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How to do a drop set to build bigger muscles

The drop set is one of the most popular set-extending strategies, and one of the best advanced training tactics to build bigger, stronger and more defined muscles. So if you want to add serious muscular size and strength consider adding drop sets to your training toolbox, says New Body Plan fitness director Joe Warner

When you’ve been lifting weights for a while you’ll soon realise that those initial and impressive muscle size and strength gains you made don’t keep coming for ever. At first, you noticed your muscles getting bigger, stronger and more defined, but now it can feel like you’re training harder than ever but your muscles stubbornly refuse to respond.

That can be disheartening. And it’s this plateau in physique changes that cause many people to abandon the gym. They believed they’d reached the end of the line, and it was impossible for them to see any further improvements. They’re wrong, as our many transformation success stories prove.

The truth is that the longer you’ve been training the harder it is to make rapid progress. But it’s not impossible. It’s not just about training harder. You need to train smarter too.

And that’s where advanced lifting methods and set-extending strategies, such as drop sets or rest pause sets, can be the key to unlock even greater gains in muscle size, strength and definition. Here’s everything you need to know about drop sets to get the results you want.

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What is a drop set?

A drop set is one of the most popular set-extending strategies and is a very effective way to build bigger muscles. At the end of a set of a weight lifting exercise, instead of stopping and resting, you reduce the amount of weight then do some more reps, typically as many as you can until your muscles fail.

You then reduce the weight again and perform even more reps. After this second “drop”, the set is over and you get some well-earned rest.

Why should I do drop sets?

A drop set is a tactic to make a traditional weight lifting set last longer by doing more reps to recruit and work muscles fibres with the aim of building bigger and stronger muscles.

Instead of simply stopping after hitting your target number of reps, reducing the weight so you can continue the set keeps your muscles working harder for longer. You’ll even tap into some muscle fibres that haven’t been fully worked yet. And it’s this recruitment of the maximum number of muscle that results in bigger muscles.

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When should I do drop sets?

These sets are physically and mentally demanding so you should use them sparingly. For instance, you want to avoid doing them right at the start of your session. Why? Because the intensive effort may compromise your ability to lift well for all the other exercises you need to do in that session.

A smart approach is to use them for the final one or two exercises of your session. At this point your muscles, joints and connective tissues will all be fully warmed up, and your muscles will already be approaching fatigue. This makes now a great time to deploy a drop set so you can significantly increase muscular time under tension and coax as many muscle fibres as possible into action.

If you’ve never done drop sets before, starting by doing them on the very last move of your sessions. And don’t worry about “getting it wrong”. You can’t. Just reduce the weight and keep lifting, and maintain your focus on doing each rep with perfect form. This is the best way to stimulate maximum muscle growth and the best way to minimise any risk of injury.

Is this set-extending strategy difficult?

Yes, and that’s the point. They force your muscles to do more work when they’re already in a fatigued state. So you can expect to feel a significant muscle burn, but it’s well worth it. You’ll get a great muscle pump once you’ve done the drop set, and can be proud of yourself for working as hard as you can to build the bigger muscles you want.

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How do I do a drop set?

There’s some drop set workout examples below. The best approach is to do your normal number of sets of a given exercise, then turn the final set of that move into a drop. Here’s an example of how that might work for three sets on the cable lat-pulldown:

Set 1: 8 Reps @ 60kg
Set 2: 8 Reps @ 60kg
Set 3: 8 Reps @ 60kg / Drop Set 1: 8 Reps @ 50kg / Drop Set 2: 8 Reps @ 40kg

So, instead of doing 3 sets of 8 reps, which is 24 reps, you perform a total of 40 reps. And it’s these 16 “bonus” reps you otherwise wouldn’t have done that can dramatically increase the size and strength of your muscles.

How many drop-set reps should I do?

That’s up to you. The number of reps you perform for each drop set may not match the number you did in the main set. Ultimately, that will depend on the how much you decrease the weight by for your drop sets.

A small decrease in weight will mean you can only do a small number of reps before reaching muscular fail. A big decrease in weight will mean you might be able to lift a far higher number of reps before your muscles fail. A good rule of thumb is to drop the weight by 10-20% for each subsequent drop set and try to get as close as you can to your main-set rep target.

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What gym equipment is best for these sets?

The key to successful drop sets is being able to reduce the amount of weight you have to lift quickly and easily. That makes some bits of gym equipment perfect for doing drop sets, with others not very useful at all. Here’s which kit you should use when you’re doing drop sets.

• Kettlebells
• Fixed-weight barbells
Cable machines
• Fixed-path pulley machines

Dumbbells, kettlebells and fixed-weight barbells are great for drop sets because you can very quickly grab a lighter option to continue your set seamlessly. Cable machines and fixed-path pulley machines both use a weight-plate stack with a pin to select your chosen weight. These are therefore very easy to use for drop sets because you simply change the pin position on the stack to a lighter option.

These bits of kit are best for doing drop sets because of the ease at which you can adjust the weight. But they’re good for a second reason too. When doing drop sets you’re pushing your muscles to their limit, so there’s a high risk of reaching failure where you can’t perform a single rep more. That’s no bad thing – it means you’ve worked your muscles as hard as possible, but you don’t want reaching failure to risk injury.

For instance, it’s fine to hit failure when doing the dumbbell bench press (you just drop the dumbbells), or on the machine chest press, or on the Smith machine.

But reaching failure when doing the barbell bench press is a completely different situation. At best you’ll get stuck under the bar and need help getting it off, but at worst you risk a serious injury.

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What gym equipment isn’t ideal for these sets?

The last thing you want to do between drop sets is spend too much time resting, even if that time is spent changing your weight selection. That’s why these gym kit options aren’t ideal for effective drop sets.

• Olympic barbells
• EZ-bars
• Plate-loaded resistance machines

These three types of gym equipment all share in common the need to add weight plates to the bar. That means it’s more time-consuming to adjust the weight between drop sets. At the very least you’ll need to move around the bar to take plates off. Some moves, such as the barbell shoulder press, allow you to run around the bar and remove plates quickly and don’t have a huge injury risk if you reach failure (you just re-rack the bar).

Yet many other barbell moves present significant injury concern, and should only be attempted by advanced lifters, or done when you have a spotter keeping an eye on you. For instance, you don’t want to fail on a barbell back squat unless you know exactly how to react when that happens.

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Drop set workout 1

At the end of your next chest and triceps workout, or as the final move of an arms session, try this drop set strategy for cable rope tricep pressdowns.

Set 1: 12 Reps
Set 2: 12 Reps
Set 3: 12 Reps
Drop 1: Reduce the weight by 20% and do as many reps as possible until failure
Drop 2: Reduce the weight by another 20% and do as many reps as possible until failure
• End of session

Drop set workout 2

At the end of your next back and biceps workout, or as the final move of a bicep and triceps session, try this drop set strategy for dumbbell biceps curls.

Set 1: 12 Reps
Set 2: 12 Reps
Set 3: 12 Reps
Drop 1: Pick up the next-lightest part of dumbbells and do as many reps as possible until failure
Drop 2: Pick up the next-lightest part of dumbbells and do as many reps as possible until failure
• End of session

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