When it comes to weight lifting and building muscle through hypertrophy inducing methods you are not short on options in the bodybuilding world. There are drop sets, slow eccentrics/negative, paused reps, occlusion sets and a whole range of other tools in your training belt.
Just to put it out there I’m a fan of mixing up your training with a few advanced techniques but it’s important to note that this is just what they are, advanced. If you are just getting started out and can only bench press 150lbs then there is no point adding additional techniques.
Which is better pyramid or reverse pyramid training? Pyramid training is great for those that feel more comfortable building up to a top weight set whereas reverse pyramid training is better for those that fatigue quickly and therefore need to lift their heaviest weight early on. Therefore the best option will depend on your personal capabilities.
Your focus when training should always be on getting better on the basic lifts, lifting more weight, using strict form and doing more reps should be your primary focus. If you are weak by general standards then you should focus on getting stronger.
Being strong in the basics is what will build the foundation of your physique and only then should you think about adding more advanced techniques to stimulate muscle hypertrophy.
With that said a great training technique that you can employ is pyramid training. Pyramid training involves lifting heavier weight with each set to fatigue all of the muscle fibres (fast and slow twitch muscle fibres respond differently to a training stimulus).
There is rarely a best approach when it comes to training, if that was the case then everyone would be following the same routine and seeing amazing results month after month. As it stands everyone needs to find what works best for them and their individual and unique characteristics.
Therefore rather than claiming that one approach is better than the other when it comes to pyramid training I’ll instead outline the benefits and drawback of each and specify which would be best based on certain individual characteristics and training preferences.
What Is Pyramid Training
Pyramid training involves working up the weight in a particular exercise in a pyramid style fashion as the name suggests. You therefore start with a weight you could do for 12-15 reps and with each set you increase the weight which will lead to a decrease in reps.
Once you reach the top set you then work your way back down the pyramid to the lighter weight again. it’s important to note that this is an advanced technique and you should therefore test it by working up to your top weight and not coming back down again.
The main purpose for this style of training is to fatigue the muscle fibres at different points. A straight set of 8 reps repeated over and over will not necessarily fatigue the explosive fast twitch muscle fibres which respond best to heavy weights and lower reps.
By purely doing low rep training however you miss out on the hypertrophic effects of using a weight in the 8-12 rep range for multiple sets and stimulating time under tension and more metabolic stress.
As you can see a pyramid style approach therefore looks to counteract these shortcomings by progressively scaling up the weight each set until you reach your top set and heaviest weight (a more advanced method would then scale back down the weight and sets again however this is highly advanced so most should not attempt this as mentioned earlier).
What Is Reverse Pyramid Training
Reverse pyramid training, again as the name suggests is a style of training in which vary the weight and reps of each set but the key difference with reverse pyramid training is that you start with the heaviest weight first and work your way down in weight and up the reps.
This style of training is great for those that need to lift their heaviest weights when they are freshest from their training, a person that can’t maintain heavier weights the longer a workout goes on will see your form start to suffer if you attempt it which is the case with myself.
I have no issue admitting that, however you also see people who can lift just as heavy a weight mid way through their workout just as easily as they do starting out. These individuals are certainly obviously better prepared genetically to handle this training load though.
If like me you struggle to hit your top sets if you are not fresh then a reverse pyramid style is great. Something that plays a huge factor in this is muscle fibre makeup, if you have a higher proportion of fast twitch fibres then it makes sense to work up to a top weight, this is evident with powerlifters who perform lifts in an increasing fashion.
If you have a greater proportion of slow twitch fibres then you can hit your top set and then still get reps with a lighter weight afterwards.
As with the pyramid style though a reverse pyramid will involve working up and back down again so you’ll start with your top weight, work back down to a lighter weight and then back up to a top weight again.
This is again a very advanced method so for the purpose of this article we will assume that you are doing the first portion of this movement (ie working up to the very top set in terms of weight or reps and then finishing the exercise).
While you might then consider this to not be a full explanation of pyramid training the principles are still the same but more relevant to the everyday gym goer whose training level is not influenced by a performance enhancing substance shall we say.
A Quick Note on Straight Sets
The traditional method though is of course straight sets. Straight sets are best for getting a baseline in place from which to test progressive overload (increasing weight, reps or sets overtime) and are ideal for beginner and intermediate gym goers.
Once you get to a more advanced stage in your training however then you start to work from a model of periodization and fluctuating weight and reps as a percentage of your 1 rep max. This style of training is most common in athletes and those competing in weightlifting (this includes powerlifting, strongman and even bodybuilding).
To design a periodization training program however requires specialist knowledge which is why straight sets are the best to program for those with limited training knowledge. Even with more gym experience the straight set approach may still be best for you.
Therefore if you want to include any form of pyramid training in your workouts then i highly recommend you do so in a limited capacity and for one or two exercises at most.
Which Is Better Pyramid or Reverse Pyramid Training
When it comes to what is better out of pyramid or reverse pyramid training you need to look at your exercise goals and the specific exercise that you are using.
Performing high reps for a technical movement like the deadlift for example is generally not advised because a breakdown in form for a multi joint movement will carry a significantly greater risk of injury than it will with a single joint isolation exercise.
In stark contrast, trying to perform heavy sets with a single joint isolation exercise will also see you significantly limited. A side lateral raise for example is an exercise that offers limited potential in terms of the max weight you can use so working up to a top weight will see marginal impact.
A good time to use either style of training is therefore usually on a machine based exercise or a dumbbell exercise that allows for appropriate jumps in weight like a flat dumbbell press from a free weight perspective and a seated row from a machine viewpoint.
As mentioned earlier the best choice when it comes to selecting a style of pyramid training will ultimately depend on how you respond to heavy training. If you need to hit your heaviest set in your workout to get the desired number of reps then without a doubt reverse pyramid training will work in your favor.
If however you need some higher reps in order to build up to your top weight then the traditional style of pyramid training will work best for you.
I’ve seen some posts that say you should never work up to the heaviest weight because you will be fatigued and see a breakdown in form however this doesn’t take into consideration that this is exactly what professional weightlifters and powerlifters do.
This is because with a lighter weight and higher reps you will be activating the nervous system and getting your motor patterns in place for when you do lift heavier weights. This is coming from someone who prefers the reverse pyramid style of training as well.
You should always be training smart and within your capabilities to avoid injury and both are valid training principles. It could just as easily be argued that starting with the heaviest weight could mean that you are not fully warmed up and again are at risk of injury.
Therefore the key take away from either technique should be to warm up thoroughly before attempting your working sets with either approach. You might be anticipating doing a lot of reps however getting the muscles and joints warmed up whilst also having the correct motor pattern in place and having your CNS switched on are crucial to an efficient exercise.
In summary you won’t be surprised that the verdict is that neither is better when it comes to training. As with most things it will come down to personal preference and personal characteristics. The important thing is to make sure that you approach either technique safely and use them sparingly.
Overdoing it on advanced techniques means that you miss out on the benefits of perfecting the basics, therefore the below are some exercises that I think work well for pyramid style training.
- Side lateral raises – I mentioned these early as an example that doesn’t offer much room for upping the weight however, the deltoid responds well to a combination of high reps and heavy weights so this can in fact be a great finishing method, just not a primary movement.
- Leg press – as with the above the legs respond well to heavy weight and high reps, therefore this is a safe exercise to perform this training technique on as the technical skill requirements are relatively low
- Lying hamstring curls – hamstrings are difficult to target as they are predominantly fast twitch muscle fibres, therefore a pyramid style set could help you hit some heavy sets with low reps.
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