By Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES ProSource
What do drop sets, the "rest pause" method, and the Weider principle of "cheating" all have in common? All are scientifically proven muscle-building methods that have been used by champions in the trenches.
Let's take a look at a 'hybrid' that synergistically combines these three methods!
Traditional Drop Sets
Do as many reps as possible, strip off some plates, continue until momentary muscular failure is reached. Take some more weight off and keep on going! The drop set has been responsible for building muscle and chiseling physiques for generations of iron disciples. These were a favorite of Larry Scott over a half-century ago, and are still used by today's champions.
In their simplest form, drop sets are performed with selectorized machines. Upon failure at one weight, drop the pin to a lighter weight and perform another set.
Hardcore trainees will opt for the free weights when utilizing drop sets. On the Incline Bench Press an example is a "strip set;" do as many reps as possible with three weights on each side of a barbell, rack the weight, take one of the plates off and continue with two weights on each side of the bar until failure, then strip the bar down to one plate and do one more set to failure. Dumbbells can also be used for drop sets. Once you fail with a pair of dumbbells, grab a lighter pair and keep on going.
As you continue a set with lighter weight past failure, a wider spectrum of muscle fibers are recruited to get the job done. As muscle fibers fatigue, new ones are recruited, forcing muscle fibers to grow. Mechanical tension results from the heavy weight the set commenced with, and metabolic stress results from dragging the set out. Time under tension (TUT) is greatly increased because of the drops. This causes muscle damage, which essentially acts as a catalyst to the three primary mechanisms (identified by Brad Schoenfeld) that make your muscles grow.
Weider Principle of Cheating
After momentary muscular failure has come to pass, or in other words, you can't complete the weight with proper form, you can extend the set by "cheating." "Body English" or momentum of the weight helps you continue the set.
On bicep curls, this might mean on a set of 12, you fail at 8 and the last four you use some hip swing to assist in lifting the weight. You want to avoid this on core lifts, like squat, dead lift and bench press, but this principle can work well on curl variations, OHP becoming push presses, various shoulder raises and rowing exercises.
A majority of the most muscular and strongest men of all time have employed some sort of cheating in their training. This includes Arnold Schwarzenegger (who was initially considered crazy) to arguably the strongest man of all-time, Bill Kazmaier.
Cheating is cycled in and out and should not be used every single set, rep or workout, but can serve as a part of a periodized plan that can propel muscle growth to new heights.
Don't be afraid to "cheat" yourself to a new level!
Rest Pause Training
Traditionally the rest pause method is doing a core lift for as many singles as possible with 90%+ of your one rep max, utilizing a 10-30 second rest interval. This method was the bread and butter of many old-time strength legends.
For the acquisition of muscle hypertrophy, this method can be adapted to perform as many reps as possible with a submaximal weight (75-85% of a 1 RM), resting 15-30 seconds, and then repeating. Generally, one rest pause set is two to three subsets.
By taking brief rest periods, you can squeeze out multiple reps with a heavy weight in an extended set. If you bench pressed 80% of your 1 RM on the bench press for eight reps, rested 30 seconds, pumped out three more, rested 30 seconds and then made three more, you have bench pressed your eight repetition max for 14 reps in a short time, sparking a huge overload, which equals huge growth; without dropping the weight!
Enter the Mechanical Drop Set
Let's talk prison for a moment, shall we? Behind bars with limited equipment, inmates produce phenomenal gain. Necessity is the mother of invention. Because of a lack of equipment and crowded quarters, the convict has two options: get creative and grow, or enter a muscle building stalemate and risk getting punked in the exercise yard.
My junior year of high school I received a real life education from two ex-cons who chose the first option while behind bars. These ex-cons were two of the most impressive physical specimens I had ever seen. It was chest day for the two mammoths, and I was lucky enough to watch.
Their workout started off with a few compound barbell pressing exercises with very heavy weight. After this it was time for dumbbell incline presses. The dumbbells at this "hardcore" gym topped out at 120s. The bigger of the two muscled-up specimens barked at me to come over and help him as he grabbed the 120s and sat back at a steep incline and proceeded to lift the dumbbells to failure, approximately 12 times. He then sat up and said to drop the seat a couple holes and proceeded to hit about five more. When he couldn't go on at this angle, I dropped the seat and he continued. As momentary muscular failure resulted, leverage (mechanical advantage) was improved by lessening the incline, unlike a traditional drop set or strip set where weight was reduced. I had just been given a valuable real-life lesson in mechanical advantage drop sets.
It makes perfect sense behind bars. Dumbbells are very limited and traditional dumbbell drop sets are impossible. To produce an adequate training effect on the incline, drop sets were performed in the matter described by improving leverage (mechanical advantage).
At the time, I did not know how or why it worked. But, as a 16-year-old kid, I knew that when two jacked-up cats like this come into the gym to train, it's time to shut up, observe and learn.
Drop Sets: Cheating?
Typically, a drop set consists of a total of two to three subsets and sets are typically reduced 10-30% per drop, but this is not a rule. Let's take a look at lateral raise. With strict form upon momentary muscular failure, slight "Body English" to overcome a sticking point can allow the set to continue.
Like a drop set, you continue by "cheating." Reducing the weight does not allow the set to continue. The set continues by lifting the weight in a stronger position by violating the principle of isolation.
Like "cheating," mechanical drop sets are simply lifting the weight in a stronger position upon failure. The difference is mechanical drop sets can be performed with strict form. Get the benefits of cheating without sacrificing form with mechanical drop sets.
Rest Pause Training and Mechanical Drop Sets
Rest pausing is when you can no longer continue and you stop for a short period of time before continuing with the same weight. A mechanical drop set may not even require racking the weights. In some instances, it may just be a change of stance or hand placement. An example in the squat is going from a narrow stance, to a wide stance, to your strongest stance. Rest pauses, like mechanical advantage drop sets, do not require a reduction in weight.
Here are a few of the mechanical drop set variations I have used with clients. Remember, compound movements, isolation movements, barbells, dumbbells, machines and body weight can all be used. Now that you understand the "why," be creative.
Incline Dumbbell (Set 1 @ 45 degrees, Set 2 @ 30 degrees, Set 3 @ 15 degrees)
Dumbbell Fly (neutral grip) Upon Failure Pronated Grip Dumbbell Bench Presses
Legs-Set 1-Front Squats, Set 2-Narrow Stanced Squats, Set 3-Power Squats (Do not squat to failure)
Set 1-One Leg Curl, Set 2-2/1 Leg Curl (up with two legs, lower one leg 5 second negative with same weight), Leg Curls (both legs up and down)
Set 1-Skull Crusher, Set 2-JM Press, Set 3 Close Grip Bench Press
Set 1-Seated Incline Dumbbell Curl (great stretch), Set 2-standing dumbbells curls, Set 3-Hammer Curls
Set 1-Seated Lateral Raise, Set 2-Arnold Press, Set 3-Seated Press
Set 1-Standing Press, Set 2 Push Press, Set 3 Push Jerk (stop one rep shy of failure)
Set 1-Wide Grip Pull-ups, Set 2- Chin-ups, Set3-Neutral Grip Chin-ups
Set 1-Straight Arm Pull downs, Set 2-Lat Pull downs on knees wide grip, Set 3-Reverse Narrow Grip Lat Pull downs
Drop sets require you to reduce intensity, typically by dropping weight. But to optimize results, you sometimes have to think outside the box. Why not leave the same weight on the bar and improve your leverage for a different overload stimulus? Improved leverage or "mechanical advantage" is like cheating, only leverage is manipulated, not "Body English." Like the rest pause method, the weight does not decrease. Mechanical advantage drop sets are a 'hybrid' that takes advantage of proven old school methods, for new school results!