Failure is temporary. When you can’t eke out another full rep, you’ve got options. Forced reps. Cheating. Rest-pause. Partials. But these probably limit you to just a few more reps, and they’re not a good fit for every exercise. Don’t even try forced reps on one-arm dumbbell rows, and cheating and walking lunges don’t mix. But you can grab a lighter dumbbell to keep the rows going or ditch the barbell and continue those lunges weight-free. Those are drop sets. They allow you to run stop signs and keep going full speed ahead.

DROP SET (noun) a continuation of the original set beyond failure with a lighter weight. Origin: 1947 by Henry Atkin (originally called “The Atkin Multiple Poundage System”). Synonyms: descending set, strip set, down-the-rack, running the rack, up-the-stack

ADVANTAGES

MULTIPLE FAILURE POINTS

Like the original set, each drop set has its own failure point. So, if you do 10 reps with 180, then reduce the weight to 150 and get 8 more, then decrease the weight to 130 for a final 7, those 25 reps had three failure points (180, 150, 130). And even if you don’t go till you can’t each time, you’ll be grinding out three times as many near-failure reps as a straight set of 25. But is this more effective? Multiple studies, such as this one, have demonstrated benefits, though it’s unclear if this is due to greater intensity or merely the increased volume.  

SPEED

With minimal rest between drops, you cram more work into a routine, which is especially effective if you need to do a shortened workout.

PUMP-OUT

If you immediately follow a low-rep set with a much-lighter high-rep one, this boosts blood volumization, which the heavy set was lacking, and it also gives you a second chance to push yourself to new limits if you failed to hit your target on the initial set. 

WORKOUT RESCUE

In that same vein, sometimes, for whatever reason, your strength and intensity are not up to snuff. Near a bad workout’s end, an extended descending set can come to the rescue. Take a trip down the dumbbell rack or up the weight stack on a final extended set of your last exercise, and you can still turn a blah workout around.

TYPES, PART 1 (EQUIPMENT)

1. STRIP SET

This is a drop set with a plate-loaded barbell or machine (such as Hammer Strength). Weights are stripped from each side for drops, so you’ll need to plot ahead—computing backwards from your lightest set—to quickly get to the right amounts via subtractions. With one or, ideally, two spotters as a pit crew, you can do ZERO-REST drops: Weights are pulled immediately after your last rep with a particular weight so you can do your first rep with lighter resistance without pausing.

2. DOWN THE RACK

This is a dumbbell or fixed barbell drop set. At a rack in an uncrowded gym, repeatedly move from two dumbbells to their lighter neighbors, or, set up fixed barbells to quickly switch from one to a lighter one.

3. UP THE STACK

This is a drop set with a machine with a vertical weight stack. Reductions are easy. All you need to do is move the pin into a higher slot (lighter weight) each time on.

TYPES, PART 2 (REPS)

A. MAINTAINING

Try to get the same number of reps on each drop as you did on your initial set. Aim for 20% weight reductions, so you might go from 10 x 225 to 10 x 180 to 10 x 145. When traveling down the rack or up the stack for multiple drops, you may be able to hit the same reps with only small weight reductions (from 45-pound dumbbells to 40-pounders, etc.) if you stay clear of failure or rest briefly (10-15 seconds) between drops.

B. ASCENDING

Reps decrease with each drop (for example, from 12 to 8 to 4) with small weight reductions (5-10%). So, you might go from 12 x 200 to 8 x 180 to 4 x 170.

C. DESCENDING

Reps increase with each drop (for example, from 6 to 12 to 20) with big weight reductions (25-35%). So, you might go from 6 x 200 to 12 x 150 to 20 x 120.

D. HIGH

Cut the weight 40-50% for a pump-out or blow-out set. So, you might go from 225 for 6 to 135 for over 25. As mentioned before, this is a great way to end a workout, whether or not it went as planned. Move the pin up the stack after your last set of 10 pushdowns and crank out a final 30.