In many books and articles about bodybuilding, this is presented as a step-by-step method. This method is expressed by the gradual decrease of the working weight, once we’ve reached failure. (Don’t confuse this with drop-sets)
Usually, after the point of failure, there are one, two or three (3 is the upper limit) weight reductions following up.
Disregarding the individual characteristics, most bodybuilders go along with the following scheme:
Set until failure, using 85% of your 1RM (5-6 repetitions).
Step 1: 2 repetitions, using 90% of the STARTING weight, used in the set until failure.
Step 2: 2-3 repetitions, using 80% of the starting weight.
Step 3: 2-3 repetitions, using 70% of the starting weight.
As we already mentioned above, elite bodybuilders don’t use more than two steps, after reaching failure. Practically, this method implies one big, exhausting set, that includes 3 failures in 9-11 repetitions. All of this shows that the prolonged sets method is mainly used in the off-season, as a tool for hypertrophy.
Theoretically, this method of gradual decrease in intensity, that is used as means of reaching the point beyond failure, is equivalent to the method of forced repetitions.
However, there have been a couple of differences, that confirm the need of differentiation in these popular bodybuilding methods.
For example, while the forced repetitions are not recommended for most of the machines in the gym, the prolonged sets would be the perfect tool for them. That is simply because, your training partner can easily take off a couple of disks off of your leg press (for example), while it would be ridiculous for him to push the platform with you, using the method of forced repetitions.
This step by step method is very effective during the off-season, as well as the on-season, where you would have different requirements for its optimal completion.
Appropriate exercises for this method:
- Pec deck machine
- Parallel bar dips
- Every cable exercise (pull-downs, rows)
- T-Bar rows
- Shoulder press machine
- Lateral raise delt machine
- Every cable curls
- Preacher curl (machine)
- Every cable exercises
- Leg press
- Hack squats
- Leg extension
- Hamstring curls (laying, standing, seated)
- Calf raises (standing, seated)
Drop sets are a variation of the prolonged sets, as the main difference between them is the significantly bigger decrease in weight.
So, for example, if your last set on the exercise incline barbell bench press was completed using 120 kg for 8 reps, then the drop set would make you go down to 85 kg for another 8 repetitions. Then another reduction follows up, where you go down to 60 kg for another 8 repetitions.
Unlike the prolonged sets method, drop sets can be used for every exercise of the given muscle group. Drop sets are especially adequate when it comes to training the back musculature.
In regards to methodologies however, the differences are way deeper, which need a better explanation.
Through prolonged sets, as an intense method, we chase the idea of an additional exhaustion of the muscle glycogen after the point of failure, but in the period of no more than 20 seconds.
Unlike them, during drop sets, in reality, we observe a big triple set, in the background of a bigger weight reduction, as the total duration of the set significantly exceeds the 20 second period.
All of this shows us that the prolonged sets (intense method) are pointed towards maximum and optimal hypertrophy, during the off-season, while the drop sets, is a typical quality method, effective mainly during our cutting phase.