Introduction

Why did I sign up for this?
Why am I STILL squatting?
I can’t do one – more – rep!
2 days later…
Why am I still SO sore?
I can barely walk.
2 weeks later…
Why drop sets WHY?
2 months later…
Why does my butt look so…good 🙂

What’s a drop set?

Drop sets are a fast and furious, effective and evil weight training method straight out of the devil’s own workout nightmare.   The internal dialogue in the introduction recaps many individuals first experience with drops sets.  You can control the post-workout soreness somewhat with the tips I’ll describe below.  To complete one drop Set, perform an exercise with a weight until you can’t perform additional reps, then reduce (“drop”) the weight and continue to perform the exercise.  Here’s a recent drop set of mine:
  • Bench press at 185 pounds – 5x
  • Bench press at 135 pounds – 10x
  • Bench press at   95 pounds – 15x
Watch the first minute of this video for a visual explanation of drop sets.  You can skip the rest and read my explanation of the study referenced below.  The rest of the video compares drop sets to multiple regular sets of weight training indicating that regular sets with rest are better for maximizing strength for the triceps exercise tested, although strength gains were still significant for drop sets. What does this tell us?  If maximizing strength is your top priority and you have time to spare, three regular sets are generally a better option.  If saving time and increasing strength is your goal, drop sets are generally a better option.

Why use drop sets?

Many weight training routines become static.  Three to five sets of three to twelve reps repeated over and over again for a lifetime can bore your body into maintaining strength, but limit your gains and waste your precious time.  I use drop sets when I don’t have the time or energy for a longer normal strength training workout or as a finisher to maximize the stimulus from a workout.
For non-lifters, a rep is performing an exercise one-time like one push-up or bench press.  A set is reps strung together without a break in between like one set of ten push-ups or bench press.

Who should use drop sets?

Drop sets are not for everyone.  I recommend it for two groups.
  • Athletes 
  • Overachievers
Athletes can use drop sets as a change-up to their regular routine or as a finisher for their normal strength training routine.  Overachievers can use drops sets as the minimum effective dose of exercise to achieve maximum results in a short timeframe.  However, drops sets are challenging to perform both physically and mentally.  You will be sore.  Delayed-Onset-Muscles-Soreness (DOMS) is a good indicator you increased the intensity of your normal weight training routine and a reminder to rest and eat more to recover properly.  Most people won’t tradeoff pain for time, unless you pride yourself on obtaining or maintaining a good physique and only have so much time to spare (i.e. overachiever).

Warm-Up

I suggest warming up with whatever exercise you’re performing.  If you’re performing drops sets of squats, complete a few sets of bodyweight squats to loosen up and practice the movement.  Then complete a few reps of weighted squats at your starting weight for the drops sets.  Pay attention to any tightness or potential injury areas.  If something doesn’t feel right when warming up, skip the drop sets.  Adding intensity to a potentially injured area increases the risk of creating a more severe injury.  This simple warm-up assumes you have no injuries or mobility restrictions.

Weights

When using a new technique like drop sets, use lighter weights until you’ve performed the routine a few times to learn the technique safely and limit post-workout soreness.  Before starting each exercise, write down your planned weights.
  • Starting weight = weight you can perform 5-20 reps before failure (ex. 100 pounds)
  • Drop weight #1 = 25-50% less than starting weight (ex. 100 – 25-50 = 50-75 pounds)
  • Drop weight #2 = 50-75% less than starting weight (ex. 100 – 50-75 = 25-50 pounds)

Basic Workout

If you’re a beginner keep things simple to start by using dumbbells and bodyweight movements.  A simple routine is squats which takes less than five minutes to complete after a brief warm-up.
  • Set 1 – Squat with 1 dumbbell until failure.
    • Immediately “drop” that dumbbell and…
  • Set 2 – Squat with bodyweight-only until failure.
“failure” means you squat until you can’t perform any additional reps (i.e. you can’t squat your butt down one more time and get it back up).  If you want to limit your soreness after the workout, stop a few reps short of failure particularly the first time you perform a drop set with an exercise.
If you’re more experienced, experiment with multiple drops sets.
  • Set 1 – Squats with 2 dumbbells until failure
    • Immediately “drop” the 1st of the 2 dumbbells and…
  • Set 2 – Squat with 1 dumbbell until failure.
    • Immediately “drop” the 2nd of 2 dumbbells and…
  • Set 3 – Squat with bodyweight-only until failure.
Pairs of 55, 35, and 20 pound dumbbells showing arrows indicating performing sets with each pair of dumbbells with no break for Drop Sets.

You can use dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, or whatever you can find like water jugs. Complete two to three sets of a single exercise like squats with no break between sets.

Full Body Workout

I like to split upper body horizontal and vertical pushing and pulling movements into separate days.  Each workout takes fifteen minutes to complete after a brief warm-up.

Legs and Horizontal Push/Pull

  • Squats
  • Bench press
  • Row

Core and Vertical Push/Pull

  • Weighted crunches
  • Overhead press
  • Pull-ups or pull-downs
Squats, bench press, row, overhead press and crunches all work as specified above using dumbbells, weight plates, or a machine.  To perform drop sets with pull-ups you’ll add a resistance band instead of dropping weight.  Each resistance band reduces your bodyweight, so you’d perform a normal set of pull-ups followed by more reps with a resistance band optionally followed by more reps with a thicker resistance band.

Frequency

You can overuse drops sets just like any other workout.  I use them once a week per body part max.  Listen to your body.  If you’re sore, I wouldn’t use drop sets for an exercise that will stimulate that muscle. Delayed-Onset-Muscles-Soreness (DOMS) is a good indicator you increased the intensity of your normal weight training routine significantly.  It’s also a reminder to rest more and recover properly.  

How can I practice drop sets?

What are you waiting for?  What do you have that you can lift?
  • Dumbbells
  • Water jugs
  • Wine bottles
Here’s a list of ideas for common objects you can lift.  The key to feeling the effect of drops sets is finding two objects with some weight, preferably five to ten pounds each if you’re new to weight training.
Grab two objects, the same object like two water jugs or two different objects. Practice using the video and instructions below.

Overhead Presses Video

Check out this video to see how to perform drop sets.

Practice with two similar objects

  • Pickup an object in each hand.
  • Complete as many overhead presses as you can.
  • Drop (gently) one of the two objects.
  • Immediately complete as many overhead presses as you can using both hands pressing the one object.
  • Drop the second of the two objects.
  • Immediately complete as many “air” overhead presses by stretching up high overhead as many times as possible.

Practice with two different objects

  • Pick up the heavier object.  
  • Perform as many overhead presses as you can.
  • Drop (gently) the heavier object.
  • Immediately pick up the lighter object.  Perform as many overhead presses as you can.
  • Drop the lighter object.
  • Immediately complete as many “air” overhead presses by stretching up high overhead as many times as possible.
Pairs of 55, 35, and 20 pound dumbbells showing arrows indicating performing sets with each pair of dumbbells with no break for Drop Sets.

If you’re lifting lighter objects like the bottom row of dumbbells or household objects like water jugs, you can lift your bodyweight for the third set if doing squats or crunches or press/pull “air” if doing overhead presses, rows, or even simulated pull-ups.