When you first start lifting weights, you’ll spend a lot of time thinking: damn, these weights are heavy. But at some point, as you lift more and make bigger gains, you’ll start to experience the opposite problem—These weights are too light... how am I supposed to get a good workout?
Maybe it’ll happen while you’re traveling and working out in a hotel gym where you're surrounded by equipment you don't normally use. Maybe you’ll be working out at home. But sooner or later, you’ll be wishing there was a way to make your lifting workout harder.
Heck, it might not even be about having heavier weights available. Sometimes you just need a way to really blast your muscles and feel the burn. As it happens, there’s a technique that can help: mechanical advantage drop sets.
How Mechanical Advantage Drop Sets Work
A mechanical advantage drop set consists of two to four closely related exercises—usually variants of the same exercise—performed in quick succession, as a superset.
Some exercises allow you to exert more force than others, even those that target the same muscle groups. For instance, you can lift more weight with a normal-grip bench press compared to using a narrower or wider grip. In engineering parlance, the movements that allow you to lift more weight provide your muscles with greater mechanical advantage.
A normal drop set starts out with a heavy weight and gradually reduces the weight throughout the exercise. A mechanical advantage drop set achieves a similar effect by transitioning from exercises that provide less mechanical advantage to those that offer more mechanical advantage. You use the same weight throughout, but it feels lighter.
At the same time, each component exercise is performed to muscle failure, or near muscle failure, in order to completely fatigue the targeted muscle tissues. Proximity to failure varies somewhat, but generally people will push themselves a little harder on the final exercise, leaving “reps in the tank” on earlier ones.
For example, the aforementioned bench press drop set would consist of:
–Wide-grip bench press to near-failure
–Close-grip bench press to near failure
–Normal-grip bench press to failure (only if a spotter is present, otherwise near failure)
In between each exercise, keep rest periods short, anywhere from 5 to 30 seconds.
Related: Cluster Sets for Strength and Power
Why Mechanical Advantage is Advantageous
This training method allows you to use lighter weights to effectively provide the same level of intensity as a heavier weight. That comes in very handy when you’re exercising outside of a fully-equipped gym.
For instance, I can use 90-pounds dumbbells on some exercises, but the adjustable-weight dumbbells I have at home only go up to 50 pounds. Many hotel gyms only have dumbbells up to 40-60 pounds, and don’t have barbells at all. And resistance bands can sometimes present a similar issue.
You probably don’t want to lift a light weight for 30+ reps, since that’s boring, time-consuming, and generally not a very effective training method. But supersetting three quick sets of 4-6 reps each? That you can do.
There’s also the advantage of variety. Since you’re doing several different exercises, you’re spreading the training load across different muscles and different regions of a given muscle.
Finally, this technique allows you to really pile on the training fatigue. And while causing fatigue is not the goal of exercise, training closer to failure does result in higher muscle activation. Not to mention, pushing yourself once in a while reminds you what hard work really feels like.
Try These 8 Mechanical Advantage Drop Sets
For a quick, simple but challenging workout, pick 4-6 of these exercises below and do 2-4 sets of each.
Barbell or dumbbell bench press: Wide-grip, close-grip, normal grip
Incline dumbbell chest presses: High incline, moderate incline, slight incline, flat bench
Quadriceps: Long-stride lunges, narrow-stride lunges, goblet squats
Barbell rows: wide-grip, narrow-grip, underhand grip
Note: Underhand grip will be easier only if you start using your biceps more, effectively making it halfway between a row and curl.
Pull-ups/chin-ups: Wide-grip overhand, narrow-grip overhand, parallel grip, underhand grip
Shoulders: Rear delt fly, butterfly lateral raise, front raise, Arnold press
Dumbbell curls: Reverse curls, hammer curls, Zottman curls, traditional curls
Deadlifts: Stiffed-legged deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, traditional deadlifts
Note: Set the weight on the floor and reset after each rep for the traditional deadlifts only.
John Fawkes is an NSCA certified personal trainer based in Los Angeles.