Fitness

What Is a Drop Set? the Secret to Build Muscle Fast Within Your Workout

Drop Sets: The Worst-Kept Weightlifting Secret To Build Mass Fast
Written by Isaac

Alright, let's cut to the chase. What is a drop set?

Drop sets are a weightlifting technique where you perform a lift and then lower the weight for the next set, repeating the lift until you reach failure (you can’t lift anymore) for each set.

The discovery of drop sets, then called the multi-poundage system, is attributed to Dr. Robert Atkins, better known as the founder of the famous high-protein Atkins diet.

Drop sets, like any other weightlifting technique, go by a lot of names such as breakdowns, descending sets, and strip sets.

How Lowering Weights Increases Gains

Drop sets are a particularly efficacious weightlifting practice when you’re looking stimulate hypertrophy, AKA build mass.

Bodybuilders love drop sets for this reason, though other athletes sometimes opt for other techniques if they’re more interested in building strength and power rather than pure mass.

Schwarzenegger: The Greatest Drop Set Endorsement

Reigning king of bodybuilding Arnold Schwarzenegger was a huge proponent in popularizing drop sets. (Check out his classic The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, a must-read on drop sets and all other weightlifting exercises).

Black and white photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger at the gym

“There are no shortcuts—everything is reps, reps, reps.” Arnold Schwarzenegger

As a successful bodybuilder, Schwarzenegger highly recommended strip sets, as he called them, for building mass. In particular, he loved barbell lifts targeting the biceps.

Benefits Of Drop Sets

Why do drop sets? There are so many reasons, but as we mentioned before, drop sets are ideal for building mass.

Drop sets stimulate so much hypertrophy (muscle growth) because they get the heart rate up, increase blood flow to muscles, and cause muscle tears which force your muscles to rebuild themselves bigger and stronger.

They require different muscle fibers to work as the weight reduces, meaning this muscle growth is more wide-ranging and effective. This is referred to as “greater total work” which has been proven to cause greater hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy is jumpstarted when glycogen stores are exhausted, resulting in acidosis and damage to muscle fibers which requires rebuilding.

The sweet spot for hypertrophy is 80-95% of your maximum weight. This is exactly where drop sets hit you.

A. C. Fry
sports medicine researcher                 

Because you’re starting at your highest weight but then still working until failure with each reduction, drop sets are one of the best high-intensity weightlifting techniques out there.

Who Should Use Drop Sets?

Drop sets are beneficial to anyone looking to improve their overall fitness and to build muscle. An increase in muscle mass has numerous effects beyond looking “swole”: you burn fat more efficiently and your metabolism speeds up even more so during and after weightlifting.

Tips to Maximize Drop Sets

Man doing drop sets workout

A drop set is the simple technique where you perform a set of any exercise to failure.

When you’re looking to get the most out of drop sets, there are a few tips that will give you the upper hand:

  • Avoid combining drop sets with cardio. Drop sets put your muscles under a lot of strain. Do drop sets on a weightlifting-only day.
  • There’s an increased risk of burnout with such a high-intensity workout. For this reason, take a day off after a drop sets day.
  • ​Do drop sets with compound lifts less frequently than with basic lifts. Schwarzenegger likes the bicep curl for drop sets so much because it doesn’t overload the body, whereas he recommends drop sets for compound lifts like the chest press and squats less often.
  • ​Stick to one or two muscle groups so as to avoid excess fatigue and soreness.
  • For increased fatigue management, vary the amount of drop sets you perform per week. For example, week 1 could include 8 drop sets, week 2 with 4, week 3 with 10, and so forth. This variation in training form is yet another great way to stimulate muscle growth, as the muscles don’t become used to the same routine.
  • Regardless of your body type, drop sets can help you put get the most out of your gym time.

3 Types Of Drop Sets Exercises

Dumbbell rack in a gym

Want Bigger Biceps? You should Run The Rack.

Let's look at several variations of this exercise and examples on how to do drop sets within your workout. 

1. Running The Rack

Running the Rack is just what it sounds like: you work down the rack with each set of lifts. Once you can no longer lift with a certain weight, go down to the next weight (example: 15 pounds to 10 pounds). Work down the rack until you reach failure with each weight.

Example Workout For Running The Rack: Bicep Curls

  • Set 1: Chose a weight you’d fail at 4 to 6 reps (this will be your heaviest weight, so challenge yourself).
  • Set 2: Move down the rack and reduce the weight by 5 pounds, repeat until failure (most likely about 8-10 reps.)
  • Set 3: Reduce the weight by 5 pounds, repeat until failure.
  • Set 4: Reduce the weight by 5 pounds, repeat until failure.
  • Set 5: Reduce the weight by 5 pounds, repeat until failure.

Tight drop sets refer to drop sets that reduce weight in smaller increments. Single-muscle workouts like the bicep curl make for great tight drop sets.

2. Plate Stripping

Plate Stripping is similar to Running the Rack, just with barbells. As you rise in sets, strip plates from each side until you reach failure with each decreasing weight.

You should be near total muscular exhaustion by the time you finish your fifth set, but it is important to avoid starting at too high a weight, or injury could become a possibility fast.

Example Workout For Plate Stripping: Backwards Lunges With Barbell

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    Set 1: Chose a weight you’d fail at 4 to 6 reps. If you’re unsure, figure this out a workout in advance.
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    Set 2: Strip the plate and reduce the weight by 10 pounds, repeat until failure (most likely about 8-10 reps.)
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    Set 3: Strip the plate by 10 pounds, repeat until failure.
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    Set 4: Strip the plate by 10 pounds, repeat until failure.
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    Set 5: Strip the plate by 10 pounds, repeat until failure.

Pro tip

Plate stripping is going to be even more effective when you can move from one set to the next within a minute or so. Because of this, it makes for a great workout with a partner who can do the stripping for you.

If you find that your failures are increasing at a fast rate (as in, you’re down to only 3 reps or so), drop by 10 pounds instead of 5 pounds and so on, depending on how heavy your starting weight is.

In other words, the difference between 150 and 145 pounds is a lot less than 15 and 10. Do what works for you to avoid injury. These are called wide drop sets, and they’re very common for compound lifts.

3. Up The Stack

Up the Stack works like Running the Rack and Plate Stripping, just with a workout machine. We highly recommend drop sets with machines simply because they’re much easier to use in moving from set to set when it comes to adjusting weight.

Man working with drop set machine

We highly recommend drop sets with machines.

Example Workout For Up The Stack: Leg Extensions

Leg Extensions make for a great alternative to more taxing lifts like squats and deadlifts. They hit the legs without overloading the entire body.

  • Set 1: Chose a weight you’d fail at 4 to 6 reps, and go for it.
  • Set 2: Up the stack to reduce the weight by 5-10 pounds, repeat until failure (most likely about 8-10 reps.)
  • Set 3: Up the stack by 5-10 pounds, repeat until failure.
  • Set 4: Up the stack by 5-10 pounds, repeat until failure.
  • Set 5: Up the stack by 5-10 pounds, repeat until failure.

Variations On The Drop Set

Drop sets are just like any other lifting technique: the more variation, the better. Here are a few variations we love:

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    Grip or stance change drop sets: bodyweight squats are a great example for this. Mix up your drop sets with sumo squats, single-leg squats, and all sorts of other variations on the classic.
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    Drop super sets: Short on time? Go for the drop super set which combines two drop sets back to back, like a set of shoulder presses immediately followed by bicep curls.
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    Zero rest drop sets: These ones are for people who really want to feel the burn, and they’re best performed with a partner who can quickly shed the weight for you. This one’s wildly challenging – try at your own risk and if it’s too hard, take a break.

What Are You Waiting For?

If you’re looking to build mass to really show off what you’re getting out of weightlifting, drop sets are your go-to exercise. As you drop weight, you stimulate your muscles from all angles, and on all levels, getting a much deeper burn.

Because of this, drop sets promote the most muscle growth, and fast. They’re high intensity, though, so avoid burnout by using them sparingly and in variating patterns and styles.

Drop sets work physically, but they also help psychologically: lowering the weight each time makes you feel like you can keep pushing yourself for longer, and usually you can.

About the author

Isaac

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Indianapolis, IN. I’ve spent the last 8 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.

1 Comment

  • You might want to do a little research. Henry Atkins of drop set lore is most certainly not Dr. Robert Atkins of the Atkins diet.