The Critical Drop-Off Point

Q: I was doing push ups tonight, and did 15 on my first set. Rested about 90 seconds, did another set and got 14 on my second, rested about another 90 seconds, then only got 10 on my last. 

Why is it such a drastic drop? I notice this on a lot of my pressing exercises. 


My Answer: This is actually normal.  What happens is that with higher repetitions, you accumulate a lot of lactic acid in your muscles.  This is the burning sensation that you feel.  The lactic acid interferes with your nerves, and as a result, you can’t complete as many repetitions.  That’s why there’s a drastic drop in reps.  Once you hit that drastic drop in reps, it’s time to stop performing that exercise.  More sets of that exercise just hamper muscle growth.

In Training for the Busy Bodybuilder I go over the concept of the “critical drop-off point,” which you can use to determine the optimal number of sets for an exercise.  The critical drop-off point is when a muscle reaches a 5-7% decrease in performance either in weight or reps. Once this critical drop-off point is reached, then the exercise must be terminated. This 7% rule applies for loads of 85% of your one rep maximum (1RM) or more. For loads less than 85% of your 1RM, there should be no more than a 20 percent drop-off.

Most of the time, however, you will not have a calculator with you to determine this critical drop-off point. A simpler method to help you determine the critical drop-off point is to terminate an exercise if the decrease in reps is greater than 2 reps (if your target rep range is 3-12) or greater than 3 reps (if your target rep is greater than 12 reps). So if you perform 16 push ups on the first set, then you would continue to performing push up sets until your reps fall below 12.


Q: I’ve been so lethargic the past ten days from a chest cold I’ve had (I just was put on an antibiotic yesterday), and just haven’t been in the shape to workout. I feel especially bad in the mornings and before bed, and cough sporadically through out the day. 

I’m super pissed, because I’ve been doing great and making awesome strength gains. Is there a right way to get back into lifting after a set back or being out of commission? I know this is a stupid question… but just thought I’d ask! Keep up the great work!



My Answer: When you get back into training after an illness, you should do a low set program to ease you back in.  Stick with 2-3 sets per exercise.  Don’t train to failure and don’t do any shock techniques like set extenders or forced reps or negatives.

Do this for the first week, then up the intensity and volume the second week.

Q: What’s up James? I was reading one of your articles, and I wanted to know if you could give me any advice on getting better at pull ups. When it comes to them, I can’t do them to save my life. Usually I end with 1 rep. LOL! Does the one foot in a chair while the other hangs actually help you get better? Thanks ahead for any advice.

-Chris W.


My Answer: Yes, doing pull-ups with one foot on the chair can help you get better at pull-ups.  You can essentially “assist” yourself in completing pull-ups.

To help build your pull-up strength, you can also do negative pull-ups.  So if you can only do one pull-up, then you can prop yourself up back on to the bar and lower yourself under control.  Try to do 2-3 negative pull-ups.


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