Training systems and techniques have been developed to provide an advantage over conventional training methods. However knowing which system to choose and how it is best is the key to achieving the most out of training. One of these training systems is called drop sets (DS), also known as, breakdown training or mulit-poundage training system, which are generally ranked as one of the most effective systems employed by bodybuilders and athletes worldwide.
What are Drop sets and how to perform them?
DS are used to push fatiguing muscles beyond that point of failure by reducing the weight and performing additional repetitions to muscular fatigue which can be repeated for up to 5 sets (1). The proposed benefit of this training system is to maximise motor unit (MU) recruitment and firing to the muscles which in simple terms is best described as a heightened ability to activate the most amount of muscle fibres as possible. Therefore more muscle damage, higher metabolic stress and also a longer time under tension which are all key determinants to muscle growth and adaption (2).
Once a maximal set to fatigue has been completed, DS are executed by performing a series of sets that decline in resistance (weight) each set (10-50%), with no or minimal rest in between each set. For example if performing a bench press to complete muscular fatigue then immediately following you would strip the weight off by a 20% each time and immediately perform another set to failure. This can be done for up to 5 sets, however generally the addition of 3 DS is most commonly employed.
What research tells us about this training system?
There is an established body of research that demonstrates significant gains in muscle hypertrophy (growth) and strength in various subjects (2, 3). However some studies don’t account for the fact that the subject group performing DS completed a higher training volume than other testing groups, therefore the question is if it’s just the addition of more training sets that increases results. A study in 2013 reported that the group who performed one set to voluntary muscular failure followed by only one drop set gained more muscle mass, strength and reduced more body fat than another group who performed the conventional three sets to failure training style at the same repetition range over a 10 week period (3). This indicates that utilising DS during training can lead to significant gains in muscular development irrespective of training volume. Furthermore a potential downfall to such high intensity training techniques is the risk of overtraining and psychological burnout, therefore its well documented that recovery and recuperation from training at high intensities is heavily dependent on correct nutrition, supplementation and training periodisation (2).
What muscle groups are they best used for?
DS are used best for smaller muscles and weak point muscle groups as particularly smaller muscle groups tend to cope with higher training volume better (1). However DS can be used for large muscle groups but the amount of DS performed in a given workout should be reduced to avoid overtraining and fatigue. Examples are provided in the table below
A list of the most common variations of the Drop set
DS have various technique variations to them, these include DS to focus on strength, hypertrophy or muscular endurance which will be discussed in detail. Firstly it’s important to know that DS don’t have to be performed with weights, they can be used by changing your body position during a push up, chin up etc. after each set in order to complete more repetitions. These are called mechanical DS and an example would be changing your push up width each successive set to achieve additional reps, or changing the grip and arm width during chin ups to achieve an additional 3-5 repetitions. This is great for increasing the intensity for exercises that have limiting load variations (body weight exercises).
Focusing on Strength and Myofibrillar Hypertrophy
Focusing on strength we would find that the programming principles which dictate gains in strength require sufficient rest between sets and a lower repetition range, generally between 1 and 6 reps. Using DS in a strength program requires each DS to be performed in a rep range of 4-6 with an inter-set rest of 10-15 seconds to allow for slight recuperation in the primary energy fuel, ATP-PC. This training technique is best for those people looking to gain muscle whilst also gaining strength.
Focusing on muscle growth
Training for muscle growth (hypertrophy) may work best at a rep range of 6-12 with an inter-set rest of 0-5 seconds between sets. Achieving zero second rest intervals requires a spotter to strip the weights off whilst the exercising muscle group is still under tension (contracting).
Another variation to DS for muscle growth is using DS in an ascending or descending pyramid fashion, whereby each consecutive DS either goes up in repetitions or down. For example, in order from DS 1-3, an ascending DS would be, set 1 at 6 reps, set 2 at 12 reps and set 3 at 20 reps. This is just a variation that each individual may or may not take personal preference too as from a research standpoint there isn’t any data to determine the superiority over these examples.
Focusing on local muscular endurance
For muscular endurance DS can be used with a higher rep range of 12-20 with an inter-set rest of 0-5 seconds and the reduction in weight can vary from 20-50%. All DS techniques can be used interchangeably to stimulate muscle growth, however placing more emphasis on a particular training type can be achieved by following the table below.
How often should they be done and training tips
DS should be used for generally one exercise per body part due to the high training stimulus and to minimise the risk of injury, fatigue or overtraining. During a week it may be performed most days for smaller muscles but would be best cycled out or replaced for another after 8 weeks for that given exercise. The tips below should keep you on track to gain the most out of using DS in your training.
Try use it on the last set of an exercise for that muscle group
Maintaining strict form and controlled repetitions is crucial
Most tolerable when used between 1 and 3 times per week
Ensure you reduce the weight enough to perform quality repetitions to failure
Supplements that work with this style of training
Protein and Colostrum: Research indicates protein and colostrum this helps with recovery from intense exercise and minimised infection from overtraining (4).
Glutamine: Glutamine may improve recovery, reduces upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) and reduce muscle soreness from training in some individuals (5)
Amino acids + Carbs: A good intra-workout product like GEN-TEC’s P2P, would be ranked the number one essential to this style of training, especially for strength training athletes (6).
Bromelain: Products containing adequate amounts of bromelain to reduce muscle inflammation, muscle soreness, prevent strength loss and protect joints (7).
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1. Fleck SJ, Kraemer WJ. Designing Resistance Training Programs. 3rd ed. Third ed. USA: Human Kinetics; 2004. 375 p.
2. Schoenfeld B. The Use of Specialized Training Techniques to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy. Strength & Conditioning Journal (Lippincott Williams & Wilkins). 2011;33(4):60-5.
3. Eichmann B, Gießing J. EFFECTS OF TEN WEEKS OF EITHER MULTIPLE-SET TRAINING OR SINGLE-SET TRAINING ON STRENGTH AND MUSCLE MASS. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2013;47(10):25-6.
4. Davison G. Bovine colostrum and immune function after exercise. Medicine & Sport Science. 2012;59:62-9.
5. Street B, Byrne C, Eston R. Glutamine Supplementation in Recovery From Eccentric Exercise Attenuates Strength Loss and Muscle Soreness. Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness. 2011;9(2):116-22.
6. Bird SP, Tarpenning KM, Marino FE. Independent and combined effects of liquid carbohydrate/essential amino acid ingestion on hormonal and muscular adaptations following resistance training in untrained men. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 2006;97(2):225-38.
7. Buford TW, Cooke MB, Redd LL, Hudson GM, Shelmadine BD, Willoughby DS. Protease supplementation improves muscle function after eccentric exercise. Medicine and science in sports and exercise. 2009;41(10):1908-14.