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What are Drop Sets?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated: Feb 21, 2024

Drop sets are a popular weightlifting technique used by bodybuilders to increase muscle mass. The process works by initially exercising a muscle group with a heavy weight to the point of exhaustion, then continuing the exercise at a lower weight without rest. Drop sets are effective in building up muscle size, a phenomenon known as hypertrophy, but the benefit is largely cosmetic and not especially effective for strength training. For athletes outside of the bodybuilding world, weight training is done primarily to increase strength and endurance, and a sharp increase in muscle mass can be counterproductive. Drop sets also are known by names such as breakdowns, descending sets, down the rack, running the rack, up the stack, stripping technique, triple-drops, burnouts and strip sets.

To be effective, drop sets should begin at a high weight, near the weightlifter’s limit for the muscle group being targeted. While taking care to maintain good form throughout the set, the weightlifter performs the exercise until he or she is unable to go on. The weight is then quickly reduced, and the exercise continues until the weightlifter again cannot continue. Weight is reduced again, and the weightlifter once more completes as many repetitions as possible. This process can be repeated as many times as is desired, limited only by the availability of smaller weights and the stamina of the weightlifter.

It is necessary to quickly change weights, so weight machines frequently are used for drop sets, but with a little planning and perhaps some help, free weights and dumbbells also can be used. Trainers generally recommend that weight reduction for each set should be in the range of 15 percent to 20 percent in what is known as a tight set. Wide sets, those in which the weight is reduced by 30 percent or more, are much easier to perform but lack some of the intensity of a tight set. Wide sets are recommended for exercises of large muscle groups, such as leg presses and squats, for which cardiovascular fatigue is likely to affect performance.

Weightlifters should take care to avoid overtraining with drop sets. It is recommended that drop sets should be performed no more than once or twice a week and should not be used for more than one or two exercises in any workout. As fatigue sets in, bodybuilders run a greater risk of using incorrect form during an exercise, making injury more likely. Apart from the risk of injury, overtraining actually can reduce mass by overstressing and damaging muscle tissue.

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