By: Eric Lichter (As Told to Josh Staph)
Drop Set = A set of 10 repetitions with maximum load, followed immediately by 10 more reps with a load 20-30 percent lighter, followed immediately by a final 10 reps with a load 30-40 percent lighter – intended to thoroughly fatigue the muscle.
Although a serious football player’s primary goal should not be to increase muscle mass and size, growth-inducing training does have a time, place and payoff. Co-owners of Speed Strength Systems, Eric Lichter and Tim Robertson, use drop set training seasonally with their clients—an impressive group that includes London Fletcher and Nate Clements of the Buffalo Bills, Tony Fisher of the Green Bay Packers, LeCharles Bentley of the New Orleans Saints and Antonio Gates of the San Diego Chargers.
Drop sets supplement more functional forms of weightlifting, increase muscle size and conditioning, and build a framework for more strength-oriented goals.
Now that you know who is performing drop sets, let’s listen in as Lichter tells us the what, when and why.
What You Can Drop
You can perform drop sets with almost any non-explosive lift. We focus primarily on the upper body with close-grip bench press, shoulder press and bicep curls. But you can do drop sets on any upper body lift and get great results. On the lower body we do squats, leg curls, leg extensions and calf raises.
Why You Should Drop
The primary reason to use drop sets is for the hypertrophy and endurance effects—building muscle and increasing the cross-sectional area of the muscle fiber. By doing a drop set, you create a ton of lactic acid in the muscle, which causes the pituitary gland to release growth hormone rather than testosterone. When you do sets of four to five reps with 90 percent of your max, you release testosterone, a strength-building hormone. Growth hormone increases the size of muscle, not strength.
The second reason for drop setting is to improve conditioning and your ability to deal with lactic acid. For instance, when we do drop sets on the squat, it’s not to get an athlete faster, but to build up his leg muscles and condition his body to deal with the demands of a tiring game. It prepares muscles to maintain a high performance level over four quarters after they have been taxed and fatigued.
When You Should Drop
We perform drop sets at the beginning of a training cycle, when we are in the endurance and hypertrophy phase of the western periodization progression. Following this phase are strength and power phases. Skipping the hypertrophy phase is like building a house without a foundation. You don’t want to try to get strong before you have conditioned the muscles to deal with endurance factors. Using drop sets helps condition muscles, preparing them to deal with lactic acid and making a physiological change. They will be prepared to go from 60-70 percent loads to 80-85 percent loads, resulting in strength gains.
Generally, the larger the cross-section of muscle, the more force the muscle can produce. You can only do so much training at 60 percent of your max though. Initially you’ll increase muscle fiber size, cross-sectional area and diameter of fibers. But if you train only that way, muscle growth will eventually plateau. You need to move on to the next training phase and increase the loads to up the size of the fibers and get stronger at the same time.
You don’t want to perform drop sets for more than two to four weeks. After that, the body adjusts to the stimulus. An athlete who has never done any type of drop set work can expect a huge spike in the size of his muscle. Creating a new angle or recruitment pattern for muscles and nerves to engage is the point of any training. If strength is your goal, tricking your muscles with a new angle to produce force will help you achieve goals. For increased muscle mass, new patterns like drop sets or supersets will catch your muscles off guard. Change the order, rep scheme or recovery to give your muscles a new stimulus, regardless of your goal.
Because drop sets are taxing on the muscles, an athlete should only perform them on the larger muscles once a week. However, a conditioned athlete can work the smaller, upper body muscles up to twice a week, because these muscles recover quicker. An untrained athlete shouldn’t jump into a large number of drop sets. We generally prescribe one to three drop sets per muscle group with two to three minutes recovery between sets, depending on the athlete’s level of conditioning.
Drop sets are not a training panacea. Use drop sets for what they are intended, and move in and out of this training seasonally to give muscles a boost and keep them growing. Drop sets should not be at the top of your priority list as a football player. Improving the functionality of muscles and incorporating total body movements with Olympic lifts and multi-joint, multi-directional lifts trump this training. Drop sets are a secondary method of lifting—or a way to finish a workout, not start one. We do drop sets at the end of a workout, when we isolate a muscle to build it. Drop sets can’t replace the important training staples. They are not a substitute, but a supplement. One training method alone is never enough to become stronger, more explosive and more athletic overall.
Someone who likes challenges or is very intense, hardworking and mentally tough will love this training, because he will be challenged in new ways. Athletes who don’t train hard in the weight room and aren’t mentally tough might not be able to handle this.Use the drop set formula with the following lifts to see if you are man enough for Lichter’s challenge.
Close-Grip Bench Press
• Lie on back on bench
• Grasp bar with six to eight inches between hands
• Lower bar with control until it touches base of sternum keeping elbows tucked
• Drive bar up until arms are fully extended
Standing Shoulder Press
• Hold bar with shoulder-width grip so that it is across collarbones
• Without arching back, press bar overhead until arms are straight
• Lower with control
• Grip bar slightly wider than shoulder-width
• Curl bar up to chin level keeping elbows locked in place
• Lower bar with control
• Begin with bar on back in athletic stance with toes pointing slightly out
• Focus on high point on wall in front of you
• Squat down with control and good posture until thighs are just below parallel
• Keep weight back on heels
• Drive upward out of squat into starting position keeping eyes up and chest out
• Sit on leg extension machine with feet locked under pads
• Raise weight by contracting quadriceps until legs are straight
• Lower with control
• Lie down on leg curl machine with heels locked under pads
• Bring heels to butt by contracting hamstrings
• Lower with control until legs are straight
• Stand with bar across back in hip-wide stance
• Press into floor with toes until heels rise off ground