Log In
Challenge-banner Challenge-banner-mobile

Drop Sets

Master muscle growth with our Drop Set Master Class. Learn to intensify workouts and build muscle effectively with our expert guide on implementing drop sets strategically in your routine for optimal strength and size gains.

drop sets

How To Do Drop Sets

Training past muscle failure to ramp up intensity and add muscle mass.

Drop Sets Key Points

  • The classic training technique known as drop sets is a great way to increase workout intensity and spark muscle growth.
  • A drop set involves taking a given weight to failure on a lifting exercise, then immediately decreasing the resistance by roughly 20% to 30% and repping to failure with the lighter weight without resting. 
  • In most cases, drop sets should be limited to the last one or two sets of an exercise to avoid overtraining. 
  • Drop sets can be incorporated into a workout in many different ways; an example of this is my Drop Set Countdown program. 

One of the biggest keys to building muscle is your training intensity – pushing your muscles to the point of fatigue (failure), and beyond. 

A simple and highly effective way to train past failure and maximize intensity in a workout is a technique known as the drop set. Bodybuilders and other athletes have been using drop sets for many decades to spark muscle growth and bring up lagging body parts like the biceps, quadriceps, deltoids, and pecs. In this Master Class, I’ll teach you how to use drop sets to add lean muscle to your own frame.

What is a Drop Set? 

A drop set is an intensity-boosting training technique where, at the end of a set on a given exercise, after reaching muscle failure, you immediately decrease the weight by anywhere from 20% to 30% and continue doing reps with the lighter weight until reaching failure again. That 20% to 30% weight reduction and the ensuing set is one drop set. Depending on the exercise and how fatigued the target muscles are, that drop set can end up being a few reps or as many as 8-10. 

After reaching failure on the drop set, you can do another drop set by repeating the process – decreasing the weight by 20% to 30% and going to failure. A typical drop set protocol would call for one to three drop sets. 

I want to emphasize that there should be no rest taken during drop sets – that’s what makes it so intense. When you reach failure on the initial training weight, you want to decrease the weight as quickly as possible and go right into the drop set. What you don’t want to do is set the weight down, take a 10-15-second (or longer) break, and then lighten the weight and start repping out again. If you do that, intensity is dramatically reduced, taking away the whole point of the technique. 

Drop Sets Step-By-Step Overview

To illustrate exactly how to perform drop sets, I’ll offer a very simple example using the cable biceps curl. As I’ll explain later in the article, cable exercises work well for drop sets because you’re able to change the weight very quickly by simply moving a pin up the weight stack. I’ll also use a training weight of 100 pounds to make the math easy. Let’s say you’re doing four sets of 10 reps on the exercise and incorporating drop sets on only the last set. Here’s how you’ll do it:

  1. On the last set of cable biceps curls, take the initial weight (100 pounds) all the way to muscle failure (10 reps, give or take).
  2. Immediately move the pin on the weight stack to 80 or 70 pounds (20% or 30%), and rep out to failure with the lighter weight. How many reps you do on the drop set is unimportant; it could be two reps, five reps, or whatever. Just make sure you go to failure.
  3. Optional: After reaching failure on the drop set, immediately reduce the weight another 20% to 30% – to between 55 or 65 pounds if you were at 80 pounds, or between 50 and 55 pounds if you were at 70 – and rep out to failure once again. You can do one drop set if you like (down to 40 or 30 pounds on the stack), and then the set is complete.

The Science Behind Drop Sets

Drop sets are effective because they push your muscles beyond the point of fatigue. Doing so creates a biochemical milieu inside the muscle cells that stimulates an elevated response of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) in the muscles to create an anabolic environment and promote size increases. 

Drop sets boost workout intensity and the time under tension of the target muscle dramatically – versus stopping every set upon reaching failure, or even stopping short of failure. This level of intensity can also help to break down muscle fibers, creating microscopic tears in the tissue. Don’t worry, this isn’t a bad thing, and here’s why: When the muscles recover with sufficient rest and nutritional support (ie, protein) they grow bigger and stronger in the process.

How Often to do Drop Sets

As with any intensity technique, you don’t want to use drop sets too often; if you do, the muscles will adapt to the stress, and muscle growth will stagnate. Use them in your workout routine for periods of 4-8 weeks, then return to straight sets or a different intensity technique for a while (at least 4-8 weeks) before adding drops sets back into your routine.

How Many Drop Sets To Do

I typically recommend doing drop sets only on the last set of an exercise. This is because if you add drop sets in earlier sets, the fatigue will force you to drastically lower the weight on the successive sets that follow to stay within your prescribed rep range. Most of the time, I only prescribe 1-3 drop sets on an exercise, but in certain situations I’ll program more drop sets per exercise – as with my Drop Set Countdown program on JimStoppani.com.

Keep in mind that Drop Set Countdown is only for intermediate and advanced lifters, and it’s only a four-week program. Even for advanced individuals, I recommend taking at least a week or two off from intensity techniques after completing Drop Set Countdown. 

A good rule of thumb is to do drop sets on only one exercise per muscle group in a workout and only on the last one or two sets of that exercise. 

How to Choose the Right Weights on Drop Sets

When first starting out, knowing how much to reduce weight on drop sets takes some trial and error. If you’re only able to do one or two reps on your first drop set of an exercise, you probably didn’t decrease the weight enough. Yet, if you failed at, say, 10 reps on the initial weight but then got more than 10 reps on the drop set, you lightened the weight too much.

The goal of a drop set is to be close to completing as close to as many reps as the initial as possible. If you failed at 12 reps originally and then got somewhere between 6 and 12 reps on your drop sets, that’s about right. If you’re not able to complete at least half as many reps as the initial set, you didn’t reduce the weight enough for your drop set. So using our initial set of 12 reps, that would be 5 or fewer reps.

Use this as a general guide, but don’t worry too much if you’re not hitting the drop set rep range sweet spot – especially when you’re doing multiple drop sets. The most important point to drop sets, is taking them to muscle failure.

Don’t overthink it here. As long as you’re taking each drop set to failure, you’re doing it right, even if your rep counts were a little high or a little low. Maybe you’ll want to tweak your weight selection on subsequent drop sets or workouts, but the ultimate goal here is intensity, not hitting specific numbers on a drop set (unless a program specifically calls for that).

Best Equipment for Drop Sets

As I stated earlier, to keep intensity high it’s important to decrease the weight as quickly as possible so that the time between reaching failure on the previous weight and starting your drop set is only a matter of a few seconds or so. Because time is of the essence, equipment that allows you to swiftly change the weight are most conducive to doing drop sets.

Machine and cable exercises fall into this category, but dumbbell and resistance band moves can too if set up properly. 

With machines and cables, the resistance is provided by a weight stack where you change the resistance simply by moving a metal pin up and down the stack and putting it into the hole of the weight you want. This can literally take one or two seconds if you really want it to. 

If you want to do drop sets on a dumbbell exercise and change the weight just as quickly, this is totally doable if you have a dumbbell rack and/or adjustable dumbbells at home. With a rack, just make sure you’re standing right in front of it so that as soon as you reach failure with, say, 50-pound dumbbells, you can immediately rerack those and pick up the 40s or 35s. With adjustable dumbbells, you’ll need to set the weights down and change the weight quickly with the dial or pin system, then go right into the drop set.

With resistance bands, it helps to have a set of bands with multiple resistances (like my JYM Bands that have five different bands in the set) and to have the lighter bands close by so that you can grab one right after reaching failure. That said, one great thing about bands is that you can do one or more drop sets using the same band; all you have to do is move closer to the anchor point on an exercise like standing band rows or move your hands down the band on a move like standing band curls. These actions instantly decrease resistance and only take a second or two. 

Although cables, machines, dumbbells, and bands are great for drop sets, barbell exercises can be used as well. If you train at a gym that has a rack of fixed-weight barbells, you can use those. Most racks have barbells in 10-pound increments (10, 20, 30, up to around 100 pounds), making it easy to set one down and pick up the appropriate lighter one. 

If you’re using a traditional Olympic barbell with weight plates, it becomes more difficult to change the weight quickly. Your best bet here is to have one or two spotters take a plate off each side of the barbell so that you can get right into the drop set. Also, make sure you know how much weight you’ll need to take off ahead of time so that you can put the right plates on the bar. For example, if you’re doing standing barbell curls, instead of putting a 25-pound plate on each side of the barbell, use two 10-pound plates and a 5 pound plate on each side; this way, you can easily take off 5 or 10 pounds per side for each drop set instead of having to take off the 25 and put on a 10- and a 5-pound plate.  

Best Exercises for Drop Sets

You can theoretically do drop sets on any exercise you want. In my programs, I do drop sets for all muscle groups and with both single-joint (isolation) and multi-joint (compound) exercises. That said, if you’re not an advanced lifter, it’s a good idea to not do drop sets on exercises like barbell squats and front squats. These exercises require great form to be performed safely, and having fatigued muscles when doing drop sets can lead to less-than-ideal form. In this case, I recommend machine exercises for drop sets when training legs – moves like machine hack squats and leg press. 

I also recommend having a spotter if doing drop sets on the barbell bench press – not just to make it quicker and easier to remove the weight for the drop sets, but more importantly, for safety. Since you’re going to failure with drop sets, you don’t want to get caught with the bar struck on your chest.

Different Ways to Use Drop Sets

The step-by-step process I showed above is the most straightforward way to use drop sets, but it’s certainly not the only way. In my programs, I utilize intensity-boosting techniques in many novel ways. One example of this is my Drop Set Countdown program, where drop sets are incorporated like so:

Starting with a weight that allows you to complete 10 reps, go to muscle failure and then immediately reduce the weight enough to allow you to complete nine reps. Once you reach failure at nine reps, immediately reduce the weight enough to allow you to complete eight reps. Continue in this manner, dropping enough weight to do seven reps on the next drop set, then six, then five, then four, then three, then two, and, finally, one rep.

This protocol requires some trial and error when it comes to choosing the right weight; If you reduce the weight too much, the next rep count won’t be challenging enough; if you don’t reduce it enough, you’ll fall short of the prescribed reps. Once you get the hang of it though, Drop Set Countdown is a great way to use the technique to spark new muscle growth. 

Other examples of unique ways that I incorporate drop sets into my workout programs include Super Drop Sets, as seen in my Muscle Booster SDS workout program, which combines supersets with drop sets.

Then there’s my Oxford Drop Sets program, where you take your 10 rep max to failure and then follow with 2 drop sets where you must complete another 10 reps on each drop set.

I even have an Ascending Drop Sets workout program, where instead of immediately reducing the weight after hitting muscle failure, you immediately increase the weight going from 20 reps, to 10 reps, and then to 5 reps.

Related Articles