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In the weightlifting world, there are various ways to reduce your workout time without it affecting your results. For example, you could use superset workouts or circuits. Of course, there are more methods. In fact, there’s one way in particular that I’m a big fan of that will be the focus of this article. Allow me to introduce you to the drop set workout.
With drop sets, you do a set, drop the weight, or change the mechanics, and without resting, do another set on the same exercise. “Drop sets are ideal for muscle-building because of the increased metabolic stress they put on that muscle1,” says Kate Meier, CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1, and GGR Head of Content.
Today, I’ll be using my experience as a certified personal trainer (CPT) to explain what a drop set workout is before going through the two different types of drop sets. Then, I’ll talk about the benefits of this training technique before finishing with a list of the best drop set exercises and three sample drop set workouts for you to try.
What is a Drop Set Workout?
A drop set workout is a workout that has one or more drop sets within it, that simple. Generally, you’ll still do your usual strength training lifts at the start and then incorporate drop set exercises into your training program toward the end (to act as a finisher). The drop set technique is typically performed by intermediate or advanced lifters.
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But what exactly is a drop set? You’ll see more on this below, but essentially, you don’t rest between sets as you would with traditional sets. Instead, you either drop the weight and do a second set straight after the first, or change the mechanics and do another set. You can stop after the second, or continue on to a third, fourth, or even fifth set.
Types of Drop Sets
The two types of drop sets are loaded and mechanical:
If you’ve ever used drop sets in the past, they’ve probably been loaded drops. When finished with your first set, instead of resting, you’ll drop to a lighter weight (anywhere between 10 to 30% less) and do a second set. After the second set, you can drop the weight again by the same percentage and do a third.
For example, you could do the lat pulldown exercise for 10 reps at 110 pounds. After you’re done, drop the weight to 90 pounds and do another 10 reps. Then either do a third set or rest.
With mechanical drop sets, you don’t necessarily drop the weight (although you can if you need to). Instead, you change the mechanics, such as the grip or the range of motion.
Using my lat pulldown example, you’d do conventional overhand lat pulldowns for 10 reps at 110 pounds. Then, you’ll shift to close-grip, underhand lat pulldowns for another 10 reps at 110 pounds.
“On a cable bicep curl, you could start with half-curls and finish off with full curls,” adds Kate Meier, CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1. This is an example of changing the range of motion instead of your grip for your drop set training.
Benefits of Drop Set Workouts
Now that you know the two different types of drop sets, you’re probably thinking, “What are the benefits of doing drop set workouts anyway?” Great question! Here are my top four:
When you use drop sets, you’re not doing a set, resting, doing another set, resting, and so on. The total amount of time it takes to finish an exercise is usually reduced, which results in a quicker workout. That being said, I don’t recommend doing every exercise as a drop set. You’ll see my recommendations for the best drop set exercises below.
Helps Build Muscle
“Utilizing drop sets means you’re more likely to fatigue the muscle fibers for that muscle group,” Kate explains. “This gives the potential for increased muscle growth.” A 2018 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness2 found that significant muscle gain increases may be achieved with a single drop set compared to three conventional sets.
Helps Reduce Risk Of Injury
With every exercise, proper form is key. Ignoring this could lead to injury. When we’re not making progress and have reached plateaus, it can be tempting to do an extra rep or two with bad form. However, if you know you have a full set coming up (e.g. a drop set), you’re less likely to push through with that extra rep.
From my experience, lowering the weight helps the exercise feel much easier to do. This could help you to reset, focusing on good form with a lower weight over bad form with a heavier weight.
Adds Variety to Your Workouts
Traditional training, where you do a set and then rest for one to three minutes before doing another, can get boring after a while. If you’re new to training, this won’t be a problem. Though, from my experience, adding some variety can help you get through difficult times. Drop set workouts are a great method of keeping things entertaining.
How to Program Drop Sets
When it comes to programming drop sets, there’s one general rule to follow: Do your compound exercises first, then use drop sets at the end of your workout. They can be used before this point, but I’ve found that once you do them, it’s difficult to lift anything else after (at least not at your usual weight).
Here’s an example, on leg day, do your squats, deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, leg presses, or any other compound exercises you want to do first. Then, do drop sets on leg extensions for your quads or leg curls for your hamstrings. Finish off with a few sets of calf raises, and you’re good to go (if you can still walk, that is!).
For more on programming drop sets, check out our sample drop set workouts below.
Best Drop Set Exercises
As a certified personal trainer (CPT), I—with an assist from Kate Meier, CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1, and GGR Head of Content—have created a list of a few the best exercises for a drop set workout:
- Lat Pulldown
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise
- Leg Extension
- Leg Curl
- Seated Cable Row
- Barbell Row
- Cable Bicep Curl
- Cable Triceps Extension
- Standing Calf Raise
- Plate-Loaded Chest Press
- Leg Press
- Machine Chest Fly
- Plate-Loaded Row
- Cable Crunch
- Dumbbell Bicep Curl
Simply put, the best drop set exercises are isolation exercises where it’s easy to change the weight. You can change the pin on a cable machine or resistance machine in seconds, or quickly grab a lighter pair of dumbbells from the dumbbell rack.
“With a barbell, it’s not practical to drop the weight quickly,” Kate says. Even if it was, we wouldn’t recommend doing drop sets on compound exercises such as bench presses, squats, or deadlifts, especially with heavy weights. One set is challenging enough as it is, and even with a significant reduction in weight, the drop set wouldn’t be easy to do (trust me, I’ve tried!).
Sample Drop Set Workout
Okay, so you know the best drop set exercises. Next, you’re going to want to put these together into a workout. Below are three full-body workouts designed by myself and Kate Meier CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1:
Drop Set Workout: Final Thoughts
There are two different types of drop sets: loaded and mechanical. With the former, you drop the weight for the next set(s), and with the latter, you change the mechanics. Incorporating drop sets into your workout routine can save time, reduce the risk of injury, build more muscle, and add variety to your training.
- Overtraining is real. While drop sets are great, they shouldn’t be used all of the time. “There’s a fine line between fatiguing a muscle and overtraining it,” Kate Meier, CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1 explains. “The latter could lead to injury, so it’s important to be wary of this.”
- Not for compound lifts. I’ll say it again because it’s important. Drop sets aren’t made for compound lifts. Do these first, then turn to drop sets near the end of your workout. Once you’re done, finish your workout for the day.
- Plan in advance. If you’re on a cable machine or resistance machine, reducing the weight is easy. With dumbbells or plate-loaded equipment, however, it’s important to make sure you have weights ready for your drop set in order to minimize rest times.
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Drop Set Workout: FAQs
Can you build muscle with drop sets?
You can definitely build muscle mass with drop sets. It’s a popular training technique in the bodybuilding world for a reason. If you’re new to training, drop sets may be an efficient strategy for maximizing hypertrophy3. Even if you’ve been training for a while, drop set workouts are quicker to do and may result in an increased training volume.
How long should you rest during a drop set?
During a drop set, the amount of time that you rest should be minimal. Let’s say you’re doing a drop set with cable bicep curls. “Once you complete the first set, the only rest time should be the time it takes to change the weight on the cable machine and get into position again,” says Kate Meier, CPT, USAW-L1, CF-L1, and GGR Head of Content. When the last set is finished, take a rest for one to three minutes.
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How many reps in a drop set?
The number of reps in a drop set depends on your fitness goals. If your goal is to increase your muscular strength (one-rep max), doing drop sets doesn’t make sense. However, if your goal is to increase muscle size or muscular endurance, drop sets work. For the former, aim for six to 12 reps, and for the latter, 15+ reps. You don’t need to change the reps you would normally do.
Did Arnold Schwarzenegger do drop sets?
I never trained with Arnold Schwarzenegger myself so I’m not sure exactly what he did in his workout routine! However, from what I know, Arnie was a big fan of different resistance training techniques, such as drop sets, supersets, rest-pause sets, giant sets, and more. He probably had a lot more up his sleeve than we even know about.
- Fink J, Kikuchi N, Nakazato K. Effects of rest intervals and training loads on metabolic stress and muscle hypertrophy. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2018 Mar;38(2):261-268. doi: 10.1111/cpf.12409. Epub 2016 Dec 28. PMID: 28032435.
- Fink J, Schoenfeld BJ, Kikuchi N, Nakazato K. Effects of drop set resistance training on acute stress indicators and long-term muscle hypertrophy and strength. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 May;58(5):597-605. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.17.06838-4. Epub 2017 Apr 26. PMID: 28474868.
- Sødal LK, Kristiansen E, Larsen S, van den Tillaar R. Effects of Drop Sets on Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med Open. 2023 Jul 31;9(1):66. doi: 10.1186/s40798-023-00620-5. PMID: 37523092; PMCID: PMC10390395.
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