By Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CPT ProSource
Building a better body requires failure. But when we say "failure," we don't mean failure of the "bar getting stuck on your neck" variety. We mean deep, muscle-shredding failure -- the kind that sets the stage for the anabolic flood of changes that will leave you with slabs of thick, striated muscle. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to bring your muscles to that point and one of the best is the drop set.
The concept is a simple one, says Taylor Simon, MSc, BA, CSCS, co-director of Taylored Fitness in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
"You do as many reps with a weight as you can to failure then immediately drop the weight and grab a lighter weight and continue once more to failure," he says. "I recommend about a 25% in weight. Once you fail with that, again drop about 25% of the load and keep on repping."
Doing two "drops" is commonplace for most intermediate lifters, but doing more, Simon says, can yield further benefits. While no specific studies exist citing the benefits of more than 1-2 drops, the benefits of additional muscle breakdown will be evident by tomorrow's soreness.
"You can repeat this process until you are dying lifting those little tiny five-pound dumbbells at the end of the rack," he says.
Since a ton of energy will be expended with extended drop sets done in this fashion, they should only be done at the end of the workout, when no exercises for the same muscle groups follow.
"Drop sets ensure that you trash each and every muscle fiber in the target area," Simon says. "As the majority of muscle fibers fatigue you can no longer lift the weight you started with. This doesn't mean that your muscle is fully fatigued, however. That's why it's possible to continue on using a lighter weight."
Typically, drop sets are employed at the end of your last set of a particular exercise. "After 3-5 sets of the exercise, throw in one drop set at the end with one or two drops to failure."
But Simon also has some more sinister ways to use drop sets to coax gains out of clients.
"Choose a basic, mass-building, compound move for a bodypart and use 75% of your one-rep max (1RM) for that move," says Simon. "Start with this weight and then do as many reps as you can to failure and continue on with the 25% reduction strategy listed above. At each drop you are doing as many reps as you possibly can, without a preset 'target' number of reps. In other words, you go until you physically can't lift the weight anymore and then you drop to the next lighter level."
Drops of 25% are ideal but you can also go in smaller increments if you are using dumbbells or machines, since these tools allow for quick weight transitions.
DROP SET "DON'TS"
1] "The weight drop is not enough," says Simon. "There isn't much difference between 60-pound dumbbells on a dumbbell chest press and then dropping to 55 pounders. When you drop the weight you should be shooting to hit at least the same number of reps as you did on the heavier weight you just lifted." Research shows that drops between 20-30% are ideal, which is why Simon recommends 25%.
2] "People don't go to failure," he says. "If you are doing sets of eight reps and you stop at eight when you could have done 10 or 12, you're selling yourself short. Keep going. Drop sets aren'T about the reps, they are about total muscle fatigue."