My First Experience With Drop Sets

I’m constantly fighting the clock during weekday mornings at the gym. I’ve got less than an hour to get everything done, both resistance training and cardio (and abs 2 to 3 days a week). I’m always looking for ways to make my workout faster.

lat pulldownOf course, I can only do that with the weight training portion since my cardio is fixed at 25 to 30 minutes. On Thursdays and Fridays when I work different parts of my arms, I use supersets to speed things up. This also increases the intensity of my workout, which is a natural consequence of lifting faster or with less rest.

Almost on the spur of the moment, I decided to integrate drop sets into my Tuesday back workout this week.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty about drop sets, here’s my current back workout:

  • Cable low rows
  • Lat pulldowns
  • 1-arm bent over dumbbell rows
  • Bent over barbell rows
  • Barbell bent leg deadlifts

I use weights that allow me to perform between 8 to 15 reps per set and typically do three sets of each exercise, resting about one minute between sets (which is really hard to do with the barbell portion of my routine).

So what are drop sets and where did they come from?

According to Bodybuilding.com:

A drop set is the simple technique where you perform a set of any exercise to failure or just short of failure, then drop some weight and continue for more repetitions with the reduced poundage.

According to Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, the drop set method was originally “discovered” in 1947 by Henry Atkins, editor of Body Culture magazine. Atkins called it the “multi-poundage system.” Since then, this muscle blasting technique has gone by many different names including breakdowns, descending sets, triple-drops, down the rack, strip sets or the stripping technique.

So the basic principle is really simple. Do your first set of a lifting exercise, immediately drop down to a lighter weight and do the second set, and then immediately drop down the weight again and do a final set. Afterward, rest and move on to your next exercise.

I got the idea of doing drop sets from an article at Flexonline.com but really didn’t research the technique beyond that. I didn’t realize how adaptive it could be.

plate loaded machineI avoided a technique called plate stripping just because it takes too long to remove plates from a barbell between sets. Plus, barbell rows and deadlifts just about kill me (yes, I’m exaggerating), so I thought allowing little to no rest between sets would completely do me in.

As it turns out, zero rest drop sets are only one option, again, according to Bodybuilding.com:

Zero rest drop sets are incredibly difficult and most people either deliberately or unconsciously avoid them because they’re so hard. A zero-rest drop set is where you literally cut the rest between weight changes to zero. To perform an “honest” zero rest drop set, you usually need a training partner (or two). For example, If you’re doing drop sets on the leg press by yourself, you have to get up, walk to one side, strip off a plate, walk to the other side, strip off another plate, then sit back down and resume the drop set. This process takes at least ten seconds. Within that time, your muscles have already begun dissipating lactic acid and regenerating their energy supplies.

Like I said, I avoided adding drop sets to any of my barbell workouts, but when I perform low rows and pulldowns, changing the weight is as easy as moving a pin which is called “up the stack”). For the dumbbell rows, I did what is called “running the rack”:

Going down the rack is a fantastic technique for dumbbell exercises, especially curls, lateral raises and shoulder presses. For example, if you’re doing dumbbell lateral raises, you could start with the 40’s, do eight reps, then put the 40’s down and grab the 30’s, then put the 30’s down and grab the 20’s and rep out some more. Try this technique on your next deltoid or bicep day and your arms and shoulders will pump up like balloons.

There were two or three other people in the weight room when I was working out, and I still managed to get my choice of dumbbell weights, at least for the first two sets. For the last one, I had to go 5 pounds lighter than I wanted because someone else was using the 35s. No biggie, I just did more reps.

Another thing I was unaware of is that, according to Muscle and Fitness, one technique is to start heavy enough to do only 4 to 6 reps and go lighter until you’re doing 15 to 20 reps. Here’s an example they laid out for dumbbell curls drop sets with zero rest:

  • Set 1: – choose a weight you’d fail at 4-6 reps
  • Set 2: – reduce weight by 5lbs. 8-10 reps
  • Set 3: – reduce weight by 5lbs. 10-12 reps
  • Set 4: – reduce weight by 5lbs. 12-15 reps
  • Set 5: – reduce weight by 5/10lbs. 15-20 reps
seated cable low row
Photo credit: galleryhip.com

Even with the speed advantages of drop sets, I’d never be able to integrate five sets into each exercise and get out of the gym on time. Besides that, I was pretty well worn down after three drop sets per exercise.

Here’s what I actually did. Like I said, I didn’t add drop sets into my barbell work and limited them to my first three back exercises doing zero rest, or only stopping for the amount of time to up the stack or run the rack:

Cable Low Rows

  • Set 1: I chose a weight where I could do 15 reps.
  • Set 2: Reduced by 20 lbs and did 10 reps.
  • Set 3: Reduced by another 20 lbs and did another 10 reps.

Lat Pulldowns

I immediately went to the other side of the machine and continued my work.

  • Set 1: I chose a weight where I thought I could do 15 reps but only managed 10.
  • Set 2: Reduced by 20 lbs and did 10 reps.
  • Set 3: Reduced by another 20 lbs and did another 10 reps.

The low rows doing zero rest drop sets had taken a lot out of me and I overestimated how hard I could work performing pulldowns.

1-arm Dumbbell Bent Over Rows

This is a particularly punishing workout for me since bent over rows leave me feeling winded and dripping sweat most of the time. I wasn’t confident of my ability to actually complete drop sets, at least with nearly zero rest, but I decided to give it a whirl anyway.

  • Set 1: I chose a weight where I thought I could do between 10 to 12 reps and managed 10.
  • Set 2: Reduced by 10 lbs and did 10 reps.
  • Set 3: Reduced by another 15 lbs and did 15 reps.
one arm bent over row
Photo credit: musclemag.com

Like I said, I was only going to reduce by 10 lbs each time, but had to make a last-minute switch because the dumbbells I wanted were in use. First come, first serve.

After all that, the Barbell bent over rows just about flattened me with 60 seconds rest between sets. So for the deadlifts, I allowed 90 seconds rest between sets which really helped.

Since deadlifts work the lower back, I finished up my core work with three sets on the ab crunch bench with only 30 seconds rest between sets. After that, I did 25 minutes of cardio on the elliptical, and I can tell you, hitting the mid-140 beats per minute range didn’t require a lot of intensity (speed/resistance).

Now here’s the downside to drop sets:

Bodybuilders are unique among athletes because they’re concerned purely with cosmetic improvements and not athletic performance. That’s why bodybuilders prefer drop sets – because they’re decidedly geared towards increasing muscle size (hypertrophy). By contrast, you don’t see a lot of football players, sprinters or other athletes using drop sets, because drop sets are not conducive to strength, power or speed gains. In fact, most athletes want strength and power without bulk, so drop sets are usually nixed. However, if pure mass is what you’re after, then drop sets are ideal!

Hulk
Lou Ferrigno as the Incredible Hulk

I’m aiming at getting bigger and stronger, so a steady diet of drop sets won’t do me much good. However, I think occasionally working them in to one of my workouts will help in conserving time, increasing intensity, and yes, boosting mass increases.

But I’m not looking to be Arnold Schwarzenegger or Lou Ferrigno, so I want to increase size because I want some of my lost muscle mass back. I also want to be stronger and to stay stronger longer, so drop sets will be just one item in my weight training tool box.

How did I feel when I left the gym? Actually, pretty fabulous. It wasn’t that I lifted like the Incredible Hulk, but it was good to take my workout up a notch and be able to accomplish something new. Now, it’s just a matter of seeing and feeling the results with the passage of time.

Never let the things you want make you forget the things you have.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

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2 thoughts on “My First Experience With Drop Sets

  1. Every workout where you do more than 15 reps without resting time is working more on muscle endurance and not muscle mass (hyptertophy). Drop sets therefore work more on muscle endurance.
    If your goal is muscle mass (hypertrophy) and you want to cut your workout time short, doing supersets of 2 exercises working different muscle groups is something I do when I don’t have much time.
    For instance biceps/triceps workout:
    – Set1: biceps curls.
    no rest
    – Set2: triceps extensions.
    Then rest.
    And repeat the above for as many sets as you intend to do.

    However, you should implement a period in your workout plan where you work on muscle endurance for a couple of weeks. Dropsets do fine here.
    I explained the importance of implementing a period where you focus on muscle endurance in my blog post “Why not doing more than 15 reps is a mistake”.

    Good work, James. Keep the posts coming.

    Like

    1. That’s good to know, Gilbert. I mainly tried drop sets because I was curious and wanted the experience. Also, I like to change things up periodically just to break up the monotony.

      On Thursdays (Delts and Traps day) and Fridays (Triceps and Biceps day) I almost exclusively do supersets for the reasons you mention. Today, I did switch things up and used drop sets primarily with only one superset thrown in. I’ll have to look up your blog post since it seems you didn’t include the link.

      Thanks for the info. Cheers.

      Edit: Oh, I’ve read it before and even commented: Here’s the link.

      Like

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