There seems to be a lot of confusion these days about which exercises to perform for which goals. For instance, people are usually unsure about how to divide up their weekly routines into weights, cardio and intensity training for maximum benefit. One of the exercises shrouded in the most mystery is the drop set. To those of you who have just heard this term mumbled around the gym, but are unsure of the definition, a drop set is when you lower (drop) the resistance at the end of a set and continue working toward a higher amount of reps.
You should only do drop sets in certain circumstances, and only within set guidelines. Broadly speaking, bodybuilders use this technique to let one group of muscles ‘catch up’ to another – when these lack in relative strength. For instance, if you have been training your biceps more than your triceps, and have suffered a consequent bias in muscle power, you may consider doing drop sets for your triceps workout. This will allow rapid ‘mass gain’ for the triceps, and they will increase in strength to soon balance with the biceps. Don’t worry too much about the bias shifting the other way – i.e. the triceps becoming the stronger muscle, as the response to drop sets is logarithmic in nature. This means that they will strengthen quickly in the beginning, but soon after they will plateau to complement the biceps.
The correct way to do drop sets is to complete one set to failure between 8-15 repetitions on the first attempt, and then switch as quickly as possible to weights that are about 30% lighter and continue to failure once more. This can be repeated 3-4 times for maximum benefit. An alternative to switching to lower weights is to have a partner assist you after failure. This is essentially the same process and will have the same result. Another alternative to switching to lower weights is to switch your posture to one that allows the exercise to be performed more easily. The body will interpret this as an effective lowering of resistance, just as with assistance from another person.
As an example of the above, if you are doing seated dumbbell military press exercises, begin by keeping your back straight and not in contact with the inclined bench. When you fail somewhere between 8-15 reps, lean back until your back is firmly in contact with the bench and continue until failure once more. This routine works best when the bench has an inclination of 60 degrees. If the angle is any lower than that, the military press transitions to a bench press, as you will be engaging your chest rather than your shoulders.