Why Classic Pyramid Sets Suck for Strength Gains (and What to Do Instead)

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Spend five minutes reading about lifting weights online and you can't help but come across something called "pyramid" training. As the name implies, you "pyramid" your weights up as you decrease the number of reps for each set.

A classic way to do so is the 12-10-8-6-15 sequence. You start with a lighter set of 12 reps, slap some weight on the bar, bang out 10 reps, add another plate, hit eight reps, then load another plate until you're up to your heaviest set of six reps.

For the fifth and final set, you take some weight off the bar and wrap things up with a higher rep set of 15. Upon finishing, a huge stream of blood rushes into your exhausted muscles, leading to a skin-splitting pump.

Anyone who has ever tried this protocol will attest to its effectiveness. You'll be huffing and puffing from physical exertion. And you'll likely feel sore the next day or two. But it's far from optimal if your goals extend beyond enjoying a wicked pump to include increasing your max strength.

The problem with an ascending set pyramid like 12-10-8-6-15 is that the first three sets leading up to the heaviest set, despite being sub maximal, cause notable muscular fatigue. So when you attempt that fourth set (which is the most important for increasing your max strength), you don't have enough juice in the tank to hit the same numbers you'd be able to achieve when fresh.

How can you use pyramid sets to maximize your strength?

Simple. Reverse the pyramid. Instead of ascending weights and descending reps, you lift descending weights for the same or more reps within a given rep range. This is known as Reverse Pyramid Training.

Reverse Pyramid Training works best with heavy strength lifts such as Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, and Weighted Chin-Up variations. Lateral Raises, Dumbbell Flyes, Lying Leg Curls, or other isolation movements? Not so much.

A common rep range for Reverse Pyramid Training that produces a nice mix of strength and muscle gains is 5-8. Those who are primarily after strength gains can go with 3-5 reps. More beat-up lifters who feel they can't lift near their max will feel better staying in the 6-10, or even 8-10, rep range.

With the basic parameters covered, let's continue with an example.

Say your main lift for today's training session is the Trap Bar Deadlift in the 3-5 rep range. Warm up normally and complete your first set. This will be your heaviest set, so don't hold back!

For your second set, decrease weight by 10% and then hit as many reps as possible (AMRAP). Then, take 10% off whatever you used for set two, and again hit as many reps as possible.

Here's what your lifts might look like:

  • Set #1: 405 pounds x 3 reps
  • Strip 10% off to prep for set #2. Rest 3-4 minutes
  • Set #2: 365 pounds x 5 reps
  • Strip another 10% off to prep for set #3. Rest 3-4 minutes
  • Set #3: 335 pounds x 7 reps

Your first set is the money-maker set. You should be able to push either the weight or number of completed reps up from week to week. Once you reach the upper limit of your goal rep range with a given weight, bump up the resistance next time. So if you were able to hit 405 for 5 reps in this sample workout, you'd know you need to increase the weight if you're going to use the same rep scheme next week.

The two back-off sets provide additional volume to your workout. One heavy set can lead to some gains, but for maximal results, you'll want more than that.

Notice that in our example above, you did seven reps with 335 pounds on the third set. Although your intended rep range was 3-5, there's nothing wrong with going beyond it. That's the whole point of AMRAP sets. Do as many reps as possible with good technique. If that ends up being more than you expected, so what? Consider it a minor victory and celebrate by adding a few pounds to the bar next time.

Also look at the drop in resistance between the second and third set. Going down from 365 to 335 is closer to an 8% drop than it is a 10% drop. That's OK! The 10% rule is a good guideline, but you don't need to whip out a calculator in the midst of a packed gym to figure out which weight to use to the exact second decimal digit. This is plate math, folks, not algebra. Just pick a weight that's close enough, then get to work.

I don't recommend Reverse Pyramid Training to beginners because pushing their limits with AMRAP sets, especially on big lifts like Squats and Deadlifts, can push them too hard and lead to sloppy form.

However, for intermediate-to-advanced trainees who are more in tune with their bodies, Reverse Pyramid Training can be a great way to enhance strength. Just remember that while you want to push the envelope, you should always terminate a set if you feel your form is about to get ugly.

Photo Credit: Mihailo_Milovanovic/iStock