Drop sets are relatively advanced types of workouts where the goal is to perform an exercise (on the same muscle group) while decreasing weight until fatigue or failure prevents you from completing the next repetition.
Drop sets produce muscle growth as well as muscle stamina. In calisthenics fitness tests, having the ability to do multiple repetitions for a two-minute period takes time, as the first repetition of a pull-up is a strength exercise but the 20th repetition is a muscle stamina (strength-endurance) exercise.
Here are some useful drop sets that utilize the concept to improve muscle growth as well as muscle stamina/endurance in common fitness testing events:
Bench Press/Push-up Combo
A way to simulate the final 30 seconds of a two-minute push-up test is to do a regular set of the bench press that borders on fatigue on the last rep or needing a spotter after failing, then immediately try as many push-ups as you can. If you can get more than 10, you did not do enough bench press reps.
After this drop set, rest with a pulling exercise like dumbbell rows or pull-ups. Catch your breath and do it again. The set reps look like this: Repeat 4-5 times.
- Bench press: 10-15 reps (pick a weight that pushes your limits)
- Push-ups max: Immediately after bench
- Dumbbell rows: 10/arm (or pull-ups)
- Rest as needed.
This routine is helpful when stuck on your max-rep push-ups and you must hit the 80-100 range for advanced scores on two-minute push-up tests. Only do this once a week, with two more upper-body days spread throughout the week. Focus more on calisthenics and cardio if PT testing improvement is your goal.
Leg Day Drop Set
This one is particularly tough and requires a bit of prior weight training, but these weights are also adjustable to your abilities. Here is one we did this week: Repeat 3-4 times.
- Back squat: 225 pounds -- until final good repetition (not complete failure)
- Back squat: 135 pounds -- until final good repetition (not complete failure)
- Squat jump: 30 seconds
- Air squats: 1 minute
- Wall sit: 1 minute
- Run or bike: 5 minutes
This one is just a tough leg day, and it is not recommended unless you are experienced in a combination of lifting moderately heavy and can do high-repetition calisthenics in workouts such as the Murph (300 squats) or 400-meter walking lunges without stopping. We call this one "bulletproofing" your legs for load-bearing activities like rucking, running with boats, and log PT lunges or squats.
Pull-up/Pulling Drop Set
Many people get stuck in their max repetition pull-up tests. If you are in the single digits and looking to push into the teens with your repetitions or even hit 20+, try this drop set for pull-up/pulling muscles.
Repeat 3-4 times.
- Pull-ups max
- Negative pull-ups: 1-2
- Assisted pull-ups: 3-4
- Pulldowns (heavy): 4-5
- Or dumbbell rows (heavy): 4-5
- Biceps curls: 10-15
- Bike or row: 5 minutes
This will exhaust your pulling muscle group very quickly. Take time between sets to get the blood back down to your torso/legs and see whether you can repeat it a few more times.
Enjoy the training method that you may have done for years if you lifted weights or tried to gain muscle. These individual drop sets are meant to be accomplished on different days -- not all in the same workout.
Drop sets make for a nice transition into military fitness test/event training seen throughout the military and special ops selection programs.
Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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