We’ll let you in on a little secret about training for muscle growth: Most of the old-school techniques you’ve seen bros doing in the gym your whole life have little to no science behind them. They were made up on the fly by lifting enthusiasts—not trained experts—and passed from generation to generation until they were universally accepted as unwritten rules.
But there’s one time-honored technique that isn’t outdated: dropsets, which have earned our seal of approval. Not only do the best trainerse in the world consider them a workout mainstay, but new research has now confirmed their effectiveness.
Get ready to reap big gains with this oft-embraced, muscle-building exercise.
THE DROP SET, EXPLAINED
“There are two types of drop sets—conventional and mechanical advantage,” says Jim Smith, CPPS, the co-creator of Strength: Barbell Training Essentials.
In the conventional drop set, you do a heavy set to one or two reps shy of failure, then immediately reduce the load (grab lighter dumbbells, move the pin in the weight stack, or slide a few plates off the bar) by 10% or more and do as many reps as possible.
In the mechanical advantage model, says Smith, “you change the angle, exercise, implement, or tempo” to make the work easier. For instance, switch from an incline bench press to a flat press; swap dumbbell presses for pushups; change out a barbell for dumbbells; or modify a full-range-of-motion rep to a static hold.
The goal: to find a way to continue training the target muscles past the point where they’d normally give out, which heightens the stimulus they get.
“Drop sets are used to create massive muscular and metabolic stress,” says Smith. In short, they make you bust your ass—but they build muscle.
You should do one “drop” if your new to the technique, and build up to multiple sets with drops on each one over time.
Be careful, though: Because drop sets push you to the brink, they’re more draining. The more you do, the more challenging they make it to maintain proper form, and the harder they are to recover form.
Lest you think that drop sets—like so many other bodybuilding techniques—are only a good idea on paper, consider a report published this past May in the Biology of Sport—the research that compared conventional drop sets with standard weight training.
In the study, one group of students performed an exercise circuit one time through, drop setting each lift twice—that is, they did a set, reduced the weight to get a few more reps, then reduced again for more reps. The other group did the same circuit three times without the drop sets.
After 10 weeks, the drop setters increased their strength on calf raises, curls, and leg curls, though strength gains across the board were the same for the majority of the other exercises for both groups.
Bear in mind that because drop sets are brief extensions of regular sets, they make for faster workouts. That means you’re actually achieving better gains in less time by adding drop sets to the end of each lift rather than simply repeating the overall workout.
Note: Because drop sets require quick weight changes and different equipment, it’s best to perform them with a partner or plan them out beforehand.
Conventional Drop set: Bench Press
On your last set, perform 5 reps, then reduce the weight 10% and immediately continue doing as many reps as possible.
Be aware that the amount of weight you need to drop on conventional drop sets will vary. If your main sets are heavy (5-8 reps), your first drop may be about 10%. But if you’re doing 10 reps, you may need to drop by 25% or more. Aim for at least 3-8 reps on each drop set.
Mechanical Advantage Drop set: Squat
On each set, perform 5-8 reps with a heavier weight, then go to goblet squats with moderate weight for as many reps as possible, but saving one “in the tank.” Do as many bodyweight lunges as possible.
By Sean Hyson