Whole body training and standard multiple sets has been found to be one of the most beneficial training stimuli to promote muscle growth. There comes a point within the training cycle though that in order to promote progression and even help with exercise adherence, more advanced training methods are used.
In order to promote overload in the advanced client, repeated stimulus protocols are beneficial. One such advanced protocol is that of the drop set – a method not formulated within the lab like many others, instead developing within the bodybuilding community.
Drop sets help to create an environment within the muscle that increases metabolic stress. This in turn leads to cell swelling and muscle damage that triggers both satellite cell proliferation and a hormonal cascades that deliver a number of growth factors to the muscle cell. The most important outcome, is that when combined, hypertrophy occurs – your bigger muscle tissue. It is a hard and sometimes brutal way of training, but for the advanced lifter offers a great plateau-breaking stimulus.
In this short article I introduce two methods of performing this training system- the traditional drop set and the mechanical drop set.
Traditional drop sets
This method uses a multi-set, repeated stimulus with strategic decreases in weight in order to maximize muscle fiber recruitment and increase fatigue. The system is performed using one individual exercise.
Originally introduced as the ‘multi-poundage system’ by Henry Atkins, editor of Body Culture magazine in 1947, drop sets were brought to the attention of the mainstream bodybuilding masses by Arnold Schwarzenegger. It uses a multi-set approach in order to activate dormant motor units and muscle fibers that wouldn’t otherwise be engaged in standard training – it’s a bit of a wake up call to the muscle fibers that are happy to sit in the background.
The protocol suggests that the participant chooses a weight for their given exercise that will allow them to complete approximately 10-12 reps to fatigue. Once this has been accomplished, 15-20% of that weight is immediately removed from the bar (or dumbbells exchanged etc.) and the participant continues with the same exercise until again they reach failure. This process is repeated until the participant cannot do any more or the weight reduces down to its minimum.
The minimum number of sets is usually three – referred to as a ‘triple drop set’ – , but you can ‘drop’ as many times as you want – the more sets you complete to exhaustion, the more muscle damage you create. As fatigue sets in, irradiation occurs – this means that muscles surrounding the target muscle become more active and this can lead to a loss of technique. As with any type of lifting you must put technique first to get the best results.
Mechanical Drop Sets
This training method uses a repeated stimulus with strategic changes to mechanical intensity in order to maximize muscle fiber recruitment and increase fatigue. Typically it is performed on one exercise with changes to lever length and body position rather than load, however reducing complexity across a range of similar exercises is also acceptable.
This method is similar to traditional drop sets in that you use a multi-set approach in order to activate dormant motor units and muscle fibers that wouldn’t otherwise be engaged in standard training. However, rather than dropping the weight used each set, you make a small change to the mechanical leverage of the exercise– the execution of the movement gets somewhat easier in order to allow you to complete more reps with the same weight. The more subtle the change in position the better – slight variations of a single exercise work really well.
The benefits of adapting the leverage of the exercise are numerous. Firstly it allows more volume per muscle to be completed which subsequently increases muscle damage. It also allows (in some cases) to change the ’angle of pull’ due to the change in dominant muscle pennation and/or body position– this is great for working multiple muscle fibers/angles.
Here are a few examples of mechanical drop sets that work really well:
Drop sets are a great way of promoting overload in the more advanced lifter. They increase total volume in a given time and create a metabolic environment that ramps up muscle damage. This is a great stimulus for muscle growth.
By ‘hitting’ the muscle over a longer period of time, heart rate and breathing rate will also increase and large amounts of fatigue are induced as the body’s energy stores are decreased. Through a process of ‘excess post-exercise oxygen consumption’ (the period of time that your metabolism is increased after an exercise session), it is also possible to get a great cardio/fat burning workout from doing this too.