From yesterday’s ‘Myth Buster’ article.
Myth: Drop sets and “feeling the burn” are the best ways to stimulate muscle fibers.
Mythbuster: Christian Thibaudeau
No training technique is totally ineffective, provided it’s used in a smart way. Drop sets are no exception, as long as you understand the downsides of using them ? and they have a lot of downsides.
For starters, they’re extremely hard on the CNS (central nervous system). This is because an increase in intramuscular acidity, along with the accumulation of several different metabolites (such as hydrogen ions), makes the contraction process much harder.
Any time you have the ‘‘burn’’ sensation, the nervous system must work harder to recruit the muscle fibers necessary to perform the action required. This doesn’t mean we should avoid any training technique that leads to a great pump or that takes us to failure. The CNS needs to be challenged, same as your heart, your lungs, your skeletal muscles, or any other system that’s linked to your goals in the gym. But too much stimulation can lead to central fatigue, which we don’t want.
That brings me to the second downside. To add that CNS-challenging volume, you have to cut the load in a major way. And I fail to see where such a drastic reduction in training weight would stimulate more fibers to grow. Unless you’re a beginner, you should train with at least 70 percent of your one-rep max to stimulate growth. You can’t do that with traditional drop sets.
Let’s say your max in the lift you’re drop setting is 150 pounds, and you start out with 125 pounds ? 80 percent of your max. You go to failure, then drop the weight by 30 pounds. You’re now using 95 pounds, or 63 percent of your max. If you go to failure again, and drop by another 30 pounds, you’re now at 65 pounds, or 43 percent of your max.
So, even though you just worked your ass off, you were using an insufficient load for two-thirds of the set. The external load wasn’t heavy enough to maximize motor-unit recruitment, and the fast-twitch fibers ? those that are the most primed for growth ? were shot after you went to failure with 80 percent of your max. After that, you were relying mostly on intermediate and slow-twitch fibers.
The increase in acidity within your muscles will lead to an increase in growth hormone and IGF-1 levels, which is certainly a benefit. But I don’t think that it comes close to compensating for the decrease in loading.
What’s the alternative? Instead of traditional drop sets, I recommend extended sets, in which you continue to work even after you’ve hit momentary muscular failure. They work well as long as you use a load heavy enough to maximize motor-unit recruitment.
Rest/Pause: Do your regular set. When you’ve completed your reps (close to failure), rest for 10 to 12 seconds. Then, with the same weight, get as many additional reps as you can.
Short drops: This is just like a traditional drop set, except you start with a relatively heavy load, and make small drops. You should never go below 70 percent of your max during the set. So you might start with 90 percent, perform three reps, drop down to 80 percent, perform a few more, then finally drop down to 70 percent and do as many reps as you can.
Mechanical drop sets: In a mechanical drop set (which I explained in much more detail here), you still focus on performing more reps once you hit failure. But instead of reducing the weight, you make a small change to the execution of the movement that allows you to get more reps with the original weight. You can change your grip, stance, or angle of movement ? whatever makes the exercise slightly easier without changing it to a completely different exercise.
If you’re ever in doubt, just remember this: The more fibers you recruit and exhaust, the more growth you get.