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Overcoming Fitness Plateaus: The Power of Drop Sets in Strength Training

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  • Post last modified:September 25, 2023

After you’ve been engaging in strength training for a few years, the progress you achieve from tackling increasingly heavy lifts may begin to plateau, and the exercises that once energized you can start to feel a bit monotonous. One way to add excitement to your lifting session and break through those periods of slow progress? Execute drop sets, a technique that will challenge your stamina, foster muscle growth, and reduce your workout duration.

So, what do drop sets entail, precisely? Here, two fitness experts answer “what is a drop set?” and share how to effectively — and safely — employ them.

What Is a Drop Set?

A drop set is an advanced strength-training technique that involves completing as many repetitions as possible of the same exercise for two to three sets without taking any rest breaks, says Natalie Ribble, M.S., C.S.C.S., a certified personal trainer and body-neutral strength coach in Seattle. You’ll perform your initial set with the heaviest weight you can lift (with proper form, of course), then reduce the weight for the second set. If you choose to do a third set, you’ll switch to an even lighter weight. For instance, you might execute biceps curls with 20-pound weights until you reach your point of failure for the first set, then immediately switch to 10-pound weights and perform as many reps as possible before your muscles fatigue, adds Laura Su, C.S.C.S., a strength coach in Seattle.

Alternatively, drop sets can involve different variations of the same exercise, says Su. If you were to execute a deficit push-up for your first set, you could transition to a standard push-up for the second set, then switch to an elevated push-up — the “easiest” variation — for your final set, she suggests. Or, you can select two or three different exercises that target the same muscle groups in slightly different ways, adds Ribble. “You could perform a dumbbell or barbell bench press to target those chest muscles — doing a solid, heavy set of those — and then seamlessly transition into some push-ups, which engage the same muscles but involve slight variations,” she explains.

The Advantages of Drop Sets

Pushing yourself to the point of failure during every set — and forgoing the breaks you typically take between them — can yield several notable benefits.

Aid in Muscle Development

By completing multiple sets to failure consecutively, you’ll promote muscle hypertrophy (also known as muscle growth), says Ribble. “You’re inducing a significant amount of muscle damage — you’re causing micro-tears in your muscle fibers,” she states.

Drop sets additionally bring you to a significantly elevated level of muscular weariness and metabolic strain, so essentially your muscles are absorbing all of the energy and oxygen that they can conceivably absorb to conquer those final few exceptionally demanding repetitions. This fusion of muscle impairment, muscular weariness, and metabolic strain has the potential to eventually result in muscle gains, as long as you’re correctly recuperating, she elaborates.

Accelerate Your Workout

Apart from the physical advantages, drop sets can be particularly beneficial if you’re pressed for time. “Typically, you can complete your overall volume — the total number of reps you do across all your sets — more quickly,” says Ribble. For instance, if you were to divide 30 reps of bicep curls into three sets of 10 reps with rest breaks in between, it would take you longer compared to using the drop set technique known as AMRAP-style.

Instead, you’ll typically want to utilize loaded drop sets with single-joint accessory exercises, such as the biceps curl, triceps extension, lateral fly, hamstring curl, and leg extension, says Su. During these types of movements, “you can strive for the point of failure with minimal form break down and it will be generally pretty safe — you’re not going to aggressively injure yourself if your form breaks down a little bit,” adds Ribble.

You can also make your loaded drop sets safer by performing multi-joint exercises on machines. During a seated leg press, for instance, there isn’t any weight loaded on your spine, and once your legs reach the point of failure, you can simply pull up the safety latch to lock in the weights and end your set, says Ribble. “If you’re doing exercises on the machine, you’re set into your range of motion, and you can probably take that to true failure without putting yourself in too much of harm’s way as far as form breakdown,” adds Su.

Maintain Your Form

Even if you haven’t reached your point of muscular failure and you feel strong enough to tackle another rep, you should end your set if your form has fallen to the wayside, says Ribble. “As you get closer to that failure point, your body is going to have a really hard time maintaining good form and technique,” she explains. “Once that form starts to get sketchy, call it.” Continue powering through reps, and you could increase your risk of injury.

Strategically Incorporate Them into Your Workout

Since training to failure is particularly taxing on the body and requires a significant amount of time to recover from, don’t do drop sets for every exercise in your workout, says Ribble. Instead, she recommends choosing just one or two exercises with which you’ll use the technique and placing them at the end of your lifting sessions. “I would not do a leg extension drop set before a barbell back squat because then my muscles will be completely worn out,” she says. “If I were to try to do back squats, I wouldn’t be able to perform as well or lift as much weight because my quads have been completely exhausted, or my form would be very questionable for the same reason.”

The frequency at which you can do drop sets throughout the week depends on the intensity and volume of your training regimen and how well you’re recovering, says Su. Generally speaking, though, Ribble suggests trying them two or three times a week and taking note of how your body is reacting to them. “If you find you’re responding well and you like them, you can add them in, but the recovery toll is very high for this type of training, so you may want to limit it to a special-occasion technique,” she says.

Emphasize Recovery

In order to achieve the muscle gains you’re training for, you’ll need to prioritize recovery, says Su. “With the goal of building muscle, what you do in the gym is definitely going to be a major contributor to what you can [achieve], but don’t neglect the small things like sleeping [enough] and getting sufficient calories,” she says. “You can only make the number of gains that your body can recover from”.

So if you’re planning on incorporating drop sets, fantastic, but always revert back to the fundamentals of recuperation.