional resistance training model or using a drop-set lift regimen.

    The lifters who followed the traditional model completed three sets of heavy reps interspersed with rest intervals. The drop setters performed a single set with a heavy weight, followed by sets of progressively lighter reps. In terms of hypertrophy and strength gains, the results of the two groups were similar. But the participants who performed drop sets spent significantly less time exercising.

    What exercises are best performed as drop sets?

    When using drop sets, it’s best to stick to simple one-joint moves (think biceps curls, leg extensions, cable rows) and avoid highly technical lifts that require precision, such as the barbell jerk, squat or clean and jerk.

    “The active muscles not only perform the lift, but also need to support the spine and major joints, so technical fatigue carries the risk of significant injury,” Julom says. “Technically challenging lifts require excellent form for every rep; fueling up on your form for even one rep can mean very bad news.

    How quickly you can reduce your lifting weight is also an important consideration, as effective drop sets require minimal rest time. For that reason, hand weights and cable machines may be more suitable for dropping sets than barbells, as it takes much less time and effort to adjust a pin or switch to lighter weight dumbbells than switching weight plates.

    How do you integrate drop sets into a workout?

    Drop sets don’t belong with every workout, Julom says. “They should be used sparingly because of the recovery requirements. A well-done drop set deep-fatigues the target muscles to the extent that if done frequently, overtraining can easily occur,” he says.

    If you’re on a periodic training program, try scheduling drop sets in the later weeks of each cycle before a rest period so you have more time for recovery.

    For the same reason, don’t start training with drop sets, as they quickly exhaust your muscles and make the rest of your workout useless. Instead, save them for the end of a session when your muscles are already tired (remember: muscle fatigue is the whole point!) and reserve them for just one or two exercises. For example, end an upper body workout with a drop set of seated lat pull-downs, or end the leg day with seated leg extensions performed as a drop set.

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