Are you getting the most out of your strength training workouts? Strength training is built around the concept of progressive overload. You have to keep progressively challenging your muscles to continue to gain strength and experience muscle growth. Your muscles also need to be challenged in different ways. During most of your workouts, you probably do straight sets. With straight sets, you use the same resistance with each set that you do and you do three or four sets for each exercise. If you’re following the principle of progressive overload, you gradually increase the resistance to challenge your muscles more as you become stronger.
If you do straight sets using progressive overload, you will gain strength and muscle size, assuming your diet is in order, but as you become stronger, your muscles need to be stimulated in different ways to maximize growth and build greater strength. Your muscles typically adapt to a specific routine within 6 weeks and you reach a plateau. That’s when changing the structure of your sets comes into play. Although there are lots of advanced strategies you can use, one is pyramid training.
What is Pyramid Training?
Pyramid training comes in two “varieties:” straight pyramids and reverse pyramids. With straight pyramid sets, you gradually increase the weight with each set that you do. Typically, the number of reps goes down as you increase the weight. For example, for the first set of biceps curls, you might use 10-pound dumbbells in each hand and do 10 reps. During the next set, you increase the weight to 12 pounds and do 8 reps. During the final set, you move up to 15 pounds in each hand and do 6 reps.
With reverse pyramid training, you move in the opposite direction. For the reverse structure, the FIRST set is the heaviest and you reduce the resistance for each subsequent set. As you reduce the resistance, the number of reps you do goes up. In this scheme, you start with 15 pounds in each hand for biceps curls and do 6 reps followed by 12 pounds for 8 reps and, finally, 10 pounds for 10 reps.
Is There an Advantage to One Pyramid Structure Over the Other?
Intuitively, reverse pyramid training makes sense. One of the tenets of weight training is that you do the toughest, most important exercises at the beginning of your workout when you’re least fatigued. That’s why experts recommend doing compound exercises before moving into isolation exercise. This also makes sense for pyramid training. When your muscles aren’t fatigued, they can perform better on the heaviest lift. You’re activating those fast-twitch muscle fibers from the get-go and hitting them hard.
In contrast, with straight pyramids, the muscles you’re working are already fatigued by the time you get to the heaviest set at the end of the pyramid. You’re still hitting those fast-twitch muscle fibers but to really max out, the fast-twitch fibers can benefit from a little help from the slow-twitch fibers as a back-up – but they’re already fatigued from the previous two lighter sets.
What Does Research Show?
There isn’t an abundance of research comparing straight pyramids with reverse pyramids. However, one study published in the World Journal of Sports Sciences looked at the issue. In this study, one group of untrained women did straight pyramid sets in the standard, increase the weight as you go manner. The first set they did was 50% of their one-rep max and they completed 10 reps. The second was 75% of their 10-rep max, and the final set was at 100% of their 10-rep max. The second group did the same sets but followed a reverse pyramid sequence. They started at 100% of their 10-rep max and moved down in weight.
What was the outcome? In this study, one approach wasn’t overwhelming better than the other. Both groups gained strength, but the reverse pyramid scheme yielded greater improvements in biceps strength over straight pyramids. Strength gains were similar for other exercises. Of note is the observation that reverse pyramid training yielded a greater increase in markers for muscle damage, suggesting that this approach may have placed greater stress on the muscle fibers worked and led to greater muscle damage. Theoretically, this could lead to greater gains.
Which Approach is Best?
Based on research, both straight and reverse pyramids are effective with the reverse pyramid structure potentially offering a slight benefit, at least for biceps training. One disadvantage to reverse pyramid training is you’re using heavy resistance before your muscles have had a chance to warm up. With straight pyramids, using lighter weights at the beginning increases blood flow to your muscles and get your muscles prepped for lifting. If you do reverse pyramids, do a few light warm-up sets before you begin to get the blood flowing and reduce your risk of injury.
Reverse pyramids are also more appealing from a psychological perspective. Once you’ve done the first lift in a set, it’s all downhill. If you like getting the hard stuff over with first, reverse pyramiding is for you.
The Bottom Line
Both straight and reverse pyramid training is effective and a way to work your muscles differently and, hopefully, get better results and avoid a plateau. The take-home message? Don’t give up your straight sets but pyramid some of your workouts to provide your muscles with a fresh stimulus. Of the two approaches to pyramid training, reverse pyramiding offers the best approach since you’re lifting heavy at the beginning when your muscles are still fresh and you’re not neurologically fatigued either. Don’t forget to warm up. If you grab your heaviest weight without a proper warm-up, you risk injury. As always, focus on form over weight. Most importantly, don’t get stuck in a rut where you only do straight set. Your muscles need a few surprises! Pyramid training gives it to them.
World Journal of Sport Sciences 3 (1): 44-52, 2010.
Men’s Health. Trainer Q&A: What Is ‘Reverse Pyramid’ Training?