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Defense: Ascending pyramids are not only effective for building muscle size and strength but they also help reduce injury risk by gradually increasing the weight each set.
Prosecution: Descending pyramids allow you to go heaviest when you are strongest and therefore can lead to greater gains in muscle strength and size.
A 2003 study from Johns Hopkins (Baltimore, Maryland) compared leg extensions for nine weeks using the DeLorme method of ascending pyramids to the Oxford method of descending pyramids.
The DeLorme method employs three progressively heavier sets for 10 reps each — the first at 50% of 10-rep max weight, the second with 75% of 10 RM weight and the third at 100% of 10 RM. So only the last set was taken to muscle failure.
The Oxford method starts with 100% of the 10 RM on the first set. On sets two and three, the weight is reduced just enough to allow 10 reps to be completed. So all three sets were taken to muscle failure.
The DeLorme method increased the subjects’ 10 RM on the leg extension by about 160 pounds; the Oxford method subjects increased their 10 RM by 150 pounds. Although the researchers concluded that the 10-pound difference was not statistically significant, there was a slight trend for greater muscle strength with the ascending pyramid. The researchers did not measure changes in leg muscle size.
Although the researchers concluded that both ascending and descending pyramids resulted in similar changes in muscle strength, the slighter increases in strength from the DeLorme method would favor ascending pyramid training if muscle strength were the primary goal. However, if muscle size matters more, then the descending pyramid method, which allows completion of more sets to failure, can help to encourage greater muscle growth.
Use both types in your training. When boosting strength is your main goal, use ascending pyramids. For muscle size, switch to descending pyramids.