Pyramiding your weights is a great way to build muscle size and strength. Working up from relatively lightweight to a heavyweight over multiple sets ensures you stimulate your muscles with the right amount of volume to stimulate growth and at the right intensity to produce strength adaptations. It’s best used on compound barbell exercises, but it can be used with machines and dumbells as well.
Unfortunately, most programs don’t properly explain how to perform a pyramid correctly. I used Pyramid training when I was in high school bulking for football. I gained approximately 30 pounds of muscle during those years, despite performing them incorrectly. Like most people, I over-taxed myself on the early sets, and couldn’t progress in weight as well as I could have.
In a strength pyramid, you start with a lightweight and increase the weight on succeeding sets while reducing the number of repetitions. Each set should become progressively harder, with only the top set of 6 repetitions being taken to failure or near failure. In a full pyramid, you would reverse the process after hitting your top weight, but we will only be performing a half pyramid.
Most working sets should stop 1 to 3 repetitions short of failure. Ensure you give yourself 3 to 5 minutes between working sets, so you’ll be able to perform better. Our goal isn’t cumulative fatigue, it’s adding weight to the bar. Avoid going to failure on all but the last set of each exercise. An effective way to evaluate your rating of perceived exertion (RPE) is to use this table developed by Mike Tuchscherer, a respected strength coach, and competitive powerlifter. I personally prefer the Reps in Reserve (RIR) technique promoted by Eric Helms, Ph.D., because of its simplicity. Most of the programs I advocate recommend that you keep two repetitions in reserve until you are on your final set.
I recommend following your top set with one additional working set of 6 to 10 well-executed repetitions, at a PRE-of 9.5 or greater. The first couple of sets are essentially warm-up sets and prime your neurological pathways so that you can perform optimally on your heaviest set. Pyramiding allows you to use a variety of loads and repetition ranges to overload your muscle with sufficient volume; while keeping the muscles warm to minimize the risk of injury.
EXAMPLE OF A HALF PYRAMID WITH A WORKING SET
- 180 lbs. x 12 Easy (RPE 7, 3 RIR), warm-up muscles.
- 220 lbs. x 10 Easy (RPE 7.5, 2 RIR), continuing to warm up muscles.
- 260 lbs. x 8 Moderate effort (RPE 8, 2 RIR), priming your neural pathways.
- 320 lbs. x 6 Hard effort (RPE 9.5-10), focused on progressive overload.
- 280 lbs. x 9 Hard effort (RPE 9.5-10), focused on progressive overload.
Going to failure too soon in your workout will hurt your performance and undercut your total workout volume, which decreases the overload placed on the muscle. A 2007 study by The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that training to failure could be an effective tool for increasing muscular development. Still, it should be used in the context of increasing the overall load placed on the muscle to break through training plateaus.[i] When you go to failure on your last set, you increase the total training load placed on the muscle by performing additional repetitions.
This study concluded that “While training to failure was not essential for increases in muscular characteristics such as strength and hypertrophy, training to failure might allow advanced lifters to break through training plateaus when incorporated periodically into short-term microcycles. Furthermore, training to failure should not be performed repeatedly over long periods due to the high potential for overtraining and overuse injuries.” The study also asserted that habitually going to failure may result in decreased resting levels of testosterone and increased cortisol levels. Both conditions are counter-productive to strength and muscle gains.
I hope this article helps you to make better progress in both strength and muscle mass. If you are trying to add size, don’t neglect getting adequate sleep, 8-hours a night, and getting enough protein and calories to create a slight caloric surplus. Shoot for approximately 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. Good luck, and good lifting!
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[i] Paul Gamble, Ph.D., CSCS, “Periodization of Training for Team Sports Athletes,” National Strength and Conditioning Association Volume 28, Number 5, pages 56–66.