Lofty goals call for intense efforts. This holds true in virtually all areas of life but perhaps most literally in the gym. If you want to change your body — really sculpt your muscles and do away with excess body fat — you need to feel the burn from time to time. And there’s no better way to light it up than with drop sets.
“Drop sets allow you to go deeper and harder into a given muscle group, creating a more dense and defined muscle,” says Tina Chandler, a professional bodybuilder, four-time Ms. Olympia competitor and Houston-based NASM- and PFIT-certified personal trainer. “In turn, you’ll achieve a higher intensity in the workout, and a workout like that burns 10 times more fat than a long, drawn-out one.” This is because with drop sets, you literally extend your set two or three times longer than your standard eight to 10 or 12 to 15 rep scheme by decreasing the weight incrementally in a series of “drops” as you fail with your current weight.
“You’ve got two beneficial things going on with drop sets: higher rep ranges that lend themselves to hypertrophy [muscle growth] and the fact that you’re getting short breaks while dropping the weight,” says Bob LeFavi, Ph.D., professor of sports medicine at Armstrong State University in Georgia. “This enables your [energy] systems to replenish so you can apply more force when the next part of the set takes place a few seconds later.” In addition, you’re pushing your lactate threshold and are developing muscle endurance, according to LeFavi, which translates to better, faster results.
Advanced trainees often perform two to three drops within one single set, so that by the end, even a 5-pound dumbbell feels like an anvil. This extreme level of fatigue equates to the breaking down of muscle fibers, which — when repaired — means gains in strength, shape and size. Continuing to lighten the weight over the course of the extended set also ensures that the work is confined to the muscles, not the joints and ligaments. “You’re going to hit a wall at a certain point with a given weight, and when you do, you’re putting the load on the joint rather than the muscle, which can expose you to injuries,” Chandler says. Using drop sets ensures intensity while saving your precious joints.
Related:Build Stronger Shoulders
Whether you’re new to drop sets or they’re an old trick that needs dusting off, they can help you trim down and shape up quickly and efficiently. Follow the steps in “The Anatomy of a Drop Set” and start implementing them into your program today.
The Anatomy of a Drop Set
>>Choose a weight that will elicit failure at a desired rep count (eight, 10, 15, 20 or whatever you choose).
>> Do reps with that weight until you’re unable to do any more with proper form, then decrease the weight and rep it out again until failure. Do two to three drops per set.
>> Decrease the weight enough with each drop so you can get several more reps but not so much that the exercise instantly becomes easy.
>> A good rule is to decrease by 20 to 30 percent each drop.
>> Limit your use of drop sets to the last one to two sets of your final exercise and to one muscle group per workout. Drop sets are exhausting, and overdoing them could possibly lead to injury.
>> Choose your exercises wisely. Isolation (single-joint) moves such as biceps curls are better choices for drop sets than compound, free-weight movements like squats and chest presses. Machines are one of the best modalities for drop sets because changing their weight only takes milliseconds to perform.
>> Limit your downtime between drops to keep your intensity high. However long it takes to change a pin is how long you should rest.
How to do drop sets with a …
Barbell: Enlist a friend to help you strip the weight as you hit each stopping point with your repetitions. If you are flying solo, load with the same size plate (10s, 25s, 45s) to make the stripping easy and efficient.
Dumbbell: Line up two or three sets of dumbbells next to each other so you can easily swap out when it’s time to drop. (Choose your gym time wisely!)
Machine: Slide the pin into a lower weight slot two, three or even four times per set to achieve your drops.
Drop Sets in Action: Shoulder Workout
Drop sets can be done for any muscle group of your choosing. Here’s a sample shoulder workout using the technique, designed by Tina Chandler, that implements drop sets on a machine for lateral shoulder raises, exhausting and breaking down that muscle in order to build rounder, shapelier shoulder caps.
Warm up with three sets of 15 reps each side with a cable external rotator-cuff move using light weight, then get into the workout. For the first three moves, use a fairly heavy weight and perform straight sets. For the last move, perform your first set as a straight set, then use the last two as drop sets, following “The Anatomy of a Drop Set” rules. Remember: You want to completely exhaust your muscles, so go to failure with each drop!
Bent-Over Lateral Dumbbell Raise
Setup: Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and hold a set of dumbbells at your sides, palms facing inward. Keeping a flat back, fold forward from the hips until your torso is about 45 degrees to the floor.
Move:Open your arms and raise the weights up and to the sides, leading with your elbows and keeping your back flat. Pause a moment at the top, then slowly lower to the start.
Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press
Setup: Sit on a bench with a short back and hold a set of dumbbells at your shoulders, palms forward and elbows down.
Move: Extend your arms and press the weights straight up overhead, bringing them in toward one another to touch or nearly touch as your arms come to full extension overhead. Reverse the move and slowly return to the start under control.
Wide-Grip Upright Row
Setup: Take a shoulder-width overhand grip on a barbell and hold it in front of your thighs with your shoulders down and back.
Move: Pull the barbell up along the front of your body by driving your elbows to the sky until the bar comes to the top of your chest (and no farther, particularly if you have shoulder issues). Pause a moment, then slowly lower to the start.
Machine Lateral Raise
Setup: Adjust the machine so the lever arms are below your shoulders and secure your arms underneath the pads, elbows bent.
Move: Raise your arms up and to the sides, pressing upward against the pads and coming as high as your shoulders. Pause and squeeze before slowly lowering to the start, resisting the weight of the machine on the return.
Photography by Robert Reiff