Mechanical Drop Sets
By Sarah Rippel
Back when I was a bodybuilder, I was introduced to a plethora of methods used to increase intensity and promote “the gainz.” More often than not, these techniques were basically just evil methods of torture!
Anyone in the world of strength sports will tell you that you gotta get a little crazy if you want to make progress. The key is in knowing when to unleash the crazy…and when to stop!
If you were to implement one of these torture methods for every set of every exercise in a training session, you would probably not be able to get out of bed the following day and well, that’s obviously just a really dumb idea to do that to oneself!
Techniques such as partial reps, burnouts, pre-exhaust, supersets/giant sets, and drop sets are just a handful of the torturesome methods of which I became familiar as a young lifter.
Drop sets are a relatively straightforward way to push the envelope. In a traditional drop set, you basically start with a heavier load and perform reps to technical failure, then drop the loading and repeat. This typically goes on for two or more drops, meaning you’d use at least three different loads for one set.
In a mechanical drop set, the external loading is typically none at all or doesn’t change throughout the set. Bodyweight exercises work really well with this technique! In addition, a good grasp of loading positions & stances will enable you to structure drop sets that keep the same external loading but move from more challenging positions to more stable.
A simple example of a mechanical drop set for a push-up could be:
- Floor Push-Up x 2-4 reps
- Hands-Elevated Push-Up x 2-4 reps
- Push-Up from Knees x 2-4 reps
*All reps done @2020 tempo (2 seconds lowering, no pause at bottom position, 2 seconds to press up, no pause at top position)
*Do not rest between variations! Move immediately from the floor push-up to the hands-elevated position, then to the knees on ground.
In the floor push-up, the body is in a lengthened position and parallel to the ground. From here, we decrease the loading by placing hands on an elevated surface while keeping the body in the lengthened position. To further decrease the loading we take things back to the ground but decrease the length of the body by performing the push-up from the knees instead of feet.
When you understand that “loading” the body can be accomplished in more ways than simply adding external load, you will quickly see how mechanical drop sets can be structured!
A Quick Rundown of Loading Positions & Stances
Those of you who have purchased “The Ultimate Group Training System,” “Build ‘N Burn 2.0,” &/or “Home Program Design Mastery” know that I really love to use stances as well as loading positions to progress and regress exercises. These are two simple concepts that can have a huge impact on not only the programs you design, but your clients’ overall strength and ability to seamlessly progress over the course of those programs!
Stance refers to foot position. Changing the stance affects how the body is loaded, with regard to both the external load as well as the “loading” that results from having to stabilize against forces created by reducing the base of support.
In a nutshell, one should be able to use heavier loads when in a more stable stance. Progression is created by keeping the load the same but moving on to more challenging foot positions.
Think about how much harder it would be to perform a one-arm push-up than a standard push-up. No, we aren’t talking foot position with this example but in this case, the hands are not unlike the feet in that they are responsible for putting force into the ground!
Our “stance” in this case moves from four points of support to three. More stable to a lot less stable! No rotational forces acting on the body in the standard push-up but whoa, take one arm away and you have to keep everything engaged to prevent dropping that unsupported side to the ground!
To give even more clarity, here are a few stance progressions for various exercises. I am keeping these basic to show the positions I use most often with clients, but there are other possible stances that could be added. In addition, I am adding some “stepping” variations that are considered to be progressions from the basic stances.
Basic Overhead Press Stance Progression:
Basic Bent-Over Row Stance Progression:
Basic Squat Stance Progression:
Basic Good Morning/Deadlift/Power Clean Stance Progression:
Loading position refers to how the external load is held. Just as with stances, changing the loading position affects how the body is loaded, with regard to both the external load as well as the “loading” that results from having to stabilize against forces created by more challenging positions.
Basically, one should be able to use heavier loads when the loading position is less challenging. Progression is created by keeping the load the same but moving on to more challenging loading positions.
For the meatheads out there, think about the first time you ever tried doing front squats. I remember hating them, first off (lol, & today I love them) but also being blown away at just how much difference moving the bar from the back rack to front rack position made the squat itself. I also remember being pleasantly surprised at how sore my abs were the following day!
To give clarity, here are a few loading position progressions for various exercises. I am keeping these basic to show the positions I use most often with clients, but there are other possible positions that could be added.
Basic Squat Loading Position Progression – Ultimate Sandbag:
Basic Squat Loading Position Progression – Kettlebells:
Basic Step-Up Loading Position Progression – Ultimate Sandbag:
Basic Step-Up Loading Position Progression – Kettlebells:
- Double Suitcase
- Offset-Loaded (heavier load on same side as trailing leg)
- Mixed-Carry (suitcase on same side as stepping leg & racked on same side as trailing leg)
Mechanical Drop Sets: Putting It All Together
A mechanical drop set does not involve “drops” in loading but instead, changes to positions that decrease the “loading” on the body. Because of this, you do not have to amass a small pile of dumbbells or plates. Instead, you must plan ahead and know your abilities.
Let’s say you can perform a max set of five ring pull-ups, and you’ve decided to perform simple mechanical drop sets of ring pull-ups followed by hinged pull-ups. You have a few options with regard to how many reps of each movement you perform.
The first option is pretty straightforward. You can strive to eke out up to five reps on the pull-ups and then go to technical failure on the hinged pull-ups. By technical failure I mean to the point where you could do 1-2 more reps, but they would be pretty ugly. Basically, if you stop when you begin to notice your form is slipping, or you are wanting to cheat the movement, you’re doing it right!
Personally, the above pairing would work well for me, but if I opted for assisted pull-ups (which I also call “squatty” pull-ups) instead of the hinged pull-ups, it would be difficult to achieve the desired training effect, as the assisted pull-ups are too easy for me. If someone was able to knock out a gazillion pull-ups, the above pairing wouldn’t be optimal either. A better option would be to perform weighted pull-ups followed by regular pull-ups.
In general, depending on the difficulty of the chosen exercises, as well as the loading, this strategy could result in some soreness and possibly a ton of reps (if you don’t use sufficient loading or choose variations that are too easy for your level of ability)!
Another option is to have a rep goal for the entire drop set. If you set that rep goal at 10, then knocked out four ring pull-ups, you would then aim for six hinged pull-ups. The rep goal could stay the same across all mechanical drop set rounds, or you could decrease it to account for fatigue (ie: 10 reps for the first round, 9 reps for the second, and 8 reps for the third).
Additionally, a rep goal could be a range, not a set number. So instead of aiming for a goal of 10 reps, you could aim for 8-10 and achieve this across all rounds or decrease it slightly to account for fatigue.
There are other ways in which you could plan the rep schemes (or work intervals, if you’re using a timer instead of reps), but I don’t feel there’s a need to make things overly complicated! After all, the goal is to get in some quality work without having to think too much about it!
Mechanical drop sets allow you to train a specific exercise (or pattern) with good technique, then extend the set by means of an easier variation to achieve a desired training effect. This strategy could be very beneficial if you are working to build to larger sets of more challenging variations or are simply wanting to put in more work overall!
Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll be bringing you some examples of how mechanical drop sets can be used within workouts!
In the meantime check out more from Sarah below:)
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