How do you go about doing your workout sets? Do x amount of weight for y repetitions or for as many as you can? Did you know you can structure your sets?
This article is the first in a two-part series on different ways of structuring your sets. It deals with three simpler and more popular methods which are appropriate for and are being used primarily by beginners and early intermediate trainees. The second part will cover a more advanced approach of wave loading. We will examine pros and cons of each method and try to find out which one would be the best for general application, and where do other methods find their place.
At first glance, this topic might seem fairly simple and devoid of problems, as it deals with something few people (ever) think about: how many reps to do at which weight in a particular set, with respect to other sets done with that same exercise?Let’s start by repeating the important things: 1) you must lift weights exceeding a certain threshold (roughly at 60% of 1RM), 2) do enough work with it (usher enough volume), and 3) do all of that in a fairly short time period, 4) minding the tempo at which you perform your reps. Again, this is a fairly generic model of hypertrophy training, there are other things that also work well, but this one is easy to monitor and adjust (by looking at its variables). The other part of the story is adhering to the progressive overload principle – lifting more weight for the same amount of reps in good form over time.
Think about the POP for a second, and it might give you a hint at what we’ll be talking about today. How exactly do you measure your progress? Is it by how much more weight you moved on your first set? Or are you safe to say you’ve progressed only when you can do this new weight on all your working sets? The second criterion obviously leads to “slower progress” (i.e. you might call it progress after 3-4 sessions, instead of every session, as in the first case), but, still, is the first method better in any way, as beating your first set at all costs leaves little in the tank for subsequent ones? Then, which approach takes you closer to failure on each set, and is training to failure something your should pursue in the first place? As you can see, all of this gets quite messy in no time. So, let’s get to work and put some structure in it.
Pyramids And Ascending Sets
The common trait of these two systems is that you increase weight on subsequent sets. With ascending sets protocol, the reps generally remain the same (or at least you aim for them to stay the same), while the pyramid has you decreasing the number of reps on each subsequent set (hence the name – as the pyramid rises, it becomes narrower). While pyramiding, people usually go down by approximately two reps per set, but the weight increment is, in both cases, undefined and no rule of the thumb exists. Since the weight is bumped with each set, these two protocols are sometimes called “ramping protocols”, or “ramps”.
Here lies the first and biggest problem (I have) regarding these training protocols. Let me put it bluntly: your entire training (on a single exercise) is just a glorified warm-up for the last set. All the sets before the last one are just half-assing and holding yourself back because you know that you need to leave a lot in the tank to be able to keep ramping the weights up. Of course, things don’t need to be this way: there’s always the option of wearing yourself out on first couple of sets and completely failing by the time you reach your last set.
Some people will now say: “But I see Ronnie Coleman and my friend’s uncle’s colleague from work doing the pyramid, and they’re hyooge!” Well, the thing is easy to settle in the first case: in almost all the exercise videos done by famous bodybuilders, you can see that they in fact do use the pyramid as a warm-up. Not a warm-up in the usual sense, where the warmup sets are non-fatiguing, but they still jump on the first set without a prior warm-up and work their way up to the biggest set. Someone might argue that this is, in fact, a strength of the ramps, because they allow you to merge your warming-up with your work, but what you actually get this way is a lousy (i.e difficult) warm-up combined with lousy (holding yourself back) sets. There is an instance where this might be desirable, and that’s when you have a complete beginner who still practices form instead of actually focusing on the POP. In this case, regular warmup sets don’t make much sense, and he/she doesn’t really have any proper working sets to do, so a pyramid might be a favorable option.
Note that this orientation towards the last set isn’t exactly a strange or bad thing: after all, in the straight-set protocol, which I endorse and which we’ll cover later on, the next set will always be more difficult than the previous one because of fatigue build-up. The difference between these two protocols (ramps and straight-sets) is how much more difficult will the next set be. The problem with ramps is that it will be a lot more difficult, which implies saving a lot more in the tank on the previous set. In practice, this tends to lead to less workload being completed per exercise if ramps are used, compared to straight sets: while the volume might the same (e.g 3×10 on SS and 12-10-8 on pyramid), the weight used on pyramid is lesser.
An argument that is sometimes thrown in favor of pyramids is that they fatigue a larger pool of motor units, thus, supposedly, giving more stimulation to the muscle. In a nutshell, adding weight should recruit larger and larger motor units, while exhausting the smaller ones. This has a root in theory, fails in practice and is, at the end of the day, completely irrelevant. Recruiting large MUs isn’t just about going heavier, it’s about going sufficiently near your 1RM (and having the intent to accelerate the bar as much as possible, but that’s of secondary importance here). As I said earlier, the biggest problem with ramps (and especially pyramids) is that all sets are generally done with weights well below the maximum. For example, say your 10 RM is 100 kg, but in order to be able to complete two or three more sets, you do 90 kg for 10 reps, which is closer to your 13 RM. This way, even though you might do 6 reps on your last set of the pyramid, the actual weight you’re moving is closer to 8 RM. Another obstruction is that typical bodybuilder pyramid usually start at 12 reps, and rarely goes below 8, which is way below the weight needed to trigger high-threshold MUs.
The irrelevance of this entire theory is that there’s no need for you to try and target a wide spectrum of MUs in a single session – that’s what periodization is for. You’ll see this issue coming back up in the next section, in which we discuss the opposite approach – descending sets and the reverse pyramid.
Reverse Pyramid And Descending Sets
The second available option is to use the most weight on your first set, and less on the subsequent ones (most often reducing weight with every consecutive set). There are two ways of doing it: reverse pyramiding (RP) and descending sets. As in the pyramid/ascending sets case, the latter involves shooting for the same number of reps in each set, while the former changes both the weight and target rep count: in this case, as the weight goes down, the reps go up. With descending sets, the drop in weight is usually about 10%. With RP, it’s somewhat larger, around 15% (the extra 5% comes from the necessity to be able to usher two reps more on the next set).
The common denominator here is fatigue management, regardless of whether you train to failure or not. While we’re at it, let’s just note that these two schemes are most likely to be associated with training to failure on each set, but we’ll get to that later on.
You might notice that these two aren’t just the verbal antonyms of ascending/pyramid sets, but they also pull along the polar opposite mentality and performance. Recall that my biggest grudge with ascending/pyramid sets had to do with that “holding back” mood they put you in – you’re always, either consciously or subconsciously, holding yourself back because you know that the next set will always be harder. On the other hand, with descending/RP, the first set is always the toughest one, and each subsequent one will be easier to push through (this doesn’t mean that they’ll be easy, though).
This is, in my opinion, an improvement over the ascending/pyramid sets scheme, because it allows you to actually work and push yourself hard. This is also the only system that has built-in fatigue management: ascendings/pyramid don’t have one – as a matter of fact, it would be counter-intuitive to that type of training, because you’d need to hold yourself back even more while watching to leave a few more reps in the tank for the next set. With the straight sets, as we’ll see in the next section, fatigue-management is your responsibility – whether or not to train to failure, how many reps to leave in the tank, how much to rest between sets, and so on. With descendings/RP, it’s already take care of. The next set will always be lighter than the previous one.
Reverse pyramid has larger weight decrements between sets in order to allow for more reps to be done on subsequent sets. The total number of reps depends on your starting weight, but it can easily total to same amount of reps for both cases. Regardless, the descending sets protocol is a more open one of the two, because it doesn’t dictate the amount of reps you have to do in each set. The RP tends to be more bound in terms of the rep ranges it allows, usually starting at 4-6, and ending up at 10. Of course, nobody says that you can’t do a 10-12-15 RP, but the basic premise of it is starting out heavy.
That being said, I still consider RP to be slightly superior to descendings, at least for some exercises, for the RP, unlike its counterpart, the pyramid, does indeed enable you to tire out a larger pool of motor units, providing that you start out at sufficiently heavy weight. Do note that adhering to the principle of starting out heavy usually means limiting your use of descendings/RP to major exercises, which can cover a larger rep range, leaving the accessory work and isolations out. That being said, there are some exercises which I find especially suited for the RP protocol, such as the trap bar deadlift. The regular deadlift is fine too, but it’s primarily a low-rep exercise, while the TBDL allows you to safely perform a wider rep range.
Now let’s take a look at the last setup we’ll be covering in this article, before giving a final verdict on which ones is the best for bodybuilding novices and early intermediates.
The last option at our disposal is doing the same weight on all the sets, which is called straight-setting (SS). It usually presumes shooting for the same amount of reps on all sets. If the same-no.-of-reps rule is strictly imposed (i.e, there’s no rep range), then this method is commonly referred to as “sets across”.
We already covered a lot of comparisons between this system and the ones discussed in previous sections. SS is the toughest solution out the three, delivering largest workload per exercise, but also giving you the most beating. This eventually makes SS an unfavorable training option for more advanced trainees, unless if coupled with smart periodization or limiting them to accessory work only.
It presumes working with submaximal weights, but this difference is much easier to anticipate than it is in the case of pyramiding and ascending sets. All of this makes SS simpler in general than the previously mentioned options.
As mentioned before, SS, unlike RP, is more oriented toward looking at all the sets together instead of just the first set, and this is what, at least in my case, tilts the scale in its favor. You see, in my opinion, the last set is more indicative of training progress. Don’t take this wrong and assume that the last set is the most important one: it isn’t, all sets are equally important because sufficient workload has to be delivered in order to grow. Therefore, there’s no talking about “saving” yourself for the last set, at least not that literally. Doing straight sets is about splitting your work on all the working sets, and this takes some fine-tuning and experience. Providing that you do this right, the progression of the last set will truly indicate that you’re moving forward.
Let’s use an example: say you’re doing incline bench, aiming for 3×10. Last time, you did 3×8, so you next stop should be hitting 3×9 (not necessarily in this very session, of course). So, you go there, and pull out 9 reps on the first one. An RP follower would commend you for succeeding to beat the previous workout. However, it can easily happen that you cheated a bit to get to that 9th rep, got closer to failure, and this is evident in your last set, which ends up at 7 reps. In my opinion, this isn’t progress – you probably had that 9th rep on the first set in you the last time. The situation gets a bit more complex as the trainee progresses up the gains/experience ladder, and progress becomes less frequent. Regardless, focusing on progressing on all sets is a better indication of strength gains than progress on the first set only.
You may remember that I noted the shift from “holding back” to “actually doing some work” when comparing pyramids and RP as something good. This is important to remember and apply to SS as well. Another problem I have with descendings/RP is that they somewhat presume hitting failure on each set, something I’m not a fan of. SS tends to lead you to a healthier solution, in which you finish your first set about two reps short of failure, the second a rep short of failure, and finally hit failure on the last set, all of this just due to fatigue build-up. Because the weight remains the same, there’s less chance of spoiling the form on subsequent sets as it is when weight is bumped.
Truth be told, these are small differences. I opt for the protocol which I deem more open (in terms of allowing a variety of setups) and healthier in the long run (regarding staying away from failure and better chances of maintaining good form). Different people progress on different things. RP might be better suited for some exercises (like the deadlift) and for people who have a lesser workload capacity, while the regular pyramid might be good for people who are just starting out. In general, straight-sets seem to outdo both ramps and reverse ramps, and this is the solution I would recommend for trainees from novice up to mid-intermediate levels.
BONUS – A (Reverse) Pyramid Hybrid
Here’s a little bonus for the end. It’s a system I use occasionally, a sort of hybrid between a normal pyramid and a reverse pyramid, because both reps and weight go down on subsequent sets. You basically do one big, tough, high-rep set, and then back-off and do a set or two more with a bit less weight and significantly less reps (at least half of what you did on the big one) to usher in more volume. I usually aim to hit 30 reps in total with all sets.
The exercise I like doing this with is the back squat. On my first set, I’m working somewhere between 15 and 20 reps, going almost all-out. Then I lie down, die, rest for about three minutes, a paladin resurrects me, after which I bump off about 10% of the weight from the bar and do two more sets in the 5-8 rep range. These two sets are significantly lighter than the first one, and I focus a lot on keeping perfect form and being explosive, because these are the two things that always get a bit lost near the end of a set of high-rep squatting.
So, in summary, the Wolf Pyramid looks like this:
- Heavy top set with higher reps – 15+
- Drop 10% weight (or don’t drop it at all), and do 1-2 more sets with half the reps on the first set. Focus on form and feel the muscles working (you should still be pumped from the big set).
Don’t miss part 2! In the next installment of the series, we’ll take a look at a more advanced way of organizing your sets, the wave loading. Stay tuned!