If you’ve been training awhile, you’re likely familiar with a drop set — that deviously painful technique that squeezes every last ounce of strength from your muscle as you continually rep to failure with minimal rest at ever-diminishing resistance. Also called “running the rack” or descending sets, the tactic makes a lot of sense. Say you’re doing incline presses with 60-pound dumbbells. You can get 11 reps but can’t get a 12th. Instead of ending the set right there, you grab 50s and do perhaps six to eight more reps. Drop again to 40 and you can likely get in a few more. In the end, your muscles have been thoroughly exhausted, setting the physiological stage for growth.
But what about the opposite approach — instead of moving down in weight, you work your way up? Though it’s unconventional, this strategy could be the perfect tool to add to your muscle-building arsenal.
Up and Away
During an “ascending set,” you’ll take a similar approach to a drop set, but in reverse. On that incline press example, you’d start with the 40s, then step up to the 50s, followed by the 60s, and so on, if you’re able. This is another way to achieve muscle fatigue and momentary muscular failure — the point at which you can’t quite manage another clean rep on your own. And essentially, ascending sets take the traditional concept of pyramiding up in weight from set to set — a standard practice for muscle growth — and eliminates the rest periods, meaning you’re moving more resistance in less time. Yet, there’s one critical difference.
“When you’re going up, you don’t want to be failing [at each weight],” explains Jimmy Fusaro, a kickboxing and boxing specialist, personal trainer and owner of X-FIT Training, located inside Physique Gym in Manhattan (xfittraining.com). “You end up using lousy form and trying to throw the weight instead of lifting it properly.”
Instead, Fusaro recommends fewer reps with each step upward. “For biceps curls, start at the lowest weight for 10 reps,” he explains. “Then the next weight up would be done for nine reps, then eight, six, four, three, two and one.” An alternative method Fusaro likes to use is timed sets — hitting one weight for 45 seconds, then moving up to the next one for 45 seconds, and so on.
Ascending sets are best done near the beginning of a workout when you’re fresh, and shouldn’t be a part of every single training session for any bodypart. Instead, think of ascending sets as a once-in-a-while shock technique that you keep at the ready to step things up.
Rise to the Challenge
Try ascending sets for yourself: Pick one move from the list and, after a solid warm-up, perform a total of six sets of 10, nine, eight, six, five and three reps stepping up in weight with each set. If you really want to push your limits, work your way back down again, failing at each weight before dropping to the next, and pausing between sets only long enough to swap dumbbells.
Bent-Over Row, High Pull, Wide-Grip Pulldown
Seated Dumbbell Press, Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Dumbbell Incline Press, Flat-Bench Dumbbell Press
Skullcrusher, Cable Rope Pushdown
Standing Barbell Curl, Preacher EZ-Bar Curl
Dumbbell Squat, Leg Extension
Romanian Deadlift, Leg Curl
Standing Calf Raise, Donkey-Machine Calf Raise