2015-06-24

Calisthenic Drop Sets

There seems to be a real dearth of hard facts on the topic of drop sets. When I search, I find scant physiological evidence justifying their use in strength training. I do, however, find many anecdotes related to use of the technique. Some of those anecdotes are favorable to the use of drop sets, and some are not. I've yet to form an opinion, so the search is of interest to me.

What Is A Drop Set?

Simply put, a "drop set" is when you reach muscle failure during a strength training workout as usual, and then immediately drop 20% of the pounds you're lifting, and do another set to muscle failure.

The best description of what a drop set is - at least the best one that I can find, and the one that actually offers up a citation of some kind - can be found at BodyBuilding.com. Here's what they have to say about how the technique was developed:
According to Arnold's Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, the drop set method was originally "discovered" in 1947 by Henry Atkins, editor of Body Culture magazine. Atkins called it the "multi-poundage system." Since then, this muscle blasting technique has gone by many different names including breakdowns, descending sets, triple-drops, down the rack, strip sets or the stripping technique.
I cite that passage to underscore that this is mostly a trial-and-error workout technique, i.e. there does not seem to be any physiological basis for it. But, speaking of physiology, here is their description of how it works:
Even though you may reach a point of momentary muscular failure after 8-12 reps in a conventional straight set, you haven't reached absolute failure; you've only reached failure with that poundage. You see, in a single straight set performed to failure, you don't activate every fiber in a muscle group. You only recruit the number of fibers necessary to lift a particular weight for the desired number of repetitions. By stripping off weight and continuing the set, you cumulatively recruit more and more "reserve" muscle fibers. 
Drop sets hit the "stubborn" muscle fibers "deep down," causing growth that normally couldn't be achieved by stopping after a single set of six to twelve.
I reiterate, these are claims without evidence. Still, that should give you an idea of what a drop set is, how to do it, and what people are thinking about physiology when they advocate for doing drop sets.

A blog called "FitFlex" offers up a more scientific explanation, although it, too, is bereft of citations and more or less consists of the author's personal belief about the physiology behind drop sets.

And that, friends, is as much as I've been able to find on the subject.

Stationary Waves Modified Drop Sets; Or, Calisthenic Drop Sets

I have very little interest in body building and efficient muscle gain, but I have a great interest in being stronger and healthier overall. As such, I'm always interested in trying out new workout ideas and seeing how they affect me in terms of both fitness and blood glucose control.

This week, I decided to try a little experiment. Rather than doing straight drop sets - and, in particular, rather than immediately finishing off my lifts with a drop set - I thought to myself, What if I took the muscle groups I focused on today and added a calisthenics exercise targeting those muscles at the end of my workout? In other words, what if I lifted weights as usual, pushing myself to muscle failure, and then set aside some time at the end of, say, a tricep/chest day to do some push-ups.

So I've been doing this as follows:
  • Tricep / Chest day: Finish with push-ups
  • Bicep / Back day: Finish with pull-ups
  • Shoulder day: Finish with push-ups targeting the shoulders (e.g. decline push-ups)
  • Leg day: (I do plyometrics for leg day - this one's already covered.)
The results? Well, I don't measure the size of my muscles, but I seem to have gained a couple of pounds, and most importantly, my muscles feel like they're getting a better workout. Whereas I normally cover from a weight workout by the next morning (in terms of how I feel, anyway), lately the tiredness has lasted 2 or 3 days. 

This is great, I think, because I only work out each muscle group once a week, not counting a few groups that are impossible not to duplicate, like abs and triceps.

My initial conclusion is that "calisthenic drop sets" are a good addition to a strength training routine.