How to Use Drop Sets to Build Muscle, According to Fitness Experts – Shape Magazine

Megan Falk joined the team in 2019 and serves as the assistant editor, primarily covering exercise tips, fitness modalities, workout trends, and more. Previously, she was Shape’s editorial assistant and covered food trends and nutrition, sustainability, health and wellness, and beauty topics, among others. Before joining the team, Megan worked as an editorial intern at Megan graduated with a bachelor’s degree in magazine journalism and a minor in food studies from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Her writing has also appeared in HealthSAVEUR, her hometown’s magazine, Hour Detroit, and more. She’s currently preparing to earn her personal trainer certification through the American Council on Exercise.
After you’ve been strength training for a few years, the gains you develop from tackling increasingly heavy lifts may begin to level off, and the exercises that once pumped you upcan start to feel a bit stale. One way to spice up your lifting session and push through those lulls in progress? Perform drop sets, a technique that will put your endurance to the test, promote muscle growth, and cut down your workout time.
So, what do drop sets entail, exactly? Here, two fitness experts answer "what is a drop set?" and share how to effectively — and safely — utilize them.
A drop set is an advanced strength-training technique that involves performing as many reps as possible of the same exercise for two to three sets without taking any rest breaks, says Natalie Ribble, M.S., C.S.C.S., a certified personal trainer and body-neutral strength coach in Seattle. You’ll do your first set with as heavy of a weight as you can lift (with good form, of course), then drop down to a lighter weight for the second set. Then, if you’re doing a third set, you’ll switch to an even lighter weight. For example, you might power through biceps curls with 20-pound weights until you reach your point of failure for your first set, then immediately switch to 10-pound weights and do as many reps as you can before your muscles tire out, adds Laura Su, C.S.C.S., a strength coach in Seattle.
Alternatively, drop sets can involve different variations of the same exercise, says Su. If you were to perform a deficit push-up for your first set, you could drop down to a standard push-up for the second set, then switch to an elevated push-up — the “easiest” variation — for your final set, she suggests. Or, you can choose two or three different exercises that work the same muscle groups in slightly different ways, adds Ribble. “You could do a dumbbell or barbell bench press to work those chest muscles — doing a nice, heavy set of those — and then drop straight into some push-ups, which work the same muscles but are slightly different variations,” she explains.
Pushing yourself to work to the point of failure during every set — and skipping the breaks you usually take between them — can have a few major payoffs.
By performing multiple AMRAP sets back-to-back, you’ll encourage muscle hypertrophy (aka muscle growth), says Ribble. “You’re getting a lot of muscle damage — you’re tearing at your muscle fibers a little bit,” she says. “Drop sets also get you to a much higher level of muscular fatigue and metabolic stress, so basically your muscles are taking in all of the energy and oxygen that they can possibly take in to get through those last few really, really hard reps.” This combination of muscle damage, muscular fatigue, and metabolic stress can ultimately lead to muscle gains, so long as you’re recovering properly, she explains.
Aside from the body benefits, drop sets are particularly useful if you’re running short on time. “Usually, you get through your volume — how many total reps you do over all your sets — quicker,” says Ribble. For example, it would take you more time to do 30 reps of biceps curls if you were to break them up into three sets of 10 reps — with rest breaks in between — than if you were to utilize the AMRAP-style drop set technique, she explains.
While drop sets can help you make serious improvements in the muscle department, not all folks need to use the technique to achieve the same results, says Ribble. People who are new to weightlifting (think: have picked up the hobby only in the last year or two) generally see continuous gains simply because their bodies are still adapting to the new stimuli, she explains. “If you just started lifting or you’re in the first few years and you’re still continuing to see your weights go up, you’re seeing progress in whatever it is that you’re working toward, you don’t really need to include [drop sets] if you don’t want to,” says Ribble. “You can get plenty of results just from doing strict three sets of 10 reps or things like that.” Essentially, you don’t have to turn to fancy fitness methods such as drop sets if the basics are still helping you get closer to your goals, adds Su.
Once you're no longer seeing those "newbie gains" or you're hitting a plateau, you may benefit from incorporating drop sets into your routine in order to challenge your muscles in different ways, says Ribble. In turn, you'll be able to push through that stagnant period and get back to building the muscle you're after, says Su.
Regardless of your experience level, though, drop sets can leave you feeling powerful and your muscles aching in the best way possible. So if you're a beginner who wants to try them out just for kicks, have at it, she adds. "There's nothing wrong with doing drop sets," says Ribble. "It's just not necessarily necessary for muscle growth, especially if you're in those beginner phases."
Though drop sets themselves seem relatively straightforward, there are a few tips you should keep in mind in order to get the most out of the technique — and stay injury-free.
Most often, loaded compound movements simply aren’t safe to perform with the drop set technique, says Ribble. “If you’re doing something like a barbell deadlift or barbell back squat, as you get closer to that failure point, your form is going to break down in a big way,” she explains. “That can be really dangerous if you have a heavy implement across the back of your shoulders.”
Instead, you'll typically want to utilize loaded drop sets with single-joint accessory exercises, such as the biceps curl, triceps extension, lateral fly, hamstring curl, and leg extension, says Su. During these types of movements, "you can push to that failure point with minimal form break down and it will be generally pretty safe — you're not going to aggressively injure yourself if your form breaks down a little bit," adds Ribble.
You can also make your loaded drop sets safer by performing multi-joint exercises on machines. During a seated leg press, for instance, there isn’t any weight loaded on your spine, and once your legs reach the point of failure, you can simply pull up the safety latch to lock in the weights and end your set, says Ribble. “If you’re doing exercises on the machine, you’re set into your range of motion, and you can probably take that to true failure without putting yourself in too much of harm’s way as far as form breakdown,” adds Su.
Even if you haven't reached your point of muscular failure and you feel strong enough to tackle another rep, you should end your set if your form has fallen to the wayside, says Ribble. "As you get closer to that failure point, your body is going to have a really hard time maintaining good form and technique," she explains. "Once that form starts to get sketchy, call it." Continue powering through reps, and you could up your risk of injury.
Since training to failure is particularly taxing on the body and requires a big chunk of time to recover from, don't do drop sets for every exercise in your workout, says Ribble. Instead, she recommends choosing just one or two exercises with which you'll use the technique and placing them at the end of your lifting sessions. "I would not do a leg extension drop set before a barbell back squat because then my muscles will be totally worn out," she says. "If I were to try to do back squats, I wouldn't be able to perform as well or lift as much weight because my quads have been completely exhausted, or my form would be very questionable for the same reason."
How many times a week you can do drop sets all depends on the intensity and volume of your training regimen and how well you're recovering, says Su. Generally speaking, though, Ribble suggests trying them two or three times a week and taking note of how your body is reacting to them. "If you find you're responding well and you like them, you can add them in, but the recovery toll is very high for this type of training, so you may want to limit it to a special-occasion technique," she says.
In order to score the muscle gains you’re training for, you’ll need to prioritize recovery, says Su. “With the goal of building muscle, what you do in the gym is definitely going to be a huge contributor to what you can [achieve], but don’t neglect the little things like sleeping [enough] and getting adequate calories,” she says. “You can only make the number of gains that your body can recover from. So if you’re going to add in drop sets, great, but always go back to the basics of recovery.”
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