Go Beyond Failure with Dropsets

Failure is temporary. When you can’t eke out another full rep, you have options for continuing. A spotter can help you with a couple of forced reps. You can cheat up reps. You can rest long enough to get another rep. And you can shorten your range of motion for a few more reps. You’ll notice that all of these limit the number of additional reps you can do, often to only one or two. Also, these techniques aren’t practical for every exercise. For example, you’re not going to do forced reps on one-arm dumbbell rows, cheat your walking lunges, or shorten your deadlifts post-failure. The one way to extend a set of every resistance exercise for many more reps is via dropsets.

 DROPSET BASICS 

  • This is the most efficient way to push a set beyond failure when training alone.
  • Try to reach failure with as many reps in each lighter subset as you did in your original subset.
  • When you reach failure with a weight, select a lighter weight and continue the set.
  • Quit if the weight is so light, you can do several more reps than you did in the subset before.

 

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LET IT DROP

Whether you call them descending sets or dropsets, they’re lighter subsets of the original set. For example, let’s say you do a set of pulldowns followed by two dropsets. If you get 10 reps with 170 on the first set, immediately select 150 and knock out another 10. Then, having reached failure with 150, reduce the weight to 120 and eke out a final 10. So you’ve hit 30, pausing only long enough to lighten the load, but that 30 had three failure points (170, 150, and 120). Since it’s the last few reps before failure that most tax the muscles and thus stimulate growth, you’ve effectively tripled the growth factors within one extended set.

In many cases, one or two drops is enough. At other times, you’ll want to keep going. To make certain you’ve fully exhausted your targeted muscles, you may want to end your workout with an extended descending set. Machine exercises with weight stacks, like pushdowns or pulldowns, are ideal for cranking out more than three drops because all you need to do is insert the pin in a higher (lighter) slot each time. Another method for this is going “down the rack”; this means you use a lighter set of dumbbells for each drop, moving along the dumbbell rack as the weights shrink. As long as the gym isn’t too crowded, going down the rack is a great way to end a routine for delts (side laterals), traps (shrugs), or biceps (curls).

A big advantage of dropsets over other set-expanding techniques is the fact that they can be done alone. However, it’s important that you reduce the weight as quickly as possible between subsets, so like a pit stop crew, a spotter or two can make this go faster, sometimes without you even moving. Also, you may need to plan ahead. For example, if you know you’re going to do bench presses with two drops after eight reps with 225, don’t just slide 45s onto each collar. Instead, slide on the exact lighter weights necessary. Plot out your drops ahead of time, so you can get, say, 185 and then 160, by merely stripping weights. And if you have a spotter on each side, this can be done in a few seconds while you lie on the bench.

 

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 DROPSET TIP SHEET 

  • Machine exercises with weight stacks allow you to reduce weights rapidly.
  • Dumbbell and plate-loaded exercises may need preplanning to line up weights for easy access.
  • Plate-loaded exercises may also benefit from one or two spotters to strip weights faster.
  • You may want to do a higher-rep pump-out set of an exercise just after your final lower-rep set.

DROP A BOMBSHELL

So far, we’ve focused on subsets consisting of the same reps with lighter weights. There is another way. After a final low-rep set of an exercise, you may want to immediately follow with a set that is both lighter and has higher reps. For example, if you pyramid up to a maximum four-rep set of shoulder presses with 225, you can strip a plate from each side just afterward and pump out as many reps as possible with 135, getting, say, 17. This taxes your muscles in two distinct ways and ensures that you bring nourishing blood to the targeted area after your strength-focused set.

In fact, dropsets are an excellent way to finish any routine, especially a bad one. Sometimes, for whatever reason, your strength and intensity are not up to snuff. You get near the end of a workout and realize you haven’t accomplished anything that day to stimulate new growth. That’s when an extended descending set can come to the rescue. Three or more drops of your final exercise, perhaps with a trip down the rack or up the weight stack, will guarantee that you finish with a vein-popping pump while you also eke out every last rep you can with several growth-inducing failure points. With descending sets, going lighter can be the key to growing bigger. – FLEX