By finding creative ways to push muscles past their usual point of failure, trainers can actually accelerate a client’s muscular growth such as negatives and tempo training.  You may be surprised at what you can pick up with drop sets!

Gaining While Dropping

Drop sets may not rank highly as a personal trainer’s typical go-to approach when working with novice clients. However, for more seasoned fitness veterans, starting an exercise with a heavy weight load and reducing the weight within each set works exceedingly well for building endurance as well as lean muscle mass.

Target the Right Fibers

The scientific premise behind drop sets involves an understanding of the two types of muscle fibers, both equal in importance for serious strength trainers. A traditional hypertrophy workout often involves performing three sets of 6 to 12 reps for each exercise, allowing for a 60-second rest interval between each set. Such a paradigm only targets the larger, more powerful type II muscle fibers.

Using a lighter weight load and performing more reps per set activates the endurance-oriented type I fibers. While either workout elicits growth, neither format encompasses both types of fibers.

A Very Brief Respite

In addition to utilizing progressively lighter loads, extremely brief rest intervals between sets successfully fatigues both types of muscle fibers. The time it takes to lower a machine’s weight or reach for lighter dumbbells serves this purpose. Such shorter rests increase training volume and the muscle’s time under tension.

Variations on a Theme

Jim Smith, CPPS, co-creator of Strength: Barbell Training Essentials, offers up a clear description of the two distinct varieties of drop sets:

In a conventional drop set, the client performs a set of exercises using heavy weight, a load allowing the athlete to lift just 1-2 reps shy of failure from fatigue in the 8-10 range. Immediately reducing loads by at least 10%, the client attempts to squeeze out as many reps as possible, given the pre-fatigued state produced.

The mechanical advantage model requires a distinct change in the exercise, with the goal of reducing workload. Trainers might choose to alter a client’s performance speed, switch him from a bodyweight move to one utilizing dumbbells, or change the direction of an exercise (decline dumbbell presses instead of seated machine chest presses, for example).

Drop Set Programming

Drop sets have an inherently higher intensity than straight sets. Fitness professionals advocate selecting no more than two exercises, targeting either a single muscle group or at most two groups, for each workout. This practice greatly reduces the risk of overtraining. Some trainers feel strongly about commencing workouts with this grueling training method, so clients do not “run out of steam” during the hard push. However, others choose to utilize drop sets at or near completion of the day’s training. Experiment with both of these yourself before attempting to introduce the method to clients, and then determine what works best for the individual you’re working with.

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Load Selection

Choosing an appropriate weight with which to begin drop sets should not prove too difficult. You or your client can no doubt identify a weight with which performing 8-10 reps without breaking form leads to failure from fatigue. Upon completion of the set, quickly drop that weight load by 10-25% and repeat the exercise, once again to failure, performing as many reps as possible. Once the client seems familiar enough with the protocol, repeating 3-4x finishes off the challenge. As you might imagine, the rep range tends to go down as the exercise progresses. Eventually, even the lightest dumbbell can feel like a tremendous load!

A typical conventional drop set might look something like this:

Standing Cable Chest Press: 1RM = 100lbs
Set 1-3: 90lbs x 10 reps
Set 4: 90lbs x 8 reps; drop weight to 80lbs to failure (maybe 3-5 reps can be expected); drop weight to 70lbs to failure (2-4 reps-ish); drop weight to 60lbs (1-3 reps).

Time Lost Limits Potential

Since rest intervals remain very brief with drop sets, most trainers opt for using cable-assisted machines or dumbbells in favor of barbells. Time spent stripping/reloading a barbell reduces metabolic stress and time under tension; over the long haul, such wasted precious seconds serve as the limiting factor in clients’ potential strength gains.

Explore the world of drop sets, and see how less of a good thing can result in greater endurance and strength.



Cathleen Kronemer

Cathleen Kronemer is an NFPT CEC writer and a member of the NFPT Certification Council Board. Cathleen is an AFAA-Certified Group Exercise Instructor, NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer, ACE-Certified Health Coach, former competitive bodybuilder and freelance writer. She is employed at the Jewish Community Center in St. Louis, MO. Cathleen has been involved in the fitness industry for over three decades. Feel free to contact her at She welcomes your feedback and your comments!