I'm sure everyone who has seen the inside (or probably even the OUTSIDE) of a gym has heard of a drop set.
They're the most oft used, abused and misunderstood intensity technique circulating in mainstream fitness culture. This has permeated beyond the gym rats and hardcore iron junkies to the casual fitness passerby who has been led to believe that the key to quick, everlasting progress is just MORE.
More of everything! More volume, more intensity, more cardio, more supplements, more disordered thinking, more drugs, and more talking about how fitness you are!
Oops...probably shouldn't have mentioned those last few but I might as well be honest while I have your attention.
The truth is that any culture built on convincing its disciples that the answer to all of their problems is "do more of x" is unhealthy at best and parasitic on average. The truth is that most people who are looked up to in this industry are pulling the strings of their audience as a way to make a quick buck without adding any real value; they're masters of extraction. The truth is that this stuff is actually really simple if you can tune OUT the Niagara Falls of shitty content, clickbait, and gurus and tune IN to your own abilities to think critically and problem solve.
More is not the answer to our problems. Efficiency and effectiveness are.
Tangent aside, I know it might seem like I'm vilifying Drop sets as the manifestation of all gym evil, but that's really not my goal here (unless you're the person who hoards 5 sets of DBs strewn throughout the free weight section for a biceps curl drop set...in that case, politely fuck you). I'm just saying that there are right and wrong ways to not only implement certain techniques, but also to evaluate their best use cases.
We can break drop sets down further into two main classifications and respective definitions:
Load Drop Sets- After taking a set to momentary technical failure, immediately reduce the load by ~20-30% and continue to another failure point. Between one and four load drops are typical.
Mechanical Drop Sets- Take a set to technical failure then manipulate an execution variable (ROM, grip, tempo, foot/hand/bar position, etc) to make the new setup more advantageous thus allowing the set to continue without having to reduce the load.
The differences seem subtle in text but are profound in application.
Think of it this way...Load Drops are using the same movement pattern and extending past failure by reducing the load in accordance with fatigue generation. Mechanical Drops, on the other hand, involve using the same load but actually varying the movement that's being performed.
So which is better?
As is often the case, it depends on context. Different muscle groups and movement patterns will cater better or worse for the application of load or mechanical drops.
For example, the quads would be a prime candidate for Load drops because of the specific variations that isolate the quads (think leg extensions) and a relative lack of freedom within these variations. You could get fancy and perform Mechanical drops for the quads but it would get a little more messy. Much easier to just pound out a few load reductions on a leg extension and call it a day.
Conversely, the delts are perfectly designed to take full advantage of Mechanical drops. Because of the joint structure and the infinite ways in which delt exercises can be modified while retaining intent, it's pretty easy to see how we could construct some pretty fun and unique sequences.
DB Lu Raises -> DB Laterals -> DB Upright Rows
DB Laterals -> DB Lateral Partials -> Neutral Grip DB OHP
Bent Over DB Y Raises -> DB Laterals -> DB Poliquin Raises
Note the feature here...Going from the most challenging, weakest positions towards the more mechanically favorable patterns while NOT having to change modalities. This creates efficiency and effectiveness!
As a coach, there might not be an intensity technique that I refer to more often when designing Delt-biased programs than Mechanical Drop Sets. The key is not derived from the concept of "more". We have excommunicated that ideology. No, proper use of this technique is founded on the constant search for optimization.
We know that the Delts respond well to high volumes and variability. Load drops give us a hefty dose of volume, but Mechanical drops are the best way to combine intensity, volume, and variation while being risk-averse and accounting for real-world time constraints.
If you've never tried these out, your delts would like a word with you.