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What is A Drop Set? Benefits, Types, Safety, and More

Ok, so you’ve been putting in the time in the gym, hammering out workout after workout, but after months of effort, it still seems like you’re still stuck in the same place.  If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you may be stuck in a plateau.  

While it can be more than a little discouraging, there are ultimately several things you can do in your training to start seeing more size and strength gains, and one of the most popular and effective tools at your disposal is the drop set.  

They’ve become a bodybuilding staple not only because they’re efficient but also because they can help to increase the demands of your workout, which, in turn, can help to improve your muscle-building potential.  However, in order to really see the most from adding drop sets into your routine, there are a few things you’ll need to know.  

And from how and why they can help you overcome plateaus to making sure you’re doing them safely and effectively, we’re going over everything you need to know about the drop set.  But first, let’s talk in a little more detail about what they actually are and how they differ from other approaches.   

What is a Drop Set?

Unlike with a traditional set, where you do your reps on a given exercise, take a quick break, and then repeat, with drop sets you’ll actually be doing multiple sets in a row (and more total reps) before you take a breather.  

On the first set in a drop set, you’ll start out with a relatively heavy weight -- one you can only lift for 6 - 10 reps -- then with no rest in between, you reduce the load by somewhere between 10-30% and perform another set of reps until failure.  This is usually followed up immediately by a 3rd and final set where you reduce the weight by another 10 - 30% and then perform the exercise again until failure.  After that, you take a quick break to regroup and repeat the process another 2-3 times per exercise.  

Using the bench press as an example, let’s say you know you can lift 200lbs for 6-10 reps, so that becomes the first set in your drop set.  If you reduce that by 20%,  you get 160lbs for your second set and 128lbs for the final set, after another 20% reduction. Here’s what 1 round of your drop set would look like; again, you’re doing all 3 sets back to back before your break.  

Bench Press Drop Set Example:

  • Set 1: 200lbs x 6 - 10 reps 
  • Set 2: 160lbs x 10+ reps
  • Set 3: 128lbs x 10+ reps
  • Rest: 60 secs
  • Repeat: 2-3 times

Types of Drop Sets

Drop sets can be performed using a variety of different equipment including both free weights and machines.  and the approach you chose to take will ultimately be informed by your objective, as well, as the equipment you have available to you.  

Dumbbell Drop Set

Also known as “running the rack”, this approach to the drop set is performed with dumbbells.  In general, you’ll start off on the heavy end of the rack, selecting a weight you can lift for no more than 10 reps.  

After you can’t do any more reps at that weight, you’ll move your way down the rack lifting lighter and lighter weights, going to failure in each set.  

Barbell Drop Set

Plate stripping is another kind of drop set performed with free weights, but instead of using dumbbells, you’ll be doing exercises that require a barbell.  

With plate stripping, you’ll set up the barbell in such a way that plates can be quickly removed in-between sets so that you’re able to keep moving through the drop set with minimal delay. 

 Ideally, plate stripping works best with a training partner, so that once you move through each set, you don’t have to worry about adjusting the dumbbell on your own.  

Machine Drop Set

In addition to free weights, you can also use machines to perform drop sets, which is known as running the stack.   

It’s probably the easiest kind of drop set you can do; no need for a training partner, simply adjust the pin up the stack (to lighten the weight) as you move from set to set.  

Drop Sets vs Supersets

While they often get confused with one another, drop sets and supersets are two distinct techniques.  On one hand, drop sets are oriented around a single exercise, where the goal is to focus on a single muscle group and work through the movement until you’re incapable of doing another rep.    

In contrast, a superset pairs together different exercises, although you’ll still be doing multiple sets before your break.  In some cases, these exercises may target different areas of the body and in others, they may engage the same muscle group.   On top of that, you also may not be working to failure when doing a superset.  

What Are The Benefits of Doing Drop Sets?

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Build Size and Strength 

Drop sets can be an incredibly effective tool when it comes to building muscle.  That’s because they increase your training volume and the intensity of your workout — both important variables when it comes to making size and strength gains.

In simple terms, your muscles grow bigger and stronger when they’re forced to go past their comfort zone — i.e. when you lift heavier weights or do more reps than they’re used to.  

In such instances, microscopic damage occurs in your muscle tissues which your body must ultimately repair.  In order to adapt to the new demands of your workout, your body relies on a process known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS) to rebuild your muscles bigger and better.  

The only problem is that once you’ve been working out for a while and your body has become accustomed to your training, it can be difficult to continue making progress.

However, drop sets are a tried and true way to up the demands of your workout, helping to provide your muscles with the stimuli they need in order for growth to occur.  And because they can always be made more challenging, they can be used indefinitely to avoid plateaus in your training progress.  

Build Up Your Muscular Endurance

On top of helping you to build more size and strength, drop sets are also an excellent way to improve your muscular endurance.  

In simple terms, muscular endurance measures the ability of a muscle group to contract against resistance over a period of time — i.e. how many reps you can do before failure sets in.  

Drop sets can help to improve your muscular endurance by increasing the volume and intensity of your workout.  Because you’ll be cramming a lot more reps into your workout, your muscles will have no choice to adapt in order to meet the demands, which ultimately means increasing their endurance.  

Are Drop Sets Safe?

While they can be a safe and effective tool for making some serious size and strength gains, there are some things you'll need to keep in mind in order to assure that you're staying out of harm's way. First and foremost, as an advanced technique, drop sets should only be performed by those with a sizeable amount of weight lifting experience.

With that being said, another important thing to keep in mind is that you don't want to do them too often in your training. If you go too far overboard, it can prevent your muscles from adequately recovering in between your workouts, which can potentially lead to overtraining. Instead, the best bet is to opt for 1 - 2 training sessions per week where you do drop sets.

Another important factor to consider when it comes to safety is maintaining good form throughout your drop set. Every single rep you perform should be done with proper form; if you find yourself sacrificing form to lift the weight, it's a pretty good sign that you need to lighten the load. Lifting with bad form is one of the easiest ways to get yourself injured, which at the end of the day, can prevent you from making any progress at all.

Finally, you'll want to consider waiting until the end of your workout to do your drop sets. If you do them first, they can leave you pretty exhausted for the rest of your training session, which on top of preventing you from performing at your best on subsequent exercises, can also increase your chances of getting injured.

How to Get the Most Out of Your Drop Set Workout

When it comes to making the most out of your drop set workout, preparation is key. Instead of winging it when you get there, you should go into the gym with a clear plan of how exactly you're going to execute your drop set.

Whether it's making sure you know what dumbells you're going to need, or planning out the right number of plates to load on the barbell, having your plan all mapped out ahead of time is an easy way to make your drop set workout is efficient and effective.

Wrap Up

A drop set is a weight lifting technique designed to increase the volume and intensity of your workout. 

Unlike a traditional set, where you perform a fixed number of reps and then rest, you’ll be performing multiple sets before you rest with a drop set.  

They can be performed using a variety of training equipment, including dumbbells, barbells, and machines, and when performed correctly, drop sets can help to improve your muscle-building potential.

However, in order to do them safely and effectively, you’ll need to have previous training experience and avoid doing them too frequently in your training.  

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