Fitness in the weight room: Getting to the next level with drop sets

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One of the things that seem to be big in fitness these days is variety. Changing workouts. “Muscle confusion.” There is some merit to shaking things up and breaking out of the same routine, especially if that routine is something you’ve been following for months on end.

But does that mean you need to totally change your workout plan? Not necessarily.

If you’re hitting a plateau but don’t want to re-engineer an entire workout, there is something simple you can do to help bust through that barrier: Add drop sets.

The drop set is the ultimate finisher. It’s quick, easy and will blow you out in a good way. Best of all, if you’re lifting with intensity, drop sets will help get you to the next level.

So what is it? It goes like this:

1. Select an exercise. Your target is a set number of reps. In this case, we’ll say your drop set will have 30 reps.

2. Choose a weight in which it will be hard to get more than 10 reps. Do that exercise as many times as you can WITH GOOD FORM until you can do no more. Then quickly drop to the next lightest weight and keep going. Do not rest; immediately begin lifting again once the weight change is done. Keep dropping weight and repping until you hit 30. Then the drop set is done!

So it might be that with your initial weight, you get 8 reps. You drop it down 10 pounds and get 7 more. Then you go down another 10 pounds and eke out 6 reps before dropping another 10 pounds and grind out the last 9 reps. At this point, the target muscles should feel like jelly.

I prefer to do drop sets as the last thing I do on a particular body part during that workout. It’s a great way to finish, and since you’re already fatigued the ego factor of wanting to push big weight is out the window.

So how might this work? I find with most exercises, machines actually work best (rare for me to admit when it comes to weight training). The reason: It’s easier and quicker to switch weights on a machine than it is to change plates. And there are some exercises that are not conducive to drop sets.

Here’s how I break it down:

Chest: Pec deck. Simple when it comes to changing weights and it’s safe under fatigue. You could also do cable flies.

Back: This is a tough one, but lat pulls or seated machine rows work best here. You could also do one-hand cable rows.

Shoulders: Logic would advise a shoulder press machine, but here is where we go back to free weights. Run the rack with dumbbell lateral delt flies, go slow and don’t break form. Using momentum to lift the weight should be avoided.

Biceps: You could run the rack with standing dumbbell bicep curls or, for greater efficiency, have a seat on the preacher curl machine.

Triceps: Cable push-downs. Hands down.

Quads: Leg extensions. Safe, stable and isolating.

Hamstrings: Seated or lying hamstring curls, again on the machine.

There are some exercises which I believe are NOT suitable for drop sets. Repping to fatigue or failure on them could lead to injury, especially at the tail end of a workout. Among those I’d include any kind of barbell bench press or dumbbell press, any kind of squat, any form of deadlift, and all Olympic lifts. I’d also steer clear of leg presses, though they are not as risky as the ones previously mentioned.

In any case, these exercises should be the core of what you do in a workout, not a finisher.

You might also notice I left out calves and abs. Abs are a whole other animal, so they’re not going to be a part of this for a lot of reasons (“abs” entail various muscles in the trunk that need to be exercised in different ways, and if you really want to work them, mix repped ab work with various planking exercises). Machine calf raises could be worked into a drop set form, but if you’re doing any sort of cross-training or running those calves are going to get hammered anyway. I’d say only a bodybuilder would truly be interested in finding a way to work drop sets into calf work.

Those thoughts aside, what I really like about the drop set is it will spur meaningful muscle growth no matter what your strength-training goal is. So give it a shot. Let me know what you think.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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