If you want to build muscle, should you be doing pyramid sets, reverse pyramid training or straight sets? Does one training protocol work better than the other? Let’s find out.
What are Pyramid Sets?
With pyramid sets, your first work set is done with a relatively light weight and higher reps. With each subsequent set, you add weight while decreasing the number of reps. Here’s an example of what a pyramid set protocol might look like:
- Set 1: 130 pounds x 15 reps
- Set 2: 150 pounds x 10 reps
- Set 3: 160 pounds x 8 reps
- Set 4: 170 pounds x 5 reps
As you can see, as the amount of weight you’re lifting goes up, the number of reps goes down.
This example uses a wide repetition zone of 5 to 15 reps, but pyramid sets can also be done with a narrow repetition zone, such as 8 to 12 reps, by using a smaller increase in weight from one set to the next.
What Are the Benefits of Pyramid Sets?
One of the benefits of pyramid sets is that a warm-up is included by default. The first few sets, done with lighter weights and higher reps, help prepare your body for the heavier sets to come.
With pyramid sets, your muscles are also exposed to a range of loading zones, from light to medium to heavy. That is, some of your sets are done with lighter weights and higher reps, while others are done with heavier weights and lower reps.
Although it’s still a contentious subject, some believe that training across a spectrum of loading zones ensures maximal development of all the fiber types in a particular muscle .
By the time you get to the heavier sets, you won’t be able to lift as much weight as you otherwise would have done. That’s because your muscles are fatigued from the lighter sets you did earlier.
That can be a benefit, especially if your joints give you grief when you train with heavy weights. Lighter weights means less stress on the joints, which often means fewer nagging aches and pains.
“As I’ve gotten older, more and more often, I do a compound exercise (like squats) last, or at least in the middle of the routine,” says best-selling author and bodybuilder Tom Venuto.
“I might pre-exhaust by doing leg extensions and or leg presses first. When I squat in that order, I usually have to squat less weight, because my quads are fatigued. But that’s the whole idea. Today I’m constantly looking for ways to make a lighter weight feel heavier. It’s not ideal for strength, but works great for physique training.”
Are Pyramid Sets Better Than Straight Sets?
Pyramid sets aren’t better than straight sets. Studies show that both protocols deliver very similar gains in muscle size. If it’s more muscle you’re after, both pyramid sets and straight sets will get the job done.
One of the more well-designed studies to compare pyramid sets and straight sets comes from a team of Brazilian researchers .
They rounded up a group of 32 trained men, and got them to train their legs using one of three different protocols:
- Pyramid sets
- Drop sets
- Straight sets
The training program involved both the 45-degree leg press and leg extension, performed twice a week for a total of 12 weeks.
With the leg extension and leg press, you normally train both legs together. But in this study, the men trained one leg at a time, which meant each leg could be trained using a different protocol.
Everyone in the study trained one leg using straight sets. On the other leg, half the group did pyramid sets, while the other half did drop sets. This way, the researchers could establish which training protocol worked best.
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For the straight sets protocol, the men did 3–5 sets of 6–12 repetitions on each exercise, using 75% of their 1-rep max.
For the pyramid sets, the number of sets each participant performed varied from 3 to 5, and the weight was increased with each subsequent set:
- Set 1: 65% 1-RM
- Set 2: 70% 1-RM
- Set 3: 75% 1-RM
- Set 4: 80% 1-RM
- Set 5: 85% 1-RM
The number of repetitions performed was roughly 15 in the first set, dropping to around 6 in the fifth set.
In the drop set protocol, each set was taken to muscle failure. Then, participants performed up to two drops after the initial failure on each set (e.g. first set to muscle failure — short pause — reduce weight by 20% — go to muscle failure again — short pause — reduce weight by 20% — final drop set to failure).
The number of sets done in both the drop set and pyramid set groups were adjusted to ensure that volume load (sets x reps x weight) was identical between legs.
So, what happened? Who gained the most muscle?
Ultrasound scans show that all three protocols delivered very similar gains in muscle size:
- Straight sets + 7.6%
- Pyramid sets + 7.5%
- Drop sets + 7.8%
It was much the same story in terms of strength, where the different protocols delivered very similar results.
Leg Press 1-RM
- Straight sets + 25.9%
- Pyramid sets + 25.9%
- Drop sets + 24.9%
Leg Extension 1-RM
- Straight sets + 16.6%
- Pyramid sets +16.4%
- Drop sets + 17.1%
In short, no matter what protocol was being used, be it pyramid sets, drop sets or straight sets, gains in muscle size and strength were very similar.
In a follow-up study, the results were much the same . Gains in muscle size and strength, on average, were not significantly different whether the leg was trained with straight sets, pyramid sets or drop sets.
However, when they drilled down further into the results, the researchers did find that some people gained more strength with pyramid sets, while others did better with straight sets or drop sets.
Overall, a greater number of subjects saw bigger strength gains with straight sets than they did with pyramid sets or drop sets.
Do Pyramid Sets Build Strength?
Do pyramid sets build strength? Yes. Any form of resistance training, as long as it contributes to muscle growth, will make you stronger. Strength is the ability to produce force, and a larger muscle fiber will generally produce more force than a smaller one.
Are pyramid sets the best way to build strength? Not really.
A lot depends on how you’re defining the term strength. If it’s just general strength you’re after, most resistance training protocols, pyramid sets included, can be used to acquire it [4, 5, 6].
But it’s a different story if you’re on a mission to increase your 1-rep max in an exercise like the squat or bench press.
For anyone trying to increase maximal strength, traditional pyramid sets aren’t ideal. By the time you get to the heavy sets, which are the most important when it comes to increasing strength, both your muscles and nervous system are going to be fatigued.
When you attempt those heavy sets, you won’t be able to lift as much weight as you would have done had you been fresh. As a result, the rate at which you gain strength is going to be a lot slower than it otherwise would have been.
Pyramid Sets vs Warm-Up Sets
None of this means you should skip the warm-up sets and jump straight into the heavy stuff.
If you’re training with heavy weights and low reps, you can’t just walk into the gym, put several hundred pounds on the bar, and start cranking out rep after rep.
Not only are you exposing yourself to a greater risk of injury, you’ll also perform better if those heavy sets are preceded by multiple warm-up sets.
If you’re doing heavy squats in the 3-5 rep range, for example, using a weight of 275 pounds, your first set might involve 15-20 reps with an empty bar.
Then you add a plate to each side, and do a second warm-up set of 5-10 reps. You keep going with the warm-up sets until you’re ready for the heavy stuff.
So, what’s the difference between the process I’ve just described and pyramid sets?
After all, you’re increasing the weight and decreasing the reps, which is exactly what you do with pyramid sets.
The key difference is that warm-up sets will feel easy. They’re meant to be easy. Warm-up sets are submaximal sets that prepare your body for the heavier sets to come, with plenty of reps left in reserve at the end of each set.
They enhance your ability to lift heavy weights, rather than as an independent stimulus for growth.
With pyramid sets, even though the early sets are done with lighter weights and higher reps, you’re still putting in a lot of effort. They still count as hard sets, which generates a lot of fatigue. This in turn will limit the amount of weight you’re able to lift in the heavier sets that follow.
Reverse Pyramid Training
One variation of pyramid sets is something known as reverse pyramid training, also known as descending pyramids.
As the name suggests, reverse pyramid training is like pyramid sets, but in reverse. That is, your work sets get progressively lighter rather than heavier, and the number of reps you do in each set goes up rather than down.
Put differently, with regular pyramid sets, you add weight in every set. With reverse pyramid training, you remove weight in every set.
Here’s an example of what a reverse pyramid set protocol might look like.
First off, you’d do several warm-up sets, using a relatively light weight. Once those warm-up sets are out of the way, you do your first work set.
Let’s say you lift 100 pounds for a total of 8 reps in that first set. Once you’re done, reduce the weight by 10%.
After resting 2-3 minutes, do a second set, this time using the lighter weight. Because the weight is lighter, you’ll be able to do more reps.
For the third set, strip another 10% off the bar. Again, because you’re lifting a lighter weight, you’ll be able to do more reps in set three than you could in sets one or two.
Here’s what it looks like:
- Set 1: 100 pounds x 8 reps
- Set 2: 90 pounds x 10 reps
- Set 3: 80 pounds x 12 reps
As you can see, as the amount of weight you’re lifting gets lighter, the number of reps goes up.
Reverse pyramid training doesn’t describe a specific training program. Rather, it’s the process of taking weight off the bar from one set to the next, allowing you to do more reps with each subsequent set.
Reverse pyramid training does solve one of the problems with pyramid sets, namely that your heavier sets are done first, when you’re fresh.
That is, if you’re combining heavier weights and lower reps with higher reps and lighter weights, it makes sense to do the heavier sets first (after a few warm-up sets), with the lighter sets coming later.
Going heavier when you’re at your strongest should, in theory at least, lead to bigger gains in strength.
From a muscle-building point of view, however, reverse pyramid training will likely deliver similar results to straight sets.
When training for hypertrophy, you need to make sure you’re doing a sufficient number of hard sets, getting enough rest between each set, training in the hypertrophy rep range, and working each muscle with sufficient frequency.
And you can do that just as well with straight sets as you can with reverse pyramid training.
If you’re training with the main goal of making your muscles bigger, then pyramid sets or straight sets will do the job just fine.
But if you want to maximize the amount of weight you can lift in an exercise like the bench press or squat, then you’ll want to do your heavier training when your muscles are fresh, not after they’ve been fatigued with lighter weights and higher reps.
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