Straight Sets vs. Pyramid
An eternal question many want to know the answer to: is the straight set or the pyramid pattern a more effective training method? Let’s see the Builder’s point of view!
You won’t find any science, research and stuff in this article. Told you: if this is what you are looking for, you won’t find your Holy Grail here. Instead, we wish to tell you our opinion based on many years of hands-on experience.
What is a Pyramid and What are Straight Sets?
If you are well-informed, you may skip this section. Colloquially, doing straight sets means doing a definite number of sets with the same weight and the same number of repetitions. For example, bench presses with 80 kg, 4x8 repetitions. These are straight sets.
In the case of the pyramid pattern you increase the weight in each set and reduce the number of repetitions at the same time. For example, bench presses, 12-10-8-6 repetitions with 70-80-90-100 kg (this example is for illustration purposes only).
An eternal question and a subject of never-ending debate: which is better, which is more effective etc. Or, we can be even more “scientific” about it like “how much does it bring” or “kicks ass”.
What Experience Shows
Let’s assume that you warm up properly. Let’s assume that for you, a set doesn’t mean pushing a few times, making sure you don’t get so tired that you cannot do the next set. Let’s assume that you do already the first of 4x8 sets as a set in which you max out by the 8th repetition so you couldn’t do any more reps without help. Let’s also assume that you do not have 5-minute rest breaks between your sets, only 2 minutes or less. These are not far-fetched assumptions at all. These are the basics of a proper workout.
If you fulfill all the above criteria—honestly, with special regard to the point that you max out by the 8th rep (not beyond failure!)—let me ask you a question: is it plausible that you can do not just one but three of the same set with the same weight and the same number of repetitions? Are you really going to have the reserves to do the same 8 reps in the next 3 sets without help?
Definitely not. If you can do 4x8 reps (or 10, 12 etc.—the higher the number of reps, the more relevant it is), that means that you did not actually max out in the first sets. This does not mean forced reps, only that you cannot do any more reps on your own. To get to this point, you will need a helper. Otherwise you won’t dare to do the last 1 or 2 reps without the sense of safety he gives you (without intervening into the move unnecessarily).
In our opinion, straight sets only make sense (moreover, they are justified, even recommended) in one case: when you are doing the beginner’s full-body routine with say, 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps per exercise. This time the goal is not to reach failure. It would be even harmful in this stage, when the actual goal is to master the moves, develop mind-muscle connection and gradually prepare your joints for the load. In these circumstances it would be definitely harmful to reach failure even in one set. This is the only case when straight sets make sense for bodybuilders.
Powerlifting is another exception, with low rep counts and long rest breaks. These conditions also enable one to do the same reps with the same weight, within reasonable limits. Based on experience, the upper limit is 6-8 reps, provided that the rest breaks between sets are long enough.
The third exception is when the weight is so small that it doesn’t make sense to increase it. There are a few single-handed exercises of this kind.
And the fourth exception is training muscles with higher stamina like the calves or the abs. In these cases, rep counts are higher by default.
Is the Pyramid Definitely Better?
The traditional pyramid, when you increase the weight and reduce repetition counts is definitely more lifelike in practice than traditional straight sets. However, if you really reach failure in a set (the last reps when you can hardly work with the weight without help), you can only increase the weight in very small increments from one set to the next. Many make huge jumps up in weight between sets, and this means they are (consciously or not) sparing their strength for the final, heavy-weight sets. Doing so, the first sets cannot be considered working sets.
In the end, the target muscle will not do sufficient work. Of course this doesn’t go for all. This is a common mistake, but it is basically avoidable.
Combining Straight Sets and the Pyramid
Our experience shows that the most lifelike scenario is when the weight remains unchanged and the number of reps is getting less from one set to the next. This of course requires that the above conditions are met. For us, it is obvious that if you push 12 with 120 kg, you won’t be able to do the same number with the same weight after 90 seconds. But trying 9 or 10 might make sense. Needless to say, this number will go even lower in the next set.
All you need to do is stick to the initial weight and do as many reps as you can, accepting the “sad truth” that you cannot make the rep counts of the previous set. We recommend this especially if you are following a high-rep routine.
Let’s call it the semi-pyramid method. If you have bodybuilding goals and do not necessarily aim for power, this scenario is the most lifelike. Plus, until you gain enough experience to properly increase the load in a classical pyramid pattern, we recommend this method as the safest and most effective way.
There is another semi-pyramid version which may be more common: you do a fixed number of reps and increase the weight set by set. How is it possible to do the same reps with the weights getting heavier each time? It is because your nervous system adapts to the load and your muscles warm up, too. Taking a repetition range of 6 to 10, the second set with the same weight is almost guaranteed to be easier than the first. (In the case of 20 reps it is not likely, though.)
If you increase the weight, you can take even more load as your nervous system adapts to it. However, you will hardly be able to do the third set with even more weight.
Both methods are perfect for avoiding injury while doing the exercises with maximum intensity.
The advantage of the pyramid method is that it is much easier to move on to heavier weights than in the case of straight sets.
There may be studies though, that contradict the above statements. There are surely numberless folks who use different methods with success, including the ones who use the classical pyramid method with great results. By the way, now we disregarded several factors in the big picture. For example, a classical pyramid method in which you purposefully avoid failure in each set might work if you do the same muscle group more than once a week etc. You may take our advice or go against it. This is your decision. This is our experience only, we are happy to share it with you and hope that it will be useful for many of you guys!
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