The New Drop Sets for Size & Strength

Get Huge, Save Time

Drop sets work great, but there’s a way to make them work even better: strength zone training. Bonus: This method is a timer saver, too.


Get Big, Save Time: A Smarter Way to Do Drop Sets

Drop sets are an advanced training technique where you extend a set by decreasing the weight. While research suggests they’re equivalent to regular sets for gaining size, drop sets are more efficient because they involve spending much less time in the gym (1). To do a traditional drop-set, you’d take an exercise to failure, descease the weight, and immediately do more reps until you reach failure again.

But I’m about to show you how to level up your drop sets so that you’re not only changing the weight, you’re also changing the angle of the exercise. This means you’ll hit both strength zones, challenging muscles in the lengthened and shortened ranges of motion. “What’s a strength zone?” We’ll get into that below.

Why care, though? Because higher-volume, bodybuilding-style workouts are often packed with redundant exercises, which is an inefficient use of time. But this type of drop set is hyper-efficient. It’ll make a difference in your physique and the time you spend working out.

But First, What's a Strength Zone?

But First, What’s a Strength Zone?

Every type of strength exercise is most difficult at a certain part of the range of motion (ROM). Anatomically, the target muscles work the hardest at a certain joint angle.

There are two general categories of strength exercises based on what ROM they target. Let’s call them strength zones:

  • The Lengthened-to-Midrange Strength Zone: These exercises make muscles work hardest from the stretched (or lengthened) position through the middle of the range of motion.
  • The Shortened-to-Midrange Strength Zone: These exercises make muscles work hardest during the contracted (or shortened) position through the middle of the range of motion.

Research shows that when we lift, the gains we make are specific to the joint positions trained (2,3,4). To illustrate, let’s compare two common shoulder exercises: the rear-delt flye and the side-lying rear-delt flye:

  • The traditional rear-delt flye is most difficult when the arm is out to the side of your torso, which is when your rear delt is in the shortened position. It strengthens your rear deltoids in their shortened-to-midrange strength zone.
  • It’s reversed with the side-lying variation. It trains the lengthened-to-midrange strength zone. It’s hardest when your arm is directly in front of the torso and the rear delt is more lengthened. It’s easiest when your arm is out to the side of the torso or above you, and the muscle is shortened.

Without the strength zone frame of reference, it would be easy to think that those two exercises are interchangeable. After all, they’re both rear-delt isolation movements. But you need both for complete strength of your rear delts because each strengthens different aspects of the ROM and ensures you possess full anatomical range of motion strength through horizontal shoulder abduction (moving your arms from in to out).

Of course, this applies to every muscle in your body, which is why my book, Strength Zone Training, isn’t just about helping you to build muscle. It’s your workout blueprint for building muscle with a purpose.

The 6 Best Drop Sets for Upper-Body

The 6 Best Drop Sets for Upper-Body

Fun fact: Muscles are weaker when they’re fully shortened (contracted), which is a principle of muscle physiology known as the length-tension relationship or the length-tension curve.

That’s why the first exercise in each of these drop sets will start with the exercise that hits the mid-to-shortened range strength zone. You start the set in your weaker (harder) position when you’re fresh. You finish in your stronger position, which better accommodates for your fatigue. This will allow you to crank out more highly-quality reps.

1. Two-Point Cable Rear-Delt Flye

2. Two-Point Cable Pec Flye

3. Two-Point Cable Pec Flye

4. Lateral Raise

5. Rope Triceps Extension

6. Cable One-Arm Biceps Curl

Instructions

1. TWO-POINT CABLE REAR-DELT FLYE

During any style of rear-delt flye, the most mechanical tension on the muscles is when your arm is at a 90-degree angle with the line of force because this is when the lever arm is at its longest.

Face the cable to maximize the strength and development of your posterior deltoids in the shortened-to-midrange strength zone. The cable forms a 90-degree angle to your arm when it’s out to your side.

Stand parallel to the cable to maximize the development of your rear delts in the lengthened-to-midrange strength zone. The cable forms roughly a 90-degree angle to your arm when your arm is in front of your torso.

2. TWO-POINT CABLE PEC FLYE

Stand parallel to the cable to maximize the strength of your pecs in the shortened-to-midrange strength zone. The cable forms roughly a 90-degree angle to your arm when it’s in front of your torso.

Face away from the cable to maximize the strength of your pecs in the lengthened-to-midrange strength zone. The cable forms roughly a 90-degree angle to your arm when your arm is out to your side.

3. STRAIGHT-ARM PULLDOWN

The most mechanical tension on your lats during straight-arm pulldowns is when your arms are at a 90-degree angle with the cable because this is when the lever arm is at its longest.

With the cable anchored above you, keep your torso upright to maximize the strength of your lats in the shortened-to-midrange strength zone. You’ll notice the cable forms roughly a 90-degree angle to your arms when they’re closer to your sides.

Stand with your torso leaning forward roughly parallel to the ground to maximize the development of your lats in the lengthened-to-midrange strength zone. You’ll notice the cable forms roughly a 90-degree angle to your arms when they’re closer to being above your head.

4. LATERAL RAISE

During any style of side shoulder raise, the most mechanical tension on the muscles is when your arm is at a 90-degree angle with the line of force. This is when the lever arm is at its longest.

The dumbbell leaning lateral raise maximizes the strength of your middle (lateral) delts in the shortened-to-midrange strength zone. Here, your arm is parallel to the floor when your shoulder is abducted just above your shoulder.

For the cable lateral raise, anchor the cable at mid-thigh level. This will maximize the development of your middle deltoids in the lengthened-to-midrange strength zone. Here, your arm forms a 90-degree angle to the cable when your arm is by down by your side.

5. ROPE TRICEPS EXTENSION

During any style of triceps extension, the most mechanical tension on the triceps is when your forearm is at a 90-degree angle with the line of force because this is when the lever arm is at its longest.

The rope triceps extension maximizes the strength of your triceps in the shortened-to-midrange strength zone. This is when the cable is perpendicular to your forearm when your elbows are fairly straight.

The rope-behind-the-head triceps extension maximizes the strength and development of your triceps in the lengthened-to-midrange strength zone. This is when the cable is perpendicular to your forearm when your elbows are bent around 90 degrees.

6. CABLE ONE-ARM BICEPS CURL

The cable curl maximizes the development of your biceps in the shortened-to-midrange strength zone because the cable is perpendicular to your forearm when your elbow is bent beyond 90 degrees.

The cable face-away curl maximizes the development of your biceps in the lengthened-to-midrange strength zone because the cable is perpendicular to your forearm when your elbow is fairly straight.

How Many Sets and Reps?

How Many Sets and Reps?

  • For each of these drop sets, do 2 to 3 sets with 2 to 3 minutes rest between sets.
  • For both the first and second parts of each drop set, do 8-12 reps and hit failure.
  • Begin the drop set by using a load that’s light enough to allow you to achieve a minimum of 8 reps in good form while being heavy enough that you can’t perform more than 12 reps.
  • For the second portion of each drop set, lower the load so it once again allows you to hit a minimum of 8 reps, but no more than 12, before reaching failure.
References

References

  1. Iversen VM et al. No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Med. 2021 Oct;51(10):2079-2095. PubMed.
  2. Ebersole KT et al. Mechanomyographic and electromyographic responses to unilateral isometric training. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 May;16(2):192-201. PubMed.
  3. Folland JP et al. Strength training: isometric training at a range of joint angles versus dynamic training. J Sports Sci. 2005 Aug;23(8):817-24. PubMed.
  4. Kitai TA et al. Specificity of joint angle in isometric training. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1989;58(7):744-8. PubMed.

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6 Likes

Can’t wait to try this! Question- should you do all sets of an exercise first then move to the next? Use a circuit? Or is it just personal preference?

Great info Nick! My question is about the rest periods. First we do the first exercise, rest for 2-3 minutes and then we do the second exercise OR we do the first exercise, then the second exercise and the rest for 2-3 minutes?

Thank you

I’m glad to hear you’re excited to try these. You’re going to love them when you do.

Yes! Do all sets of a given strength zone drop-set before moving on to other exercises.

That said, if you’d like, you can do a paired-set using two of these drop-sets. For example:

1a. Biceps drop-set
1b. Rear-delt fly drop-set

alternate between these two drop-sets for 2 to 3 sets before moving on to another paired-set.

3 Likes

Thanks so much! I’m glad you like this info!

You don’t rest within a given drop-set. So, you’ve got it correct when you said " we do the first exercise, then the second exercise and the rest for 2-3 minutes."

2 Likes

Elegant. Somewhat reminds me of Steve Holman’s Positions of Flexion program from back in the '90s.

1 Like

Is there a lower body version of this?

Great stuff here!
With the cable curls with your back to the cables, would stepping forward a little more and adding a stretch to the bicep help? Kind of like inclined seated curls.
Also, what brand is that cable machine you have on the wall?
I could use something like that in my garage to save space.
Thanks for this drop-set workout, can’t wait to try it out!