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Ascending Drop Sets Live Tutorial Transcript

The transcript of my live Facebook session breaking down my Full-Body Ascending Drop Sets technique.

ascending drop set tutorial

Note: This tutorial video was recorded as a live Facebook event. The text below is an edited transcript of the tutorial intended to provide members with a convenient means of referring to and further researching the topics and content detailed in the video.


I'm going to be talking about this week's Train with Jim technique, and that is what I call my Ascending Drop Sets.

Now, what's so unique about this technique is the ascending part. With drop sets—you guys are well aware of the typical drop sets that I typically apply in my workouts, where the rule is after you've reached failure on that set you immediately reduce the weight by somewhere around 20-30% and then you continue doing reps until failure. Then you keep doing that as many times as you like. 

So, with a drop set, the term "drop set" isn't dropping the weight out of your hands but dropping the weight down as far as how much weight you're using. You're lowering, dropping weight—going lower. With "ascending" being contradictory to drop sets, you might be wondering, "How the heck are we going to get this done?"

Ascending Drop Sets Explained

The breakdown of Ascending Drop Sets—I'm going to show you here on the board Workout 2 just to run down a typical workout. I won't go through each of these exercises. As a matter of fact, this is the cable version—I'm in my new JYM where I don't have any cable equipment in yet. I'm just getting equipment coming in now, so right now I've got dumbbells and free weights. So I'll show you, with some free weight moves, how to do this technique.

Just as an example, I'll walk you through what a typical workout breakdown is. Remember, this is using a full-body style of training where we're training each muscle group—chest, back, leg, shoulders, traps, calves, triceps, biceps, forearms, and abs.

Now, the actual sets—the actual Ascending Drop Set technique—and we'll just be doing one of these per exercise, because really technically it's three sets—I have quotations around "sets" because they're truly not sets; not what you would consider a set where you're doing 20 reps, and then you may rest a minute, 2 minutes, maybe 3 minutes, then you're going to do Set 2. 

Even though you see "drop sets" down here, the drop sets are really these three "sets". So what you're going to do is you're going to pick up a weight—let's say we're doing cable crossover, Exercise 1—you're going to select a weight of the cable crossover that allows you to complete 20 reps, right around 20 reps, to failure. You want to go to failure or close to failure in 20 reps. You're not just going to select a weight, do 20 reps then stop. You want to select a weight that limits you to right around 20 reps. 

Once you've hit failure on "Set 1", you're immediately going to put the weight down—cable crossover, so you're going to allow the handles to go back, or the weight stack to go back—and then you're immediately going to increase the weight enough to do 10 reps. 

Now, remember, you've already done 20 reps to fatigue so you're fatigued. The typical weight that you're going to use for 10 reps on cable crossovers is not going to be the weight you're going to be using for this 10 reps, because you're literally putting the weight down and then immediately increasing the weight. You're fatigued, so you may only need a 5 or a 10lbs increase to get to these 10 reps because, again, you're fatigued.

So after 20 reps, return the cables back to the start position, increase the weight, and immediately go for "Set 2" of cable crossovers. Here, the weight you selected should limit you to right around 10 reps. You hit failure there, "Set 3", again you immediately put the cables down and increase the weight again to limit you to 5 reps. Now, this is where you can end it. For those of you who have less than, say, a full year of training experience, you could end it right there in the 5-rep set and then move on to the next exercise—in this case, we're doing straight-arm pulldowns. 

Adding Classic Drop Sets

For those of us with a little more training experience like myself, this is how I do it: I do Set 1 to 20 reps, immediately put the weight down, add enough weight to then do 10 reps, immediately put the weight down, add enough weight on Set 3 to do 5 reps. Once I hit failure with the 5 reps, I then immediately go to my Set 2 weight and do as many reps as I can—here's where your true drop sets are—and then, after hitting failure with that weight, I go to Set 1 weight, that I've already done 20 reps with, and do that to failure. Clearly, I'm not going to be getting anywhere close to 20 reps. 

So you're basically ascending and then descending. It's like an ascending and descending pyramid all in basically drop set fashion, where you're not really resting that long. So it's quick, it's brutal, and it's effective. When you're training each and every muscle group, that full-body workout is really going to spur metabolism, get fat loss going in addition to helping you to spur muscle growth. 

Conditioning, Strength, Size—Ascending Drop Sets Does it All

Now, what you'll find here is this isn't just about intensity. You'll notice some numbers, right? Numbers are important. With Set 1, we're going for 20 reps, okay? Well, that set basically serves as your warm-up. Those first 5-10 reps that you're going to be doing aren't going to be much of a challenge, so this serves as a perfect warm-up. You really don't even need to do a warm-up set for any of these exercises because Set 1 serves as your warm-up on those early reps. 

With the 20 reps, most people don't push themselves to do 20 reps that often. You're probably, usually working out somewhere in the 5-rep, 10-rep, maybe 12, maybe 15 max—rarely do you see people walking in the gym and deciding to do 20 reps, unless they're following one of my workouts. So this 20 rep set is going to serve as your warm-up and it's going to take you out of your comfort zone. 

Your muscles, pecs—if you're doing the cable crossover—aren't used to doing 20 reps in a row. So, again, this is a great way to spur new muscle growth, push the muscles in your body past its comfort level. And what we find with those higher-rep sets is that they're great for spurring muscle growth. 

Now, remember, we've seen research—and I've talked about research on rep ranges and weight used, and instigating muscle protein synthesis in the muscle which is at least a snapshot of what's going on in the muscle as far as anabolic processes. If you can increase muscle protein synthesis more with one technique over the other you're more apt to sort of lean toward the one that instigates greater muscle protein synthesis. 

What does the research show when we compare a 20-rep set to a 5-rep set? Pretty much the same thing, as long as each one of these is going to failure. It really doesn't matter on the rep range as far as instigating muscle protein synthesis, it depends on whether or not you took that set to failure.

So as long as you're going to failure here with 20 reps, it's instigating muscle protein synthesis just as well as 10-rep sets, just as well as 5-rep sets—and, based on the research, possibly even better because it's instigating other processes in that protein synthetic pathway that the other rep ranges don't activate as much. So it's a great way to boost muscle growth, endurance as well, conditioning, and like I said a warm-up set and pushing you out of that comfort zone. 

Set 2, we're in the 10-rep range—you know that sweet spot all the bodybuilders use. In fact, my Shortcut to Size program was designed to teach people to get out of this 10-rep range. What the research shows is that rep range tends to be the ideal range for muscle hypertrophy, instigating muscle growth. However, that's not true if you're always using the rep range. Your body will adapt, start stagnating, and that 8-10 rep range becomes pretty much useless. You need to change up your rep ranges, but that 10-rep range is still that sweet spot for muscle growth. 

So, we've got 20 reps as our warm-up—pushing us out of our comfort zone, increasing muscle endurance, instigating muscle hypertrophy—then we're getting right into the sweet spot on this next one with 10 reps, really muscle hypertrophy. Then on the third one, we go down to 5 reps. Well, your 5-rep range puts you in that muscle strength rep range, which is ideal for instigating muscle strength gains. So you're sort of getting all the benefits here—muscle strength, muscle hypertrophy, conditioning, endurance, fat loss—with my Ascending Drop Set technique.

That's why you see the rep ranges—20, 10, 5—being used here, not just a way to challenge the muscles randomly but we're challenging with specific rep ranges so that not only are we increasing our intensity for the workout but we're also getting the benefits of those specific rep ranges. It's the way I design my workouts—not just designed to be hard but designed to provide certain benefits that you want to achieve. 

Applying Ascending Drop Sets to Full-Body Training

Let's take a look at a sample workout, now, using my Ascending Drop Set technique. Remember, like I said, we do this technique once for each muscle group. When I design my full-body workouts, I typically use ten exercises, hitting each of the ten major muscle groups, and as I've already gone through those are: Chest, back, legs, shoulders, traps, calves, triceps, biceps, forearms, and abs—pretty much all your major muscle groups. 

You can talk about legs here if you want to break down hamstrings and quadriceps, but with most of the leg exercises that I'm using they tend to be multi-joint exercises—step-up, in this case, the squat, the deadlift, lunges—they're using both quadriceps and hamstrings, so we could just call them legs or thighs. We're really looking at maybe 11 different muscle groups here, but I'm breaking it down into 10 since quads and hamstrings tend to get focused together—although yes, I do like Romanians where you're really removing the quadriceps from the picture, but we'll just call that legs. 

So, as I explained, you're getting the cable crossover, right; you'll do the 20 reps, immediately put the weight down, add weight, do the 10 reps to failure, immediately put it down, do the 5 reps. Then depending on your training experience, if you're more of a beginner you're going to move on to the next exercise—this case, for back, with straight-arm pulldowns—if you have more experience like myself, after hitting failure on those 5 reps you're going to then drop the weight back to that Set 2 weight, do as many reps as you can immediately to failure. Then once you hit failure there, you're going to go to that Set 1 weight, do as many reps as you can, again, to failure. That's when you're then going to move from chest on to back.

Ascending Drop Sets and Single-Limb Movements

Now, a few things I want to talk about specifically with weight selection and exercise selection. Most of the exercises that you'll be using during this program are bilateral moves: Cable crossover, using both arms; bench press, both arms; squat, both legs; barbell curl, both arms. Occasionally, you're going to see a single-limb exercise, mainly for the legs here—for example, the step-up, right? We can only do one leg at a time while you're doing a step-up. 

So what do you do when you have two limbs to train using my Ascending Drop Set technique? I basically do it—and you can do this any way you like, you have two versions: You could either do one leg or one arm at a time, 20 reps for that—let's say we start with our right leg on the step-up here—do 20 reps with that right leg, then immediately do 20 reps with the left leg. 

Once you're done with the left leg, you immediately go back to the right leg but now you're going to increase the weight to do just 10 reps on that right leg. Once you've hit failure on the right leg, you go to the left leg for 10 reps. Once you hit failure for 10 reps on the left leg, back to the right leg—now you're increasing the weight again to 5 reps. Then you go back to the left leg, do another 5 reps with the left leg. For those with less training experience, that's the end of the set for you.

For those of you who are going to do the drop sets in addition to these ascending drop sets—now, here you're going to get more rest because you're doing one leg, getting a rest doing the other leg, then going back—these are more like real sets, because you're getting a break in between, so you'll be able to use more weight here than you are accustomed to when you're doing the bilateral movements. Not more weight, but you'll find that the detriment in the weight that you have to use is less than what you used in the bilateral because you're getting a bit of a rest. 

So you can use more weight for 10 reps, at least closer to your true 10-rep max for that one-arm or leg exercise than when you do bilateral because you're not really getting any rest—you're just doing 20 reps, dropping the weight, 10 reps—here you're getting a bit of a rest for each of those legs. So you'll be able to go a bit heavier. 

A Word on Weight Selection

The other thing that I'll talk about is what if you don't select the proper weight, right? You're going to be doing each one of these exercises just once. So, cable crossover you go in—you're guesstimating how much you can do for 20 reps, right? Even if you know exactly what you did for 20 reps last week, well guess what—this week you might be stronger, you might be weaker—that same weight might not take you to failure at exactly 20 reps. It's okay, we have to do some guesstimation during most of our workout. 

So if you fail to select a heavy enough weight and you find that you're getting close to 19-20 reps, don't just put the weight down and then move on—go to failure. Even if it's 30, it's fine. Don't worry about it. You'll just know that you need to bump it up more than you probably expected for the next round for 10 reps. 

It's the same—if you get 20 reps exact on that first set, and then you get to Set 2 and you choose a weight and it's too heavy, it's fine if you only get 8 reps. It's fine. Just try your best to do more reps than the third set on Set 2, and try your best to do more reps than 10 reps on Set 1.

You're going to find you're hitting failure on this 20-rep set. Then you're immediately going to another set for the same exercise but only getting 10 reps. Now, on some exercises, you may find that after doing 20 reps, putting the weight down—just putting the weight down and picking it back up, being that fatigued—you're now only going to be able to get 10 reps. 

So you will find that, like on cable crossovers as I was talking about here, after going to failure—let's say you put 20lbs on each side to do your 20 reps. Well, on the selectorized weight, the next weight increase might be 30lbs. There might not even be a 25lbs to go up to. So if you go up to 30lbs after doing 20lbs for 20 reps, and you're like, "Shoot, I'm not going to be able to get 10 reps here," it's okay. Get as many reps as you can for whatever the weight jump allows. 

For example, dumbbells: Dumbbells go up by 5lbs increments. That's 5lbs per arm if you're doing two arms a time, you're really increasing the weight by 10lbs total. If you're doing a dumbbell bench press, you're increasing 5 in the left, 5 in the right—if that were a barbell, that would be a 10lbs increase. 

You may find that when you're doing the dumbbell workouts—let's say you're doing flyes with dumbbells—after you've hit 20 reps, going up to those next 5lbs dumbbells you may not be able to complete 10 reps. You may find it's too heavy. That's fine, just make sure you increase the weight for Set 2 and do as many reps as you can. Then on Set 3 increase the weight more than Set 2, and again do as many reps as you can. 

That's really the true gist of this program. It's not the specific rep—again, as I mentioned, yeah we're shooting for these rep ranges for a certain reason, for the physiological benefit that we get on each of these rep ranges—but again, the real gist of this program is the ascending technique, where you're doing high reps, then you're going to increase the weight a bit without any rest, doing lower reps on the next one, then increasing it again a bit and doing fewer reps on that next one. That's really the real magic to this technique, not nailing 20 reps exact, 10 reps, and 5 reps—it's that increase in that increment without the rest period.

Make the Workouts Your Own!

Last thing I'll do is I'll give you a little demo, and again I'm showing you Workout 2 here. Workout 1 is barbell focused. Workout 3 is dumbbell focused, I believe. I'm really stuck here with barbells and dumbbells, so even though I'm showing you the cable-focused workout, I'm going to do a demo—I'll do some dumbbell curls for you. 

I want to also say, before I do the demo, that the exercises are not important. If you get to Workout 2 and you're like, "I don't want to do cables today. Do I have to do all cable exercises? It's a good concept, Jim, I like what you're showing me but I don't have cables. I train at home, what can I do?" or "The cables are always busy on Tuesday at my gym, what can I do?" It doesn't matter what you do. 

Remember, like I said, we're using ten different muscle groups. Choose any exercise you prefer. You don't have to do the exact exercises that I'm doing. I'm just trying to show you different styles and showing you different exercise selection. Typically when I'm showing you a new technique like Ascending Drop Sets, my workouts, if you pull up—like I said, if you go to JimStoppani.com—pull up the Ascending Drop Sets article, scroll down you'll see the five workouts that I have for the week and I break them up into those blocks: All barbell, all dumbbell, all cable. It's just a concept to show you different exercises that you can use.

You don't have to use those exercises. You don't have to go from barbell in Workout 1 to Cable in Workout 2, to Dumbbells in Workout 3. You can mix it up. Barbell work—do bench press for chest, even in Workout 2, followed by straight-arm pulldown. Then instead of cable step-ups, do dumbbell step-ups. Rear delt cable flye? Use Dumbbells, or even do face pulls. It's up to you. 

Straight-arm pushdown for lower traps, you can do straight-arm dips, or you could even do upper trap work or middle trap work. It's really up to you. The exercises aren't that important. However, if you're doing the full-body program as I'm doing, you want to make sure you hit one exercise for each of those major muscle groups. 

Split-Style Ascending Drop Sets

The other thing that I'll also say here before I give you that little demo is you don't have to do this full-body style. You can use this same technique for a split routine. So let's take my Shortcut to Size program, not the technique just the workout split. We have chest and triceps in Workout 1, right? So, if you're going to do your chest and triceps workout with Ascending Drop Sets, you're going to choose more than one chest exercise, right?

So let's say you choose four chest exercises, and then three triceps exercises. Let's say you're doing pre-exhaust, you want to do the cable crossover first. You're going to do this technique with the cable crossover, finish—whether you're stopping at the 5-rep Set 3 or you're doing the drop sets, you're done with the cable crossover. 

Then you move on to the next exercise; maybe it's the dumbbell bench press. You do the technique—Set 1, 20 reps; Set 2, 10 reps; Set 3, 5 reps; then you can do the drop sets if you like. Your second exercise then is done. Move on to the third exercise for chest, do all that, then to the fourth, then you move on to the triceps. You could use this technique whether you're using full-body training like I'm using it here, or doing a split routine. It's all about the technique. I'm just showing you how to use it for a full-body program.

Demonstrating with Dumbbell Curls

So, let's go—like I said, I'm going to use dumbbell curls—I'm going to have to guesstimate what I can do about 20 reps with. I've got some biceps tenderness so I'm going to go a little on the light side. Let's see, 20 reps, let's call it 25lbs. Then, I'm probably—after hitting failure there—like I said, 10 reps for me on biceps curls, I've got to be using at least 50lbs to get 10 reps. However, here with this technique after doing the 25lbs for 20 reps, I'm not going to be able to be anywhere close. So I'm just going to move up to 30lbs for my 10-rep set, and that might be too heavy depending on the fatigue. Then I'll go to 35lbs for the 5. 

So again, you're not—you'd think 5 reps for me with 35lbs, I should be able to bang out probably not quite 20 reps with 35lbs but maybe 15 or so, at least. By the time I get here I'm going to be doing 5 reps. Alright, let's start it off, 25lbs. And 20, but I could do a few more, I'm a little light so like I said go till you hit failure or close there. I'll stop at 22. 

Now, you're not really going to rest. You're going to go right up in weight—so I went 25lbs, I'm pretty fatigued—with 30lbs, now, 10 reps should be a challenge. Perfect weight, see that? And then I'm going to go right up to 35lbs for 5 reps. Biceps are really fatigued now, made it to 5. Now I'll go right into those standard drop sets going back to my Set 2 weight. Let's see how many reps I can do. One more drop, down to my Set 1 weight. 

Done. So, a matter of minutes, but a great biceps pump, fatigue, the burn—it's phenomenal, and I hit all three of those rep ranges: 20 reps, 10 reps, 5 reps, did the drop set. You really feel this one. For those of you—I know a few of you have already started on this workout and posted, yes it's brutal—for those of you waiting to start with me tomorrow, as you see here you can expect a great pump, great burn, and a great challenge, as well as great results.

Questions? Check in with Me and the JYM Army

So I'll see you throughout the week, guys. I'll be posting tips about the workouts that I'm doing. We'll be talking about the little things that we find that help. Make sure you head to the JYM Army Facebook group page because a lot of your peers that are following this workout and have already done it are going to have a lot of the answers to the questions that you have. 

The Train with Jim Series

Thanks for joining me guys. Thanks for training with me in my Train with Jim series. For those of you who are still unfamiliar with what Train with Jim series is, it's my personal workouts that I'm delivering to you every day. You get the technique, you get my tips, you get the motivation, you get to train with me, you get the workouts. JimStoppani.com, Train with Jim runs on all my social media pages. There's no way to not get the results you should be. Train with Jim, guys, and as always stay JYM Army Strong.

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