Intensity Techniques - Drop Sets Method - Coach Mark Carroll

Intensity Techniques – DROP SETS METHOD

Feb 10, 2022
Mark Carroll

In a previous blog I went over the use of one type of intensity technique: the rest pause method. Here’s a little recap on “intensity techniques” – intensity techniques are a TOOL to add another element to your resistance training. Whether it be additional training volume, pushing a muscle past true failure, or just a means to change things up in your training in a phase or week. Intensity techniques, when used correctly, can be a great training tool to add to your arsenal. Again, I will use the word, tool! Not needed every set of every workout.

Now, firstly, what do I mean by an intensity technique?

An intensity technique is a training method or methods, as there are quite a few options. A method to allow you to do one of the following:

  • Extend a working set
  • Take a muscle to true failure and beyond
  • Add additional training volume in a time efficient manner

In this blog, I will cover the second of the top four intensity techniques I use for clients – drop sets!

Drop sets are the most commonly used intensity technique in gyms around the world. As always, people have good intentions of using the drop set method but often struggle with the execution and correct placement of the method.

Let’s dive into drop sets and help you understand how to perform them correctly and also when to use this technique to optimise your training.

Drop Set Method

Let’s begin with the basics…what is a drop set?

A drop set is a method which allows us to extend a working set when we are unable to complete any more reps with a given weight.

With the rest pause method we covered previously, what we did was put the weight down, rest for 15-20 seconds, then pick that SAME weight up and go again with as many reps as we could. We extended the set through the use of a mini rest period, but the weight did not lower. The key to extending the set was a very short rest interval.

Now, with the drop set method we don’t utilise a rest period. We lower the weight immediately then jump back into the working set with the lighter weight.

By using a lighter weight, we can continue performing reps on a fatigued muscle.

Simple enough right?

Now, the question is, why would we use a drop set? The drop set allows us to take a working set to all out failure for a muscle group which will give us training volume when the muscle is in a highly fatigued state. When the muscles are fatigued at the back end of a working set, the velocity of the weight moving slows down involuntarily. When the speed of your rep slows down, this is a sign that our key mechanism to hypertrophy adaptations – mechanical tension is high. Tension within the muscle is greatest near the final few reps of a working set.

By utilising a drop set, we are able to continue the working set, which in turn, allows you to achieve more reps when the muscle is in a highly fatigued state. More training volume, more potential for mechanical tension. The drop to a lighter weight results in more reps being achieved rather than just stopping at the weight previously used. The result is more reps, more mechanical tension, and a potential increase of hypertrophy adaptations.

Sounds good right? Well yes, but also there are pros and cons to this technique. Pushing a muscle to and past failure can also generate a lot of fatigue and stress. This can lead to adaptations, but can also impact recovery and performance. This is why we use these sparingly. As I said earlier, intensity techniques are a tool. To achieve hypertrophy we want to train hard and close to failure, but we don’t actually need to train to all out failure every set or every session. Ideally taking working sets within 1-5 reps of true failure is a good place to be for growth, but when we do really want to push a muscle, a drop set can be a great strategy.

When to use drop sets?

A few things to look at here. What exercises are most suitable? What part of the workout is best suited to drop sets? Do you use these on all working sets of an exercise?

Firstly, what exercises are most suitable? A big part of training a muscle to failure and beyond is choosing the correct exercises to do this on. This is important because: A) some exercises already generate a lot of systemic fatigue and are best not taken to all out failure (e.g. deadlifts), and B) some exercises when severely fatigued can lead to severe technique breakdown and also safety issues.

The goal is to work hard, but work hard on exercises which you can safely push to failure and through technique breakdown, without hurting yourself.

I prefer exercises which are machine based which give you a lot of stability from the machine. For example, a leg extension, leg curl or leg press. Lots of stability and also movements you can safely fail a rep on.

Exercises like a barbell hip thrust or a dumbbell chest press can also be fine for free weights as they are again, exercises you can safely fail reps on.

What part of your workout do you implement drop sets? Well, it depends on the workout. If you are doing say leg extensions first for your quads, before then going into your squats, I would not want to be implementing a drop set in the leg extension first in your workout. This will most likely lead to a severe drop in performance for your squats.

Try to save the drop sets for more the middle-to-end of your workout if you have large compound movements in your workout. Those are hard enough as is. We don’t want to sabotage performance on those by creating severe fatigue earlier.

The end of your session can be a good way to implement a drop set, for example a leg extension to finish your leg day, or a dumbbell lateral raise for shoulders.

Should you use drop sets on all your working sets of an exercise? NO! Save the drop set for the FINAL working set only.

For example, you have 3 sets of leg curl. First 2 sets just do normal sets, then, on your third and final working set implement the drop set method! Take the final set to failure. When no more reps can be achieved, then immediately lower the weight and extend the working set.

Now that we have those points covered. The final take home point for understanding drop sets is a crucial one:

How much weight do you drop for the drop set?

This matters!

We don’t want to be using 100kg on a hip thrust for 10 reps, for example, then drop down to 50kg – a 50% drop. That would result in you doing your hard 10 reps to failure for the 100kg. Then, the 50% drop would mean you would be doing 20+ reps to just get close to failure. Not what we want!

Likewise, we don’t want to do 100kg, then drop 5kg off the bar and immediately try to do more reps again. Most likely, you will only be able to achieve 1-2 more reps which is not significant enough here.

The key to a successful drop set is getting the percentage drop right.

What I recommend always is a 20% drop in weight.

For example, you did 100kg for 10 reps, then your drop will be 20% – 20kg

You will then immediately perform 80kg for as many reps as possible.

What a 20% drop will look like is the ability to get close to the same initial rep target but not quite there. I ideally want a client to be able to achieve 60-80% of the initial rep target.

So for our example set of 10 reps at 100kg, I want the client to now be able to drop the weight to a level they are able to achieve a further 6-8 reps roughly. Not more reps than the intended working set number. Not way less reps.

The 20% drop will almost always result in you being able to successfully achieve that rep goal!

So there you go! The drop sets method broken down in what I really hope is a simple and digestible takeaway for you to implement in your training.

Just remember, these are tools!

The right tool for the right job is always key!

But when you use it, use it well!


Coach Mark Carroll