When we look at crossover principles from the strength sports world into the sport performance and general fitness space, there's one we find to be of huge benefit in building muscle, strength, and power: the drop set.
Drop sets, also commonly called back down sets, is a process of using a percentage of a top weight lifted to complete additional working sets. These sets may utilize the same number of reps as a top weight, or they may increase the reps as way to increase the total amount of volume within the workout. Often found in modern day powerlifting and bodybuilding programming, these can be utilized for performance in a few different means.
Hypertrophy: When we look at developing additional muscle size, we need to consider time under tension (TUT) as one of the main drivers of increasing muscle mass. We can use drop sets as a means of increasing TUT by selecting appropriate loads for tension to be adequately applied.
Strength/Power: We can use drop sets as a means for maintaining strength/power throughout sets and not having drop offs. As fatigue accumulates, we have drop offs in bar speed, noting a decrease in overall power output. Drop sets can help us mitigate this.
Technical Development: For new lifters, technique has its limits of weight being able to be lifted. When we look at drop sets, they can be used efficiently for working within a technical ability.
Now, depending on the goal, the way drop sets are applied and how we use them tends to be slightly different. Here's a few ways we use them on major lifts (Squats, Deadlifts, Presses, and Rows).
Since the name of the game is TUT, we're going to do more reps. But it can be easy to go too light on the lift since high volume can be daunting for athletes. They way we tend to use drop sets for hypertrophy is by working up to a top set of a weight at 50-60% of the total rep count of our desired hypertrophy sets. For example, we'll work up to a top set of 5 reps, then drop the load and perform 3-4 sets of 8 reps. Most of the time we work up to top set at an RPE of 7-8 (2-3 Reps in the Tank), then take off 5% for every additional rep to be performed in the drop set. If we do a top set of 5 reps, we'll drop to 85% of the top weight for the sets of 8 reps. We'd drop to 95% of the top weight if we performed sets of 6 reps, 80% for sets of 9-10 reps, etc. The main thing is to not drop off in technique as we do more reps, hence the drop off in percentage.
When we look at power development, power is most often develop in sets of 3-6 reps. We'll take a similar approach to the development of hypertrophy, but with less reps per set and potentially more sets. The big thing here is not actually the reps, but the percentage drops. We don't want to lose bar speed on the lifts, so we automatically take 5% off the top weight before doing drop sets, and then take off an additional 5% off for each additional rep added. Now, we can add more reps to the drop sets in order to build power endurance, which I personally like this option a lot for newer lifters. For example, a newer lifter (athlete with 0-1 years of training experience) may work up to a top set of 3 reps at an RPE 6-7 (3 Reps in Reserve), then drop to 85% of this weight for 3 additional sets of 5 reps. Since the goal is power, we drop additional weight to compared to hypertrophy to ensure bar speed stays high.
For new lifters, most often technique will break down prior to top end strength being achieved. In order to develop the skills within a lift, we want to find the weight at which technique drops off. For most individuals new to lifting weights, lower rep numbers tend to be better options, as technique will break down under fatigue. We like to stick to sets of 5-6 reps for the main lifts, and work up to top sets of technical proficiency. Once we've achieved a weight we break down in technique, we'll drop 5% of the top weight and perform a few more additional sets of the same rep numbers. For example, we may hit a top set of 5 reps, where technique breaks down on rep 5, and drop to 95% of the top weight for 3-4 more sets of 5 reps.
This is just a few ways we can use drop sets in training. As training gets more dense (more volume in similar time frames) or intense (higher training loads), drop sets may have to vary set to set by dropping percentages each set. But this will often be utilized with more advanced athletes.
Overall, drop sets can be very beneficial, especially if programmed correctly with the right percentage drop offs. As a general rule of thumb, it is better to drop too much weight off the bar in the beginning until you learn the individual's abilities, and then adjust accordingly.