Drop sets are a great high-intensity training technique for your workouts, especially when time is tight. Learn more about drop sets!
It is 5 pm, and at about 5:45 am, your wife and children are waiting for you at home, counting on help in preparing dinner. In short, you have absolutely no time for a full-fledged strength training at your usual pace with a quality warm-up and sufficient rest periods. What to do in such a situation? You can do multiple intervals on a rowing machine and work your abdominal muscles. Not a bad option.
You can cancel your workout, buy flowers for your wife on your way home, and cook dinner with your own hands, earning high scores in the family class. Also a worthy choice. The problem is, none of the suggested options brings you closer to the superhero physique that you drew in your imagination as you began your current workout routine.
The truth is, when muscle growth is at stake, you can’t sacrifice training volume and expect great results.
On the other hand, the higher the training volume, the more time you have to spend in the gym, and the less time and attention your darling gets, which sometimes has a bad effect on family relationships.
It feels like an insatiable appetite for muscle growth, combined with a measly 30 minutes of strength training, puts you in a stalemate.
Somewhere like this it is, until the best friends of a busy athlete come into play – drop sets!
What is a drop set?
The classic drop set involves doing the exercise to muscle failure, instantly losing weight, and then hitting failure again.
Very often, multiple drop sets are used to increase muscle fatigue and, as a result, stimulate more hypertrophy (muscle growth). The only rest between drop sets is the time it takes to reduce your working weight.
By performing multiple drop sets, an athlete can increase time under load (WPI), metabolic stress, muscle ischemia, and total work volume faster than traditional heavy sets with adequate rest in between.
Drop sets and science
Until recently, the effectiveness of drop sets could only be judged by empirical observation, and not by the data of real science. There was nothing to suggest that the athlete should work into failure, then lose weight, then give it all back to failure, and so on until the muscle folds in front of the resistance of your 1000-rep maximum.
The situation was changed by new scientific works, the purpose of which was to study the effectiveness and legitimacy of this popular technique of strength training. A recent report by renowned scientist Brad Schoenfield analyzes a number of scientific publications on drop sets.
In two experiments, the scientists came to conclusions that confirmed the legitimacy of using drop sets to stimulate muscle hypertrophy. In both experiments, the total amount of time athletes spent in the gym were significantly reduced by the use of drop sets. The guys from the control group, who worked as usual, spent twice as much time on training.
In an experiment conducted by Fink et al., 16 men were divided into 2 groups. They were engaged in different protocols: the first group did extensions on the upper block for triceps with classic 3 sets of 12 reps and 90 seconds for rest.
The second group did one set of 12 reps in the same exercise, which included 2 drop sets. The volume of training load in each group was the same, but after 6 weeks, the group of drop sets showed almost a twofold advantage in triceps height!
In another study by Dr. Ozaki, participants were divided into three groups. They were engaged in different programs for 8 weeks. Participants performed biceps curls according to the following schemes:
- heavy weight and long rest;
- light weight and short rest;
- heavy weight and drop sets.
All groups showed comparable results in terms of hypertrophy, although the third group spent much less time training. Limiting gym time isn’t always the same as limiting muscle growth!
Drop sets: practical application
While both studies support the effectiveness of drop sets, I believe there is a point of diminishing returns. You cannot constantly bring a muscle to failure in one workout, and then repeat the technique with the same muscle group after a few days. This can lead to overtraining, poor recovery, or CNS depletion.
For best results, drop sets should be used strategically throughout the week. This will help to pump muscles and avoid receiving divorce papers from your beloved, due to the fact that you did the eighth approach in the fifth chest exercise, while you were waiting at home for a long time.
Do drop sets with several weight reductions (up to three) per muscle (or muscle group) no more than 2-3 times a week, and enjoy the maximum effect per unit of time spent. In my experience, especially when training without a partner, equipment with the ability to quickly change working weight for drop sets is best suited. A fixed range of motion in the machine will help you maintain proper form, maximize target muscle recruitment, and reduce the risk of injury due to extreme muscle fatigue.
The trainer also allows you to reduce the working weight as quickly as possible (you just need to rearrange the hairpin in the weight stack), minimize the rest time between drops and stimulate more metabolic stress. In terms of working weight, each subsequent set should be at least 25% lighter than the previous one, or even lighter, depending on the number of repetitions planned (for example, in the bench press, start at 60 kg, drop to 45 kg, then to 30 kg etc).
When choosing exercises for performing drop sets, I recommend stopping at isolating movements. They are better suited to fatigue the target muscle (and stimulate hypertrophy) than basic multi-joint movements. Drop sets in basic exercises can cause general fatigue, while drop sets in isolation exercises focus on the specific depletion of each muscle fiber of the target muscle.
Take quads as an example. Leg extensions are a much more effective exercise for applying drop sets than the classic barbell squat. Squatting will definitely tire your quads, but due to the participation in the movement of a large number of muscles (hamstrings, back extensors, gluteal complex, etc.), it is difficult to predict which muscle will fail first.
This does not mean that the drop set in the classic barbell squat is ineffective, just if we are talking about hypertrophy of the quadriceps, it is better to use the leg extension in the machine.
Drop sets have been, and still are, an interesting and painful way to create noticeable muscle damage. It is nice to know that today we have not only empirical evidence of their effectiveness but also scientific data proving the legitimacy of this method of forcing muscle hypertrophy.
There is no substitute for heavy, intense sets with normal rest and progressive overload in a strength training program, but drop sets can be great when time is limited or when you need to increase the volume of your training load without significantly increasing your training time.
While they need to be used with care, drop sets are a great tool for your arsenal, especially when the clock is ticking and time is running out.