A Drop Set is a set extending intensity method that allows a typical weight training set to continue beyond normal muscle failure by decreasing (dropping) the weight and immediately (with no rest) completing another set (the first drop set).
A drop set by definition is any set where the weight is decreased (dropped) and then completed immediately (without rest) after another set. Most times the drop sets are taken to muscle failure.
A double drop set is when one drop set is completed after the initial set (for two total sets). A triple drop set is probably the most common where two drop sets are completed (for three total sets). These are often called triple drops.
Drop sets were originally called the multi-poundage system by their creator, Henry Atkins (editor of Body Culture magazine in the 1940’s). Now they are often called breakdowns, descending sets, strip sets, running the rack, down the rack, up the stack, burnout sets and several other names. But really these are all just variations of a drop set.
Drop Sets are often confused with Rest Pause Sets. The primary differences are that the weights are decreased (dropped) and no rest periods are used with drop sets.
Benefits of Drop Sets
The basic idea behind a drop set is that even though your muscles cannot complete another rep with the weight you’re using because of in-set fatigue, that doesn’t mean they have been fully stimulated. The muscles could continue to move a lighter weight.
Even in a well-trained muscle, not all muscle fibers will be used during just one set. The primary goal with drop sets is to fully fatigue a muscle by having it do a lot of work in a short period of time (also called workout density).
As the muscle fatigues, ideally more and more muscle fibers are called upon (stimulated) to try and help the muscle fibers that can no longer move the weight. By decreasing the weight, the muscle can continue to do more reps until more fibers fatigue and the weight must be decreased again.
Since the muscle will continually be working and not allowed to relax, it will swell with blood and exercise byproducts like lactate. This will also limit some new oxygen from getting into the muscle, further increasing muscle fatigue and intramuscular (inside the muscle) growth hormone levels.
All of this will create a muscle pump and increase muscle growth factors similar to that in blood flood restriction training (but with heavier weights and no bands/straps).
Although drop sets can fully stimulate a muscle, the high levels of fatigue and long time under tension make drop sets better for muscle building and bodybuilding than pure strength training.
Ultimately, drop sets are best used occasionally as a temporary overload to try and trigger new muscle growth. If used all the time, they may exceed the body’s ability to recover or the body may even adapt since it is no longer a new stimulus.
How to Do Drop Sets For Mass
Drop sets can be done with many exercises that use barbells, dumbbells and machines. Since the goal is to have no rest between drop sets, dumbbell and machine exercises are typically used since weight changes can be made quickly. If a barbell is used, it should be loaded with smaller weights so that they can be removed faster.
The basic drop set workout will start with a first set taken to muscle failure (generally in the 6-12 rep range), then immediately decreasing (dropping) the weight and doing another set (first drop set) again to muscle failure.
The weight is then decreased again and another drop set is completed to failure (the second drop set).
In general you want to try and get at least as many reps as you did on the set before so this will determine how much you need to decrease the weight on each drop set. A 10% weight decrease is usually a good place to start.
Although the triple drop set is the most common way to do a drop set, there are many variations that are even more intense. These methods include running the rack, up the stack and burnout sets.
Running the Rack (Run the Rack) Drop Set Workout
Arnold liked to use drop sets and the Run the Rack variation was one he used often.
You will pick one of many exercises that use a dumbbell (chest flyes, biceps curls, overhead press…). For each drop set you will move along the dumbbell weight rack and pick up the next lighter dumbbell for each drop set.
Continue all the way along the rack until you’ve used all dumbbells lighter than the one you started with. You will be “running the rack” and could easily do way more than the normal two drop sets if you start heavy enough.
Some masochistic people even start this drop set workout at the lightest dumbbells instead and go UP in weight on each set (still taken to failure), doing fewer and fewer reps, until they max out (can only complete 1 rep) and then come back DOWN the weight rack. This is truly running the rack, although those first sets are not really “drop sets”.
Up the Stack Drop Set
This is essentially the same as the Running the Rack method except you will be using an exercise that has a weight stack (like a cable machine). To decrease the weight for each drop set, you will move the selector pin “up the stack”.
This variation works really well for exercises that can use a lot of weight on the first set like lat (back) pulldowns. On each drop set you can move the selector pin up one weight on the stack until you’ve used all available weights. You could easily do 10 or more drop sets this way.
Extended Drop Sets (Burnout Sets)
The Run the Rack and Up the Stack methods are really just extended drop sets (or a version of burnout sets).
The idea is to continue doing the drop sets until you can’t move the muscle because of the muscle burn (the buildup of exercise byproducts like lactate).
These can also be added on at the end of a normal workout where you decrease (drop) the weight to something fairly light and continue doing reps until the muscle burn stops you. You are really only doing one drop set but it’s a long miserable set. Enjoy!
Mechanical Drop Sets (also called Mechanical Advantage Drop Sets)
This is probably one of the most underused but creative ways to do a drop set.
For mechanical drop sets, rather than decrease the weight as you fatigue the load will stay the same throughout.
Instead you will simply switch to an easier exercise or an easier variation of the same exercise to extend the set further.
You will always start the first mechanical drop set with the weakest exercise (or variation) and go to muscle failure. Then you will immediately switch to the stronger exercise (or variation) and complete the first drop set to failure.
The goal is to use exercises that sequence well together and require minimal transition time from one exercise to the next so there is close to zero rest as in a typical drop set.
Great exercise combos for mechanical drop sets include:
- Front squat to back squat
- Back pullups to chin-ups
- Reverse grip (overhand) curls to regular grip (palm up) curls