There is no doubt about it.... if you want to get bigger and stronger, if you want to move heavy weight and make gains, it absolutely requires hard work, consistency, and perseverance. But, this doesn't mean that there is not a place for SMART training strategies, and one really great one is drop sets.
Drop sets, down sets, bro sets, whatever you want to call them they do more than just boost your ego. To prove my point however, requires a little explanation of exercise and neuromusculoskeletal physiology.
Breaking Down Muscle
The Contractile Unit
Watching someone squat heavy weight, and seeing the muscles in their legs firing like gangbusters, it's hard to imagine what is happening at the level of each individual fibre, but believe it or not, this is really important to overall function. After all, the summation of work of each of these muscle cells (fibres) is what creates that large, powerful muscular contraction. Each muscle fibre is made up of several contractile units called sarcomeres, and basically serves at the pleasure of our nervous system. To put it bluntly, each muscle fibre is connected to command central (our brain) by a motor nerve. Sometimes a single motor nerve innervates one or very few muscle fibres, and sometimes a a motor neuron innervates many many muscle fibres. In either case, the motor neuron and all of the muscle fibres it innervates are collectively referred to as a Motor Unit. Smaller motor units are easier to recruit, and tend to be found in higher concentration in muscles that control fine or discrete movements, such as those of the fingers. Larger motor units are found in higher concentration in our bigger, workhorse muscles such as our quadriceps or gluteals and while they require a greater stimulus to be recruited, they are able to generate quite a lot of power!
Fibre Type and Order of Recruitment
In addition to our muscle fibres varying in their innervation, they also differ in fibre type. There are three different types of muscle fibres, Slow Twitch (oxidative), Fast Twitch (Glycolytic) and Fast Twitch (Oxidative). On top of recruiting smaller motor units first, our nervous systems also tend to recruit slow twitch fibres first; as intensity and demand increase, we progressively recruit bigger and faster twitch muscles. As mentioned above, these bigger motor units, especially those with fast twitch fibres are very powerful; these are the guys that allow us hit 1-RMs and generate huge power outputs. And the great news is once these big guys get going, they tend to keep working. And that brings us back to...
I'm hoping you haven't tried this...but theoretically, if you walked into a gym, threw your 1-RM weight on the bar and tried to squat it, you would fail (unless you're superman). In addition to the order of muscle recruitment, our body has other built in safety mechanisms like tendon and stretch reflexes which stop us from ripping our muscles in half, or off our bones by generating too much force or too much of a stretch too quickly. This is why we cannot access those large, powerful motor units right from the get go or squat our max weight without warming up: we risk injury when we use them, especially if we don't prepare our bodies properly. However, if you take advantage of the order of muscle fibre recruitment and gradually work up to your 1-RM weight you'll find you can move quite a lot of weight.
One other thing you'll likely notice is that some of the later warm-up sets that were challenging on the way up to your working weight feel much easier when done as drop sets. Some of this may be psychological (knowing that you moved heavier weight in your work sets) however, a great deal is due to the fact that the big guns are still firing! Those high capacity, powerful fibres are working on the way down, allowing you to generate more force and enabling your body to more strongly groove that motor pattern and engage in a greater deal of neuromuscular learning. In fact, this whole phenomenon has a name: Post-Activation Potentiation(PAP). Explained simply, PAP refers to a muscle's performance being influenced by its previous contractions. Brett Contreras, a blogger and researcher with a Ph.D in Sport Science unpacked this ideas really well in a recent article(1):
PAP is a phenomena by which muscular performance characteristics are acutely enhanced as a result of their contractile history. The underlying principle surrounding PAP is that heavy loading prior to explosive activity induces a high degree of CNS stimulation which results in greater motor unit recruitment lasting anywhere from five to thirty minutes.
You'll notice from Dr. Contreras' explanation that this phenomenon applies not only to (explosive) drop sets, but also to explosive movements that are biomechanically similar to the prime movement: for example, doing squat jumps after barbell squats.
So What Do I Do Now?
If you're looking to change things up, there are many different ways to integrate drop sets or the PAP principle into your program. In fact, despite widespread agreement that PAP is a thing, theres no real consensus on exactly how to use it. I personally try to take advantage of this phenomenon in two different ways in my own training, and in the programs I write for my clients:
Explosive Movements Before the Main Lift
When I really want to get those big motor units prepared and firing for a heavy lifting session, I place an explosive movement similar to the primary lift immediately before the strength/power portion of the training session. For example, I might use medium to high box jumps (step down, no eccentric) before a heavy squat session, or heavy kettle bell swings before a heavy deadlift session.
There are 3 really important things I consider when using this strategy. The first and most important is a proper warm-up to ensure the athlete does not get injured. As I mentioned, use of bigger, faster-twitch motor units can more easily result in injury (likely because we do not access them as frequently, and tend to be fatigued by the time we get there, meaning form may not be 100% on point). Thus, these explosive movements such as box jumps should be placed AFTER a dynamic warm-up that takes the athlete through progressively higher threshold iterations of the movement. All of this is to say, don't just walk into the gym and do a 36' box jump without doing some tissue prep, joint mobility and dynamic movement.
The next two important things revolve around fatigue. Because I'm using these explosive movements to prep for a heavy lift, I want to make sure the athlete has enough fuel in the tank when they get to the main strength portion of their training session. As such, I keep the reps of these explosive movements low (3 sets of 2-5 reps max), and program plenty of rest between them (45s-120s) such that the athlete has time to 'refill' their PCr system.
So here is an example of how to take advantage of PAP via explosive movements before a main lift:
- Box jumps: 3x3@ 24' (step down) 1,0,1,0/60-90 sec rest
- Barbell Back Squat 5x5@85% 1,0,1,0
The second way I take advantage of PAP in my programs is, (you guessed it) drop sets. Again, there is no tried and true way to utilize drop sets, and some people suggest different methods based on your genetic muscular make up. Here is what I do: Take 10-15% of the weight off the bar, and do a few more reps per set than the prime lift, in an explosive (but controlled!!!) manner.
- Back Squat Work Sets: 5x3@185 1,0,1,0/2 min rest
- Back Squat Drop Sets: 3x5@165 1,0,1,0/60-90s rest
This is a great way to keep things simple and easy, and also allows the athlete some wiggle room based on the numbers they hit in that session. Having said this, you can really nerd out with this principle and fine tune it to your body type and strength levels. Charles Poliquin offered a number of pretty in-depth strategies in an article he released in 2014, based on muscle fibre type etc. You can access it
So if you're looking to gain size and strength, try these two simple ways of incorporating PAP into your program. Make sure you have a sufficient warm-up, and continue to focus on form and positioning!
Happy lifting friends