Drop sets are an advanced strength training technique bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts use to promote muscle growth and strength.
It involves performing a set of an exercise until you can’t do any more repetitions, quickly reducing the weight, performing another set with the lighter weight, and repeating this process several times.
Drop sets can be fun and challenging, but do they result in superior muscle gains? In this article, you’ll learn the benefits of drop sets and whether you should incorporate them into your workout routine.
Table of Contents
What Are Drop Sets?
In strength training, a conventional set means performing a number of repetitions followed by a rest period lasting 30 seconds to several minutes. You then do one more set, followed by another rest interval, and so on.
When you do a drop set, you perform as many repetitions of a given exercise as possible. When you reach muscular failure, meaning you cannot do another rep using proper form, you don’t quit. Instead, you immediately lower the weight and continue to perform repetitions without resting until complete fatigue.
You could stop after two sets and call it a drop set. However, you can also continue with a third, fourth, or even more sets with minimal rest between them.
The final set is the lightest, and if you’ve performed several of them, you might only be able to do a few reps with a low weight, the muscle being completely fatigued.
A drop set almost feels like one long set, only interrupted by minimal breaks where you reduce the weight, then continue doing more reps.
Drop set training became popular during the 1980s through the Joe Weider magazines and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. However, it was first described as a new way of training in the late 1940s in an article by Henry Atkins, then editor of Body Culture magazine, who originally called it “the multi-poundage system.”
Throughout the years, different trainers and bodybuilders have referred to the drop set technique by many names, including descending sets, strip sets, and “running the rack.”
Types of Drop Sets
The standard drop set variation is likely the one you’ll do the most if you incorporate them into your workout routine. But it’s not the only one; there are many different ways to make drop sets work for you.
Traditional Drop Sets
You might already be familiar with the classic type of drop sets where you perform multiple sets of an exercise back-to-back, reducing the weight load between each with minimal rest.
Visualizing the steps might be tricky if you haven’t used the drop set approach before. Here’s a step-by-step walkthrough.
Let’s say it’s arm day, and you’re doing dumbbell bicep curls. Instead of doing straight sets, you’ve decided to try drop sets.
Standard Drop Set Walkthrough
- For your first set, select a pair of dumbbells with which you can do 6–8 reps using good form. In this theoretical example, you’re pretty strong and can curl 40-pound dumbbells.
- You’re feeling strong today and manage eight strict reps in your initial set before reaching muscular failure.
- At this point, you’d typically call it a set, take 1–2 minutes to recover, then pick up the weights for another heavy set.
- Today, the drop set party’s just getting started. Instead of taking a break, you put the 40-pound dumbbells back on the rack, then immediately pick up the 30s instead.
- Typically, curling 30-pound dumbbells is no big deal for you, but without resting, they feel as heavy as the 40-pounders. You still manage to complete another eight reps in your second set, though.
- You’re feeling the burn by now, but the drop set isn’t over yet. You rack the 30-pound dumbbells and pick up a pair of 25-pounders instead.
- You usually use these to warm up, but by now, your biceps are so fried that you wonder if you can even manage six reps.
- With minimal rest, you start curling again and surprise yourself by grinding out eight complete reps in your third set.
That’s it! You’re done. You could theoretically have continued with a fourth and fifth drop, but enough’s enough. You’ve completed the number of reps you would typically require three sets to do but in a shorter amount of time.
And you have the best pump you’ve had in a long time.
Mechanical Drop Set
With mechanical drop sets, you don’t lower the amount of weight from set to set. Instead, you switch to an easier exercise that gives you a mechanical advantage and allows you to do more reps with the same weight.
Let’s say you’re training shoulders and doing lateral raises, an excellent isolation exercise for the side delts.
Once you reach the failure point and can’t do another repetition without cheating, you start doing dumbbell upright rows with the same weight instead of terminating the set.
In the upright row, you shorten the lever arm and get a mechanical advantage, making it possible to continue blasting the side delts even though they were too tired to do another side raise just a few seconds ago.
The result? A higher training volume using a higher weight: a proven recipe for muscle growth.
Mechanical drop sets are similar to supersets (or giant sets) in that you perform multiple different exercises back-to-back. The difference is that each succeeding exercise should give you a mechanical advantage, which isn’t necessarily the case with supersets.
Running the Rack
Running the rack involves any dumbbell exercise and progressively increasing and decreasing the weight without resting. Running the rack is a variant of pyramid training without rest intervals.
Isolation exercises like biceps curls and lateral raises work best, but you can try running the rack with compound movements like dumbbell shoulder and chest presses. The problem with those is that other muscles will likely fail before the one you’re primarily targeting.
Let’s do biceps curls as an example.
- You start with a light weight with which you can comfortably do a specific number of reps, like 8–10. The last repetition should be easy to complete.
- Put the dumbbells back, immediately pick the next heavier pair up, and do another 8–10 reps.
- Continue increasing the weight by using heavier dumbbells until you can no longer manage the rep range you’re going for.
At this point, you can either call it quits or start the actual drop set part of the session.
If you decide to continue, you work your way down the dumbbell rack again, using lighter and lighter weights as you go until you’re back where you started.
Another way of running the rack involves going to failure each set and lowering the number of reps as you increase the weight.
- You’d start with a heavier weight that you can only do, for example, 8–10 reps with.
- Do as many repetitions as possible with the next heavier pair of dumbbells without resting. You might only manage six reps this time.
- Use heavier and heavier dumbbells until you only manage one or two clean reps. Then run down the rack again, going to failure at each point.
Running the rack is a demanding training technique, and you may only want to do it for a single set at the end of a workout. After an exhausting rack run session, you might be unable to do much more during that training session.
When running the rack, it’s best to do so when the gym is relatively empty. You don’t want other people snatching the dumbbells you plan to use while in the middle of your drop set.
Rest-Pause Drop Sets
With rest-pause drop sets, you combine drop sets with another advanced strength training technique, the rest-pause system.
Rest-pause training involves performing a set of repetitions with a weight heavy enough to allow only a few repetitions before reaching failure, resting briefly, and then continuing with additional reps. It is a very effective way to train for increased strength.1
The only difference between traditional and rest-pause drop sets is that you take a short rest between the drops, 5–15 seconds, upon reaching failure. Doing so allows you to use the heaviest weight possible and still utilize the drop set training technique, which can be a good idea when prioritizing strength gains.
Wide Drop Sets and Tight Drop Sets
You might also come across the terms “wide drop sets” and “tight drop sets.”
These are not drop set variations. Instead, they refer to how much you lower the weight with each drop.
Tight Drop Sets
A tight drop set means a slight drop in weight, between 5–20%. Tight drop sets are ideal for isolation movement for small muscle groups.
Decreasing your leg press load by 5% would make no sense, as it would not be meaningful enough to allow you to do more reps when you are already exhausted.
Wide Drop Sets
Conversely, a wide drop set involves dropping the weight by a significant amount, like 30%.
Wide drop sets work well on compound movements using heavy weights, allowing you to continue even when cardiovascular fatigue would otherwise end the set.
How Do Drop Sets Work?
Muscle hypertrophy and strength gains are the result of mechanical stress. Progressive overload over time induces physiological changes that force your muscles to grow bigger and stronger to handle the stress you expose them to.
Some research suggests that metabolic stress and muscle swelling contribute to muscle hypertrophy.2
With the use of drop sets, you create greater motor unit fatigue and increase the time a muscle is under tension, elevating metabolic stress and possibly setting the stage for muscular adaptations in the form of added muscle mass.
In addition, drop sets cause a significant increase in growth hormone levels compared to regular sets.3 While some believe post-exercise hormone spikes are crucial for building muscle, recent research questions whether they play a role in muscle growth.4
Benefits of Drop Sets
Here are some benefits of drop sets:
Increased Muscle Fiber Recruitment
Drop sets can help recruit and activate more muscle fibers than normal sets by using lighter weights and continuing to push the muscles to fatigue. Your type II fibers produce a lot of force and dominate at the start of a drop set. However, they tire quickly, and your type I fibers, which are more resistant to fatigue, help you complete the drop set.
Drop sets allow you to do more work in less time than traditional sets: a great way to challenge your muscles while reducing your workout time.
Improved Muscular Endurance
Drop sets can improve your muscular endurance by forcing your muscles to work harder for extended periods. Drop sets can induce muscle hypertrophy by causing muscle damage and triggering a growth response.
If you’ve hit a plateau in your training, drop sets can help you push past it by taking your workouts to the next level and creating a new stimulus for your muscles to adapt to.
Variety and Challenge
Drop sets add variety and challenge to your workout routine, which can help you avoid boredom. While changing your training sessions up doesn’t mean renewed muscle growth by itself, keeping things fun is one of the most important things to stay motivated in the gym.
Drop sets are challenging both physically and mentally. At the end of a drop set workout, you’ll feel the pain (in a good way), which can help you develop mental toughness and resilience.
Are Drop Sets Good for Muscle Growth?
With all those benefits, you’d expect drop sets to be the best way to muscle growth, right? But are they?
Research suggests they are at least as effective as straight sets and a viable strategy for promoting muscle hypertrophy.5
In the short term, a single drop set leads to greater muscle gains than three conventional sets.7 However, long-term studies do not support superior muscle growth from drop set training compared with traditional sets.8 They are not worse, but not better, either.
That being said, similar gains in muscle mass but less time spent in the weight room means drop sets could be the way to go if you’re looking for a time-efficient way to build muscle.
Are Drop Sets Good for Strength Gains?
While drop sets have several theoretical benefits for muscle hypertrophy, the same cannot be said for promoting strength.
However, drop sets mean doing the opposite: using as little rest as possible and a progressively lighter load.
Studies show drop sets are viable for strength gains, producing similar results as traditional strength training.5 However, all studies compare drop sets to straight sets using moderate to lower loads (<80% of 1 rep max), which are known to be inferior for increasing strength.
In addition, drop sets accumulate fatigue, and when you’re training for strength and using heavier weights, that fatigue might compromise your form, leading to a higher risk of injury.
In other words, using drop sets might not be a good idea if you’re training primarily for strength and want the best results possible. Don’t get me wrong – you’ll get stronger with drop sets. But it is likely not the best way to optimize strength gains if that is your primary goal, like if you’re training for powerlifting.
Downsides of Drop Sets
Drop sets can be an effective tool for building muscle, improving strength, and increasing endurance. That said, it is an advanced resistance training technique, and you should use it sparingly and with caution. Drop set training can be very taxing on your muscles and nervous system.
Training to muscular failure can mean better results in the form of more muscle mass, and least for advanced lifters, and when done in moderation.12
Too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily better. Overdoing intensity techniques like drop set training to failure can lead to overtraining and psychological burnout as well as lower levels of anabolic hormones like IGF-1 and testosterone.13
Because drop sets are highly taxing to the neuromuscular system from repeatedly training to muscular failure, excessive use could heighten the risk of overtraining and impair long-term gains.
Finally, drop sets aren’t pleasant. Training to failure is painful, and lifters performing drop sets usually experience greater feelings of exertion and discomfort during the workout.14
How to Incorporate Drop Sets in Your Workout Routine
Drop sets are a challenging and taxing weight training technique. It can be rewarding when appropriately used but lead to overtraining and even impair your gains when misused.
Before randomly incorporating drop sets into your routine, consider these tips and pointers.
Selection of Exercises
You can use drop sets for multi-joint and single-joint exercises for both your lower and upper body, although compound movements require more preparation.
When using dumbbells, cables, or machines, performing a drop set on your own is easy. Simply put the dumbbells down or change the pin on the weight stack, and you’re good to go.
Barbell training is a little bit more tricky. Removing a plate is relatively fast and easy when doing a barbell curl or triceps extension. But with exercises like bench presses or leg presses, you’d have to get up, remove a pair of plates, and lie down again, which takes too much time for a proper drop set. Your muscles have enough time to restore some ATP (your body’s primary energy resource for muscle contractions) during the time it takes to reduce the load, reducing the metabolic stress you put on the muscle.
For practical purposes, single-joint isolation movements are preferred when doing drop sets. Unless you have a training partner at your side, that is. If you are two, you can help each other by quickly lightening the training load, and the one doing the drop set can focus entirely on the lifting.
How much to reduce the load each drop is not clearly defined in the scientific literature or universally agreed upon within the lifting community.
Most studies use a 20% weight reduction in each drop.
In the gym, bodybuilders use anywhere from 5 to >30% drops depending on the exercise and training goal.
A slight decrease in load, 5–10%, is a viable strategy for isolation exercises. When doing heavy compound movements, a minor weight decrease will significantly reduce the total amount of reps you can do.
A more considerable load reduction can be necessary when training a large muscle group using multi-joint exercises, as 5% less weight would not make a meaningful difference.
Keep your rest intervals to a minimum, allowing only enough time to reduce the load and get into position for the next set.
The exception is rest-pause drop sets, where you deliberately take a brief 5–15 second break between drops to recover.
Number of Drops
The most common way to structure a drop set is to use one, two, or three drops in load.
You can continue beyond that point and do a fourth, fifth, and so on, but no evidence suggests doing so offers any benefits. You will increase your total fatigue and compromise recovery, which could be detrimental in the long run.
Drop Set Frequency
There is no determined optimal frequency for using drop sets. You can incorporate them into your training sessions multiple times per week, but be aware that constantly using this demanding technique might lead to overtraining.
Try to perform each repetition reasonably quickly (1–3 seconds on both the concentric and eccentric parts of the movement.) Slow reps have their place in strength training programming, but for drop sets, a slow tempo (≥4 seconds) significantly reduces the number of reps and, thus, the total volume load you’re able to perform.
Sample Biceps and Triceps Drop Set Workout
Below is an example of a challenging, fun, and effective arm workout using drop sets guaranteed to give you a great pump.
We’re kicking the workout off with biceps, arguably the most popular muscle among fitness enthusiasts.
For the first exercise, you’re doing the classic barbell curl, a fantastic mass builder that allows you to use as much weight as possible.
Set 1: 10 reps
Set 2: 8 reps
Set 3: 6 reps
Increase the weight each set but make sure you maintain proper form.
No drop sets here, only traditional heavy muscle-building hard work.
The hammer curl is an excellent exercise for your biceps, especially the long head, but it also develops your forearms.
Set 1: 8 reps
Set 2: 8 reps
Drop set: 8 reps, 6–8 reps, 6–8 reps
This is your first taste of drop sets.
The first two sets are regular straight sets, but you’ll perform two drops during the last set.
Select a weight with which you can do eight strict reps, switch to the next pair of lighter dumbbells down the rack, perform 6–8 more reps, do another drop to a lighter set of dumbbells, then crank out a final 6–8 reps.
Incline Dumbbell Curl
The final biceps exercise is the incline dumbbell curl. It forces your biceps into a stretched position, targeting the long head responsible for the peak of your bicep.
Set 1: 10 reps
Set 2: 10 reps
Drop set 3: 10 reps, 10 reps, 8–10 reps, 8–10 reps
Again, you’re doing a drop set to finish the exercise. This time, you’re reducing the load three times, going for higher reps and a massive pump.
Time for triceps! Your triceps comprise two-thirds of your upper arm muscle mass, so you better pay attention to this body part if you want big guns.
Barbell Lying Triceps Extension
Barbell triceps extensions might be the best exercise for building big triceps, hitting all three heads of the muscle in the most efficient way.
Set 1: 10 reps
Set 2: 8 reps
Set 3: 6 reps
Like the barbell curls for your biceps, you’re doing straight sets here, increasing the weight each time in a pyramid fashion.
Set 1: 8 reps
Set 2: 8 reps
Drop set: 8 reps, 6–8 reps, 6–8 reps
Triceps pushdowns are the most common and popular triceps exercise, and for good reasons: they are both easy to do and highly effective.
Here’s where you introduce your triceps to drop sets.
Select a weight with which you can do eight strict reps, move the weight stack pin up a notch, perform 6–8 more reps, reduce the weight one more time, then grind out a final 6–8 reps.
Overhead Cable Triceps Extension
You can remain at the cable pulley machine for the final exercise, the overhead cable triceps extension. It’s one of the best exercises for the long head, which makes up around half of the triceps mass.
Set 1: 10 reps
Set 2: 10 reps
Drop set 3: 10 reps, 10 reps, 8–10 reps, 8–10 reps
The final set is a triple drop set to show your triceps you mean business.
Perform this arm workout twice weekly, and you should see significant results in no time. Be prepared for some severe soreness the day after, though!
It is available in our workout tracker if you want to give it a go! StrengthLog has built-in support for drop sets as a premium feature, and you can use it to track your progress in this and other in-app workouts and programs, as well as ones you design yourself.
A training log helps you stay consistent, set and achieve specific goals, track your progress over time, identify patterns in your training, and hold yourself accountable to your fitness goals.
StrengthLog is 100% free to download and use as a workout tracker and general strength training app. All the basic functionality is free – forever. It’s like a personal trainer in your pocket.
Download StrengthLog for free, keep track of your weights and reps, and try to beat your previous numbers each workout.
Quick Drop Set Tips
These three crucial tips make your drop set workouts as effective as possible.
Drop set training involves starting with the heaviest weight. That means you should prepare your body by warming up first for performance benefits and injury prevention.
If you’re doing your drop sets at the end of your workout, your muscles are likely already warm enough, but if you place them early in the session, be sure to perform a couple of ramp-up sets first.
Drop sets work best as a workout finisher, anyway. Case in point:
Save Them for Last
While you could do an entirely drop set-based workout, you should use them sparingly to avoid overtraining due to the high-intensity nature of the technique.
An excellent way to incorporate drop sets into your workout is to save them for the end of your training session or the last set of a muscle group or exercise.
For example, if you fry your quads with leg extension drop sets at the start of a leg workout, your strength performance, arguably more beneficial for muscle and strength gain, will suffer during the rest of the session.
Set Up the Equipment You Need in Advance
Minimizing rest intervals is crucial for drop set training. If you have to stop and adjust the weight or equipment between each drop, it can break the momentum of your workout and ruin the entire concept of drop set training.
You can seamlessly transition from one drop set to the next by setting up the equipment you need in advance.
It’s less relevant for cable exercises where you adjust the weight by moving a pin, but for free-weight movements, ensure you have the dumbbells or barbell plates you need handy.
Drop sets are a powerful and efficient tool in your bodybuilding arsenal.
As a quick recap, this high-intensity strength-training technique involves performing a set to failure, then immediately decreasing the weight and continuing with more repetitions.
The benefits of incorporating drop sets into your training program include potentially increased muscle hypertrophy, improved muscular endurance, and a time-efficient approach to packing on lean mass.
Just as each person’s body and fitness goals are unique, so should your approach to implementing drop sets be.
Experiment and find the optimal drop set strategy that aligns with your goals and preferences. That may involve adjusting the number of drop sets, weight reductions, and rep ranges to suit your specific needs.
If you decide to utilize drop sets at all, that is. It’s an advanced, optional technique that might not be for everyone. Traditional straight sets are enough to reach any imaginable fitness goal. However, when properly programmed into your workout routine, drop sets can be a valuable tool to help you achieve them.
Drop those weights and keep pushing your limits. Your training is the paintbrush, your muscles the canvas, and your willpower the hand that shapes the art of your physique.
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 14 July 2021. Rest-pause and drop-set training elicit similar strength and hypertrophy adaptations compared with traditional sets in resistance-trained males.
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- Percept Mot Skills. 2023 May 17;315125231176729. Drop-Set Resistance Training versus Pyramidal and Traditional Sets Elicits Greater Psychophysiological Responses in Men.