Drop sets are a training technique geared towards increasing muscle mass by performing an exercise, then reducing (dropping) the weight, and continuing to perform more reps until you reach failure. They were a favorite of Arnold Schwarzenegger and thanks to his popularizing of the method, they are now a staple in many trainers, coaches, and bodybuilders strength training programs.

However, Arnold did not create drop sets. This method was originally discovered in 1947 by Henry Atkins (no relation to the Atkins Diet), who was the editor of Body Culture magazine. Atkins called it the “multi-poundage system.” This simply refers to the fact that during a drop set you are using multiple weights ranges.

Since 1947, many synonyms have been used for drop sets such as triple drops, burnouts, running the rack, strip sets, and descending sets.


The reason drop sets are deemed superior to standard sets and are so effective for increasing muscle mass is because they recruit more muscle fibers. With a drop set, the overall volume and time under tension is increased. They ensure muscle failure and fatigue your muscles beyond what you could achieve by doing a single standard set.

For example, let’s say on the dumbbell curl you normally do a set of 8 reps. If you’re pushing yourself to failure, you will get stuck on the 8th rep, maybe sooner. You cannot physically do a 9th rep. So on that 8th rep, you’ve achieved failure with that particular poundage, but not ABSOLUTE failure. You’ve only recruited the number of muscle fibers necessary to lift that particular amount of weight for 8 reps.

With a drop set, after you hit failure on the 8th rep, you pick up a set of dumbbells 10-20% lighter than the ones you just used, and keep going. As you continue to drop weight and knock out more reps, you continue to recruit more muscle fibers which causes more growth.


While there are numerous variations of drop sets, the most common method is the “triple drop”. This method uses three weights and two weight reductions.

If your goal is to put on size, keep the rep range between 6-12.

It is a good idea to have the equipment you need set up in advance so you can move through without stopping.

No rest between weight drops. If you must, keep it under 10 seconds.

To perform a triple drop of 8 reps, choose an exercise and start with weight heavy enough that you will hit failure at or just before 8 reps. Perform the first 8, then lower the weight by 10-20% and aim for another 8 reps. Once you hit failure, lower the weight once more by 10-20% and perform the final 8 reps.

drop sets

Drop sets can be performed with barbells, dumbbells or exercise machines.

Machines and dumbbells lend themselves well to drop sets as it takes minimal time between weight drops to lower the resistance and you don’t need a spotter. You simply pull the pin out or pick up the next dumbbell.

With barbells, it is ideal to have someone strip the plates off for you so you can focus on lifting with minimal time in between weight drops.

A word of caution, use drop sets sparingly. They are intense and they do count towards your overall training volume. The more you do, the harder it is to maintain good form and full range of motion. If you use them every single workout on multiple exercises you run the risk of overtraining, burning out, or injuring yourself.

Committed To Your Health,

Online Fitness Coach Brian DonovanBrian Donovan is a certified fitness and nutrition coach, and the founder of Online Fitness Coach – an online fitness program where clients get direct coaching and personalized training and nutrition plans. Coach Brian was voted Chicago’s “Best Personal Trainer” by Chicago Reader magazine, Best Of Chicago 2014 edition. He has been featured in magazines such as Muscle & Fitness, Chicago Reader, Voyage Chicago, Bach Performance, and The Personal Trainer Development Center (PTDC).

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