Drop-Down Sets

A workout with drop-down sets (also called drop sets) is a great way to build strength and keep your workouts interesting. You'll start with a weight that's a little heavier than what you're used to — say 8 pounds for a biceps curl, for example — and then once that weight is too heavy after a few reps, you'll go back down to your usual weight, which might be 5 pounds in this case.

If you want to try drop-down sets, write down the exercises you want to do for each muscle group, and then try each exercise with a slightly heavier weight than what you're used to. You can even do drop-down sets with weight machines (this workout program combines free weights and machines). If you sit down, for example, on a leg-extension machine and you typically use 45 pounds, you can start by using 55 pounds, then drop down after the weight gets too heavy. And you can mix machines and dumbbells if you want, too. And each exercise might have its own combination of reps.

There are a number of ways and reasons to change your resistance program. First, your muscles get used to a program and stop responding as quickly to whatever exercises and weights you're using. Second, it's boring to just lift the same weights in the same pattern over and over. Third, no one exercise works all of the muscles in a muscle group completely, so changing exercises and routines means you're more likely to create balanced muscles and work most of the muscles.

Drop-down sets work because your body responds to the challenge of using the heavy weight, but you aren't overstressing your body by doing too many reps with that heavier weight. Also, by using the heavy weight first, you can do a few more reps in total since you are using the heavy weight before doing a set with the lighter weights.

Eventually, you'll do an entire set with the heavier weight. Once you get to that point, you have a choice: you can do a second set with the light weights, or you can pick out a heavier weight yet again and start the whole drop set process all over.

For example, let's look at the one-armed biceps curl:

Week One (three times a week):

3 reps with 8 lbs., 9 reps with 5 lbs.

Week Two (three times a week):

5 reps with 8 lbs., 7 reps with 5 lbs.

Week Three (three times a week):

7 reps with 8 lbs., 5 reps with 5 lbs.

Week Four (three times a week):

10 reps with 8 lbs., 2 reps with 5 lbs.

You could even, if you want, vary the weights more, such as:

Week Five (three times a week):

3 reps with 10 lbs., 3 reps with 8 lbs., 6 reps with 5 lbs.

So, on a Monday, your workout might look like this:

  • One-armed bicep curl:

  • Tricep kickback:

  • Leg-extension machine:

  • Leg-curl machine:

  • Lat pulldown machine:

  • Cable row:

  • Squats with barbell or dumbbells:

  • Chest press machine:

  • Lateral raises with dumbbells:

5 reps/8 lbs.; 7 reps/5 lbs.

7 reps/12 lbs.; 5 reps 10 lbs.

10 reps/45 lbs.; 2 reps/40 lbs.

8 reps/50 lbs.; 4 reps/45 lbs.

10 reps/50 lbs.; 2 reps/45 lbs.

10 reps/35 lbs.; 2 reps/30 lbs.

4 reps/20 lbs.; 8 reps/15 lbs.

10 reps/15 lbs.; 2 reps/12 lbs.

8 reps/10 lbs.; 4 reps/8 lbs.

One-armed Biceps Curls

Stand with your feet about hip distance apart, with a slight bend in your knees, your shoulders down, and your abs contracted. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand, with your palm facing out. Bend your elbow and bring your hand slowly up to your shoulder. Lower down. Do this for the full set of reps with the different weights, then switch to the other side.

Triceps Kickbacks

Stand with your feet about hip distance apart, with a slight bend in your knees, your shoulders down, and your abs contracted. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Put your left hand on your left thigh and bend forward from your hips, keeping your back straight and your hips in line with each other (i.e., don't tilt to one side). Bend your right elbow and bring your hand in near your shoulder. Then straighten your right arm so that your hand goes back to your hip. Return your hand to the start position. Do this for the full set of reps, then switch to the other side.

Triceps kickback

Leg Extensions

Sit on a leg-extension machine, making sure your joints line up as directed by the instructions on the machine (use a back rest if necessary). Keeping your shoulders down, your abs contracted, and your back pressed gently into the pad, straighten your legs without locking your knees at the end of the move. Bend your knees, controlling the weight as you lower it. Do your reps following the drop-set schedule.

Leg Curls

Sit on a leg curl machine, making sure your joints line up as they should (use a back rest if necessary). Keep your shoulders down, your abs contracted, and your back pressed gently into the pad. Bend your knees, controlling the weight as you move your legs. Do your reps following the drop-set schedule.

Lat Pulldowns

Sit at a lat-pulldown machine, facing the weight stack. You might have to stand on the seat to grab the bar, but make sure your feet are flat on the floor when you do your reps. Lean back just a little as you bring the bar down to just above your chest, without hunching your shoulders. When you let the bar go up again, stay in control of it — don't let your arms straighten completely. Do your reps following the drop-set schedule.

Cable Row

Sit on a cable-row machine with your knees gently bent, your shoulders relaxed, and your arms extended, but your elbows not locked. First contract the middle of your back, then without moving anything but your arms, bend your elbows and bring them behind your arms without raising your shoulders. Go back to the start position. Do your reps following the drop-set schedule.

Squats

Holding 10-pound dumbbells or a barbell at your shoulders, and keeping your feet hip distance apart, bend your knees and squat down slowly as if you're going down into a chair. Try to keep your weight back toward your heels. Stay down for a second, then come back up again, squeezing your butt cheeks together at the top. Do your reps following the drop-set schedule.

Squats

The Chest Press Machine

Lie on your back, with the bars at middle-chest level. Your wrists should be straight. Your lower back should be pressed gently into the seat. If you're short, feel free to put your feet on the bench. Your elbows should be bent at the start. Then straighten them, but be sure that you don't lock your elbows at the top of the move. Lower your arms back down. Do your reps following the drop-set schedule.

Lateral Raises

Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, feet hip distance apart. Start with your arms by your sides, elbows and knees in very slight bends. Raise your arms out to your sides without scrunching up your shoulders. Bring your arms back down to your sides. Do your reps following the drop-set schedule.

Hip distance apart isn't very wide. Put your fists together side by side (thumbs touching, pinkies farthest from each other), then place them on the floor. Put your feet on either side of your hands. That's hip distance (from hip bone to hip bone). If your hips appear much wider than that, it's most likely fat, not bone.

Of course, you have to write down a lot of information (reps, weights, and sets) with this type of program, but that will allow you to focus on each muscle you're working and give each exercise very specific attention to weight and reps.

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