At its base, a drop set is simply a technique where you perform a weighted resistance training set of any exercise to failure, drop some weight, and then continue the set with that reduced weight to failure, then drop more weight, and so on. But what makes this effective for muscle growth and how can you use? Let's take a look.
If you have been following me for a while you will know that I am generally all about natural movement, focusing on functional fitness first, and often shunning workouts that are mostly for vanity sake. Well today, I am embracing my inner bodybuilder and going full gym rat.
The bodybuilding technique known as the drop set has gone by a bunch of different names, like breakdowns, descending sets, triple-drops, down the rack, strip sets or, my personal favorite, the stripping technique. But despite the different names, they all use the same simple principle: lift one weight until you can't lift it anymore, reduce the weight slightly, and continue lifting. Simple, right? Absolutely. Effective? You bet!
Sidenote: in the book Arnold's Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, the creation of this method is credited to Body Culture magazine editor, Henry Atkins, and it was originally called the "multi-poundage system." That is a pretty accurate name for it but I still prefer the stripping technique.
When to Use Drop Sets
No matter what you call them, drop sets have one main goal and that is to build muscle. There are many ways to build strength, power, and speed while also maintaining a sleak and lean physique, but this is not one of them. If you want to put on muscle mass, this is for you. If you are a sprinter who wants to get stronger but not bigger, this is not for you.
Now that we have that out of the way, the reason why drop sets work so well for muscle gain is due to how effectively they break down muscle tissue. Normally, when you perform a single set to failure, you don't get a chance to activate every fiber in the chosen muscle group. During a limited set, you only recruit the necessary fibers required to lift that particular weight for that particular number of repetitions. But by stripping off some of the weight and then continuing to extend the set, you wind up cumulatively recruiting more and more of what can be thought of as your reserve muscle fibers that only join in the party once the main fibres have been exhausted.
You can think of it like this: drop sets eventually activate the more stubborn or hidden muscle fibers that are deep down in that muscle group. By doing that, you can cause hypertrophy (muscle growth) that isn't achieved with a standard set.