Q: I have a training question. Over time, I have read a number of training routines of bodybuilders and weightlifters. I am familiar with the pyramid technique in which the weight goes up but the reps go down; for instance on a dumbbell curl:
25lbs x 12
30lbs x 9
35lbs x 7
40lbs x 4 and so forth.
What caught my attention is many of these bodybuilders/ weightlifters I’ve read about would go up in weight over the course of four or five sets, but the reps would be the same:
25lbs x 12
30lbs x 12
35 lbs x12
45lbs x 12.
It seems to me that sets 1 through 4 are submaximal. Other wise the reps would go down… but what is the benefit? Are they all warm ups? Why would weightlifters or bodybuilders put effort into only their last set? I know going to failure on every set can be counter productive but this seems like “under training” to me. Am I missing something?
Thank you very much for your time!
My Answer: What you’re describing is known as a “flat pyramid.” The weight goes up from set to set, but the reps stay the same. High intensity training (HIT) bodybuilders tend to use this type of pyramid. The last set is the true work set, while the previous work sets really just serve as a warm-up.
The flat pyramid is not a very good approach to gaining size. Most of the sets are of submaximal effort, so you’re not getting enough stimulus to promote muscle growth. There are ways to make the flat pyramid better, however.
If you’re interested in size, then you can use the flat pyramid by reducing the rest periods. So here’s how a hypertrophy focused pyramid would look:
25 lbs x 12, rest 30 seconds
30 lbs x 12, rest 30 seconds
35 lbs x12, rest 30 seconds
40 lbs x12, rest 30 seconds
45 lbs x 12
So instead of resting for 1-3 minutes between sets, you increase the training density by resting 10-45 seconds. This type of training (high reps, low rest) will develop sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and is much easier on the joints.
Now if you’re interested in strength development, then the flat pyramid works very well. Simply keep the reps low (less than 6):
125 lbs x 5, rest 90 seconds
130 lbs x 5, rest 90 seconds
135 lbs x 5, rest 90 seconds
140 lbs x 5, rest 90 seconds
145 lbs x 5