Mondays With Thibs: Jack Up Your Arms With Mechanical Drop Sets
by Christian Thibaudeau
When a coach is short of ideas and the blank page syndrome is about to set in, there's always a bright light at the end of the tunnel. A subject that's easy to write about and guaranteed to please: arm training secrets!
However, since writing a "big guns" article is the easy way out for most, there's very little left to be discussed, and few of those articles give you anything new to spark growth in your favorite limbs (okay, second favorite if you catch my drift).
Bucking that trend, this article will present a very cool and effective way to make those arms of yours muy grande: the mechanical drop set.
By now, most of you know what a drop set is. For those who were either living in a cave or are just recovering from a painful Pilates addiction, here is, in short, how they work.
Drop sets are basically a way to extend a set past the point where you can't complete any more reps of an exercise. Normally, a drop set consists of reducing the amount of weight on the bar to allow the trainee to perform more reps.
For example, say you start with 80 pounds on the preacher curl and bang out 8 reps. You'd then immediately reduce the weight by 10 to 20% (to 60 to 70 pounds), and without any rest, continue to perform more reps.
This is a fairly straightforward technique, and yes, it's incredibly effective when properly used.
The method that I'll present relies on the same basic principle, which is to change an exercise parameter to continue the set. However, with the mechanical drop set, instead of reducing the load, you switch to a new, but similar exercise (by changing the grip, angle, etc.).
Mechanical drop sets can be applied to all muscle groups, but today we'll focus on the arm flexors (biceps, brachialis, and brachioradialis).
Mechanical Drop Set #1: Bilateral to Unilateral Dumbbell Curl
This technique is based on the general principle that you can lift more weight when performing a movement unilaterally (one side at a time). Reason being, the neural drive is focused on the one active side, thus more high-threshold motor units can be recruited.
When it comes to alternate dumbbell curls, there's also the fact that the non-working arm can rest a few seconds after each rep, allowing for partial recovery of ATP.
For this first option, start by doing seated dumbbell curls, both arms at the same time. When you can't complete a full rep, take two or three seconds of rest and continue the set by doing the seated dumbbell curls alternatively (one arm at a time). When you can't complete any more seated reps, stand up and continue with the alternate curls.
For the standing curls, a slight cheating motion is allowed, but no swinging — this isn't a lower back exercise! The goal is to get around three or four more reps when you're standing up. If you do more than that, you're either using too much momentum or you didn't go hard enough on the first two parts of the exercise.
So, the whole thing looks like this:
A1) Bilateral seated dumbbell curls for 6 to 8 reps
A2) Unilateral seated dumbbell curls for as many reps as you can
A3) Unilateral standing dumbbell curls for as many reps as you can
Mechanical Drop Set #2: Weak to Strong Multi-Grip Dumbbell Curl
With this mechanical drop set, the multi-grip method has the advantage of thoroughly stimulating all of the arm flexor muscles (long and short head of the biceps, brachialis, and brachoradialis).
You use three different curling grips, starting with the weakest (reverse/pronated), moving on to the second strongest (regular/supinated), and finishing up with the strongest grip (hammer).
Because of the strength differences in the grips, even if you reach a point where you can't complete another rep with one grip, you'll be able to do more work when switching to a stronger one.
Here's how you set up this multi-grip curl:
A1) Dumbbell reverse curls for 6 to 8 reps
A2) Dumbbell curls for as many reps as you can
A3) Dumbbell hammer curls for as many reps as you can
Mechanical Drop Set #3: Strong to Strongest Multi-Grip Dumbbell Curl
This is a variation of the preceding method where you'll still use three different grips, but you drop the weakest one (reverse) and add an even stronger grip at the end (cross-body hammer).
By doing so, you'll place a greater growth stimulus on the brachialis, which is perfect for giving the arms a thick, three-dimensional look.
This second version of multi-grip curls looks like this:
A1) Dumbbell curls for 6 to 8 reps
A2) Dumbbell hammer curls for as many reps as you can
A3) Dumbbell cross-body hammer curls for as many reps as you can
Dumbbell cross-body hammer curl
Mechanical Drop Set #4: Multi-Grip Barbell Curl
Even though we're swapping out the dumbbells for a barbell, this is somewhat similar to the preceding two options in that the different movements allow you to completely stimulate all of the main arm flexors.
The reverse barbell curl will greatly activate the brachioradialis and brachialis, the drag curl emphasizes the brachialis and outer portion of the biceps (long head), and the standing barbell curl targets the whole biceps.
Here's a set of multi-grip curls with a barbell:
A1) Reverse barbell curls for 6 to 8 reps
A2) Drag curls for as many reps as you can
A3) Standing barbell curls for as many reps as you can
Note: To perform a drag curl, as you curl the weight up, keep your elbows tucked in to your sides, bring your elbows back slightly, and keep the bar brushing against your body during the whole movement.
Mechanical Drop Set #5: Multi-Width Preacher Curl
Grip width, and how it influences arm flexor recruitment, comes into play with this last mechanical drop set.
Specifically, the wider the grip is in relation to the elbows, the more the focus is placed on the inner portion (short head) of the biceps. As the grip gets closer (still compared to the elbows), the long head, and eventually brachialis, are brought into play more and more.
So, switching grip widths gives you another way to completely annihilate your upper arms.
A set of multi-width preacher curls is done like so:
A1) Wide-grip/elbows-in preacher curls for 6 to 8 reps
A2) Medium-grip preacher curls for as many reps as you can
A3) Close-grip preacher curls for as many reps as you can
Drop Sets, Add Inches
These are all powerful mechanical drop sets that can be used to ignite new biceps growth. They allow you to recruit more muscle fibers by increasing work output, as well as maximally stimulating all three main arm flexors, ripping off the door to new arm size.
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