Descending Sets

By:  Doug Daniels 
     All lifters are looking for a different type of training method they can use in their endless quest for a bigger total.  Some of these methods can inject variety into a routine while also coaxing the muscles to new levels.  A method worth considering is descending sets.  Basically, descending sets involves doing a set of an exercise with a weight, upon completing the set, quickly decreasing the weight and resuming the set.  This can involve decreasing the weight multiple times until the entire set is complete.  This enables the lifter to continue the set past failure, increasing intensity far beyond those of mortal sets.  As we all know, increasing intensity is a key to increasing results.  Of course there are effective ways to use descending sets in your training for best results.

     Letís follow a typical descending set of machine overhead presses for an example.  After the lifter has warmed-up, he takes his top set with 200 pounds which can be done for 8 reps max.  Upon reaching failure, the lifter sets the stack to a 20% lower weight of 160 pounds and resumes the set.  This decrease in weight allows the lifter to get 5 more reps after failure with the original 200 for 8.  The lifter then can reduce the weight another 20% or so to 120 and get more reps. The time between sets during a descending set should be only the time required to change the weight.  As you can see, the muscle groups being worked are being subjected to an extremely high level of intensity.  Of course the lifter could still proceed with further weight reductions if desired or do additional sets, but I think you get the idea.  After a set like this, you may not want to do another or may be unable to due to extreme muscle fatigue.

     Weight machines allow the most efficient use of descending sets because the weight used can be readily adjusted.   If you use dumbbells, you can set them up by you so they can be accessed when you descend weight each set.  If you use a barbell, I would suggest pre-loading the bar so that the bar can be stripped down by removing weights off each end.  For example, if youíre starting with 300 pounds and will go 260, 220, and finish with 200, load the bar so that 20 pounds can be taken off quickly from each side per drop.  You will require alert spotters who have to keep in mind that you may fail on any rep at any time during your descending set.  They must also keep the bar loaded so the weights stay in place and donít slide around or fall off.  Because of all this, descending sets may be best used for assistance type work and not the 3 powerlifts.

     As you may imagine, you can easily over train doing such a high intensity training method.  I suggest using descending sets for a period of 4-6 weeks and then go back to your more normal training method.  Start the first week by doing only one descending set reduction to get used to the feel of doing them.  Going too hard too fast may result in an injury.  You can go back to using descending sets whenever you feel the need for higher intensity.  The 20% weight reduction I gave you is only an example.  You may want to use a higher percentage reduction to insure you get more reps on subsequent sets.  Experimentation and personal preference will be your guide here.  Another advantage of reducing weight is that it will allow using better exercise form as you tire.  Form can definitely suffer as the sets go on.  Not only will you reduce the chance of injury due to poor form, but also you will exercise the targeted muscle groups more efficiently.

     The off season is the best time to try descending sets in your training.  Two descending sets would be all thatís necessary or desirable.  If you can do more, you did not push as hard as you could have.   You do not always need to go all out during a descending set; a 90-95% effort will still give good results.  This may also be a good way to break into them.  If you see your strength level start to drop off, you have probably over trained.  As I wrote earlier, limit your use of them to 4-6 weeks and only once weekly per exercise.  Remember to warm-up properly and have all your weight drops figured out ahead of time.  If you choose to do more descending sets, you must adjust your starting weight of the next sets to reflect the fatigue your muscles have undergone.  If you are using free weights, have alert spotters on hand, which are on the same page as you are.  Descending sets can be rewarding and challenging.  Use them in the most optimal manner to insure best results.

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