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What is a drop set? The advanced strength-training technique will help you build muscle

Push past a plateau and make muscle gains by using these techniques in your training routine.
During a drop set you drop to a lower weight to perform a maximum number of repetitions.
During a drop set you drop to a lower weight to perform a maximum number of repetitions.Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

As a personal trainer and weight-loss coach, I am constantly answering health and fitness questions from my clients, on social media and in our Start TODAY Facebook group. In this column, I address some of the most common questions and roadblocks that trip people up on their journey to establish a health and fitness routine. 

What is a drop set? What is a superset? I keep hearing these terms mentioned in workout classes.

Workout terminology can be confusing. As a personal trainer, many clients come to me confused about the different strength training techniques they hear mentioned in group fitness classes and on-demand workouts at home. It can be tough to decipher what these terms mean and which approach is best for you. “Superset” and “drop set” are two popular strength-training techniques that you’ve likely heard thrown around.

First, let me explain what a set is. A set refers to repetitions of a certain exercise. So, if we do one set of squats, that would be a set number of repetitions of the squat. I usually start my clients with 3 sets of 10 repetitions. This means that we do 10 squats, for a total of 3 rounds or sets, with a short rest in between each.

You might be thinking: "So, it’s basically doing 30 squats." Yes. But instead of just saying, “Do 30 squats,” many trainers (like myself) set up circuits for their clients, which is a group of exercises. For example, I may tell my clients to do one set of 10 squats, then one set of 10 bicep curls, for a total of 3 sets. That means that the client will repeat that circuit for a total of 3 times with a short rest in between each circuit.

This type of circuit is very similar to a superset (read more on supersets below!). The difference is that it allows for rest periods between each set, which a superset does not.

What is a superset workout?

Superset means to perform two different exercises back-to-back, one right after the other, with minimal rest. Hence “super” before “set.” Supersets are usually used to reduce the duration of a workout and increase the aerobic intensity of a strength-training program. It comes down to the amount of rest in between exercises that determines whether you’re doing regular strength training or supersets.

Typically, supersets involve working one muscle (or muscle group) and then working its opposing muscle (or muscle group.) So, performing a set of pushups to work the chest would be followed by a set of rear delt flies to work the upper back. Another example would be doing bicep curls to work the front of the arms and then tricep extensions to work the back of the arms. You would perform these exercises back-to-back with no rest time in between. This can be an effective training technique to build muscle.

What is a drop set?

This type of resistance training is used frequently by body builders and focuses on completing as many repetitions in a set as you can before your muscles completely fatigue. You will start with the heaviest weight and perform a small amount of reps. Then, you lighten the load and do more reps. Finally, you lighten the load one more time and do the most number of reps. I tend to be more conservative as a trainer when it comes to the amount of weight my clients lift. I’m always concerned about recommending too heavy of a weight due to the risk of improper form. So, this type of set is not my favorite, nor one that I recommend for beginners.

If you are interested in giving it a try, here’s how it would work for the recreational athlete. Make sure to have all three sets of weights laid out in front of you beforehand so that you don’t waste time between sets finding the weights.

  • Start with a 10-pound dumbbell and perform 6-8 reps.
  • Lower the dumbbell weight to 5 pounds and perform 10-12 reps.
  • Lower the dumbbell weight to 3 pounds and perform 12-15 reps.

Do this without taking much rest in between sets. The goal is that at the end of the last set, your biceps are fatiguing and reaching the maximum that they can do with proper form.

The bottom line

Drop sets are a more advanced strength training technique. If you are new to exercise, I suggest starting with a lower weight and performing 3 sets of 10 reps (with a short rest in between) to build strength while learning proper form. People who are already exercising (and confident of form when performing strength exercises) and looking to push through a plateau or make muscle gains may see results by incorporating drop sets into their training routine.

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