Pete McCall by Pete McCall

While some clients hire personal trainers to help them lose weight or increase muscle mass, many are focused on developing sculpted, well-defined muscles. While there are a number of different methods that can help promote muscle growth and increases in muscle definition, one of the most effective methods is called drop setting. Bodybuilders have used this technique for years for one reason—it works. 

Drop setting involves performing an exercise with a specific amount of weight to start. The goal is to do as many reps as possible until momentary fatigue (unable to complete another single rep), rest just long enough to remove some weight (dropping the weight) and then continue to work until another moment of fatigue. To execute an effective drop set, it is important to continue dropping the weight and working until the muscle reaches a point of absolute fatigue. This is the complete inability to perform another repetition, which will ensure enough training stimulus to promote muscle growth. 

Here are four reasons why drop sets work, along with a few ways you can use them to help your clients achieve the gains they are seeking. 

1. Using drop sets to work to fatigue creates mechanical and metabolic fatigue, both of which promote muscle growth.

Metabolic fatigue requires working until a muscle is incapable of performing another rep. When this occurs, the muscle is depleting its stored glycogen leading to acidosis in the blood stream. Acidosis creates damage to individual muscle fibers, which initiates a repair response that results in muscle growth. Furthermore, depleting muscle glycogen increases the muscle’s ability to store more glycogen. One molecule of glycogen can hold 3 to 4 molecules of water, which leads to an increase in muscle volume. 

2. Mechanical fatigue is the structural damage to muscle fibers and is the result of physical work.

When a muscle fiber is damaged, it signals a repair process that results in the production of new satellite cells to repair damaged muscle proteins. As muscle proteins are repaired, they can experience an increase in diameter. This results in thicker muscle fibers that are capable of generating more force. 

3. Increased nervous system activity can help improve levels of definition.

Muscle tone or definition is the state of a semi-contraction of a muscle. Using a muscle repeatedly will enhance motor unit activity in that muscle, and causes the fibers to remain semi-contracted after the exercise session is over. 

4. The high volume of work in a drop set can lead to a short-term increase in the amount of blood in a muscle.

This additional volume results in an enhanced muscle size for a period of hours. If you’re working with a client or teaching a class late in the day on Thursday, Friday or Saturday you can leave your clients or students with a nice little pump for any weekend social outings. 

A proper drop set to complete fatigue can cause discomfort and potentially lead to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Some clients can interpret DOMS as pain, which may provide a reason to stop working with a personal trainer. Physiological change is the result of the body performing more work than it is capable of, and the role of a personal trainer is to help clients become accustomed to being uncomfortable so they can experience results from exercise. If you use drop sets with your clients, prepare them for DOMS and offer them some recovery strategies that can help mitigate post-workout discomfort. 

Drop sets can be performed with dumbbells, barbells, fixed-bar weights or machines: 

  • When using dumbbells, start with one pair and perform as many reps as possible. As soon as fatigue occurs, return the dumbbells to the rack and grab the next lightest pair. 
  • Barbells and weight plates can also be used, but it takes longer to adjust the amount of resistance. Once fatigue is reached with a barbell, set it down, remove one plate from each side of the bar and continue working. It is recommended to load the bar with smaller weights (such as 25-, 10- or 5-pound plates) to provide more opportunity for continuing to exercise. 
  • Fixed-bar weights are usually kept in a triangle-shaped rack, with the heaviest weights on the bottom and the lighter weights toward the top. Fixed-bar weights combine the benefits of using a barbell with the ease of transitioning from one weight to another offered by dumbbells. Simply set the weight in the rack and grab the next (lighter) weight above. 
  • Weight machines are the easiest to perform drop sets with because it is easy to quickly move the pin from one place in the stack to another. 

For clients interested in rapid muscle growth, using drop sets can be an effective strategy to create the necessary overload to initiate physiological changes in the size and shape of the muscle. The best time to use drop sets is at the end of the workout. People always remember the last part of an experience. If the last thing in a workout is a drop set that leaves a muscle fatigue and pumped, clients will likely end their sessions with a very favorable impression of their time spent training with you. 

Due to the high-intensity nature of drop sets, make sure to warn clients they may experience soreness and only use drop sets when the next day will be a complete rest day. For best results and to reduce the amount of soreness a client will experience, limit the use of drop sets to only one or two muscles groups (or movement patterns) per workout.


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