This simple tweak to your regimen will add strength and size faster

Goals: Size, Strength
Bodypart: All

When you do your sets "pyramid" style, how do you go about things? If you're like most, you do what you learned to do when you were a rookie weight lifter -- start with a weight that allows you to complete 10 reps or so, then add weight and do eight, add weight and do six. The 10-8-6 pyramid has long been used by people to get stronger and bigger but it has its limitations. Research -- and a little bit of common sense -- have shown that a short warm-up followed immediately by your heaviest sets can help you gain more strength than "traditional" pyramiding.


First, let's be honest with ourselves: the traditional pyramid scheme where you increase weight and decrease reps from set to set is not the best use of your energy, is it? Using the 10-8-6 example again, if you are training to near failure on the first few sets, how effective are you going to be on that final, heavy set of six? Not very, since your muscles will be fatigued. And if you haven't trained to near failure on those first few sets, then why do them in the first place? No one has time for wasted sets in the gym.

Proponents of this form of pyramiding suggest that the first few sets shouldn't be taken to failure -- that they are merely an extension of your warm-up for the final heavy set (or two). Taken at face value, that immediately decreases your total volume of working sets. Why not just make your warm-up your warm-up?
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Reverse pyramiding, or starting with your heaviest set then decreasing weight and increasing reps, may have more merit as a muscle-building protocol. After a general warm-up, then 2-3 light sets (not taken to failure) of your first mass-building exercise, you dive right into your heavy work when your muscles are fresh and ready to go.

One caveat: there is some mind-muscle connection that needs to be compensated for in this approach. On your warm-up sets, make sure that you are descending slowly on the negative and exploding on the positive to engage more motor units. This takes advantage of a principle known as post-activation potentiation. If your muscles are "primed" to recruit more fibers, you'll find that you are more efficient on subsequent movements. One study, for example, found that subjects were able to run faster in a 40-meter sprint after doing three squats at 90% of their 1RM. This can apply going from set to set, as well. Think of it like baseball, where players swing a weighted bat before stepping up to the plate to enhance bat speed.

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So by starting with your heaviest weight first, you'll be more productive on the sets that follow. Instead of going 10-8-6 with progressively heavier weight, you'll start with 1-2 sets of six, then a lighter set of eight and a set of 10 at a weight that's lighter still. Those later sets at higher rep ranges also serve to increase muscle breakdown and blood flow, both of which translate to greater gains in strength and mass.

Try this approach with any body part to make your workouts more productive. Just know that no system works forever, so it's fine if you keep the 10-8-6 routine in your bag of tricks for when you need a change.